At the age of 10 an Indian nun, Sr. Jyoti, was inspired to live as a missionary among the poorest in India. With difficulty her family let her go to join the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. She was there for just about 2 years when she felt that being in a convent was not what she dreamed, so she left, qualified herself as a nurse and midwife. During her internship she would go to nearby villages and work among the poor. However, she realised that it was not easy or safe for a single woman in India to go out alone in the evenings when it was growing dark. She decided to go back to the convent where she made her final vows. But she grew restless with institutional life. She struggled to get the convent authorities to yield to her request to be sent to work among the poorest people. After some time her request was granted and she finally went to live and work among India’s poorest and most exploited lower caste people.
Friends, this brief account of Sr. Jyoti’s struggle to respond to the Call of God in servant leadership, encapsulates the message I would like to highlight today – “hearing and responding to the call of God to serve people.” In the first reading God calls Moses and Aaron to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt.
The Second and Gospel readings narrate how Jesus, before submitting to his final sacrifice in answering God’s Call, gave us a model for service in answer to that call.
Jesus demonstrated for his disciples what leadership truly means when he, their Master, stooped down to wash their feet. He showed us that true leadership in the Church is “SERVANT LEADERSHIP”!! He said, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do”.
When he broke the bread and shared the wine that symbolised his body broken and blood shed for standing with the poor, the outcast, and questioning the injustices of his time, he called upon all the disciples at the table to do the same in memory of his sacrifice. The disciples included women who would have been present at the Passover meal, as they are even today in Jewish households. But somewhere down the line women were edited out in Catholic tradition.
Jesus’ sacrifice is celebrated in the liturgy of the Eucharist which is highly ritualised today. Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist. It is also a day of celebration of the priesthood of Jesus, and by association all priests (who traditionally are all male).
Many of us women feel strongly our exclusion from responding to the stirring within us to answer God’s call to serve people through ordained ministry.
Jesus did not institute a priesthood, he did not give names to ministries within the community. The Pauline churches seem to have been charismatic communities operating under Paul, without any clear structured organization. Ministry belonged to all, for each member had a charism. (Rm 12 4-8)
Jesus only asked his followers to do what he had done. Jesus handed his disciples a challenging servanthood. It involves humility in service and sacrifice even to the extent of breaking one’s body and shedding one’s blood.
Holy Thursday places before us the challenges involved in following Jesus’ model of service among the People of God.
Women are living this model of priesthood, and are being true to their baptismal anointing as “priest, prophet and leader”. In various milieu, where you may not find a sacramentally ordained priest, many women around the world are living the priesthood of Jesus in servant leadership, being the presence of Jesus to people. The women in Amazonia are doing this! Sisters in India live and work among the indigenous and poor people of India, and in fact two sisters lost their lives standing for the rights of their people. Women show the least and the last the loving and compassionate face of God. Women live their priesthood where they are planted, and demonstrate to the sacramentally ordained ministers what the priesthood of Jesus truly means.
Let us all, dedicated women and men, continue to live our priesthood in our communities, neighbourhoods and society as God calls us, to create a non-clerical and non-hierarchical Church as Pope Francis urges us to do in Querida Amazonia. We only need courage to think local and impact the global Church.
Virginia attributes her feminist roots to her experience of being a young widow in India. She taught Catechetics in her parish school in Santa Cruz, Mumbai for 14 years receiving in-service training as well. She did a 4-year Certificate Course in Theology for the Laity offered by the Bombay Archdiocesan seminary which encouraged her to delve deeper into Liberation and Feminist Theology. She then moved into devoting her life to the struggles for justice for women and the poor. She was part of the Executive Committee of the Archdiocesan Justice & Peace Commission; then appointed as the first Executive Secretary of the Archdiocesan Women’s Desk from 1992-2000; the first Executive Secretary of the Women’s Desk in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) (1996-2010); Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bihops’ Conference of India (CBCI)Commission for Women (1998-2004); Executive Secretary of the FABC Office of Laity & Family (2000-2010). She is the founder member of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and its Secretary since its inception. She is member of Ecclesia of Women in Asia, a forum of Catholic Asian Women Theologians; and served on the Coordinating Team in various capacities over the years. She is the founder member of the Indian Christian Womens’ Movement and was its first Executive Secretary (2014 – 2018).
She has authored “Woman Image of God”; and Edited 4 books. She contributes articles regularly to theological magazines, Catholic periodicals and newspapers; as well as chapters to several books. Her writings are related to women’s concerns and justice.
She is currently involved in advocating for women survivors of sex abuse in the Church in India, as well as advocating for recognition of the rights and dignity of LGBTI+ persons. She is also associated with various Church Reform groups.
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