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October 26, 2016 / Kerry Alys Robinson

I thank my God every time I remember you.

preachingWomen of the Church: Strength of the Past. Hope for Tomorrow. A Catholic Leadership Conference

Opening liturgy, Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, Indiana

October 7, 2016


Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.


Gratitude. Prayer. Joy. Partnership. Perseverance. Trust. Love.

These are the powerful currents of this exquisite passage.

And what perfect words for us to hear – in new, challenging, contemporary and fortifying ways – as we gather to celebrate women’s leadership in the Church.

The theme of our gathering “Women of the Church: Strength of the Past. Hope for Tomorrow. A Catholic Leadership Conference” entreats us to hold in tandem the past, the present and the future. This is also what Scripture, if we allow it, is designed to do.

Paul wrote to the Philippians centuries ago, but Scripture speaks to us today. Paul begins, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Look at the women and men assembled here in this sacred space. Friends. Colleagues. Role models. Sisters and brothers in the faith. Let Paul’s words speak directly to us in this moment. Hear the enormous gratitude for your faith, and for your partnership in the Gospel. Allow your heart to respond to the deep joy and great love evinced by this letter. Paul is expressing the joy that finds itself in community, gives rise to perseverance, inspires and replenishes and sustains us – even in often hostile, imperfect, uninformed, prejudiced and sexist environments.

These words of joy and gratitude, entreating us to love even more deeply, are the foundation of true Christian community. Paul’s confidence is that the fruit of such dedication is discernment, sanctity, a stronger community in Christ, a community of faith held accountable to one another and to the Gospel.

This is a love letter to a community that has remained steadfast, despite great odds and often persecution.

That it expresses so much joy and gratitude makes it all the more remarkable that Paul is writing this letter from prison. Prison could be the loneliest and most despairing of all places. But Paul experiences and expresses the opposite of desolation. He lives with access to the transcendent and a deep appreciation for community. In spite of his physical isolation, God is at the very center of his life and at the center of the community of disciples to whom he writes. Christ is the tie that binds.

For our purposes this weekend, the historical context in which this letter was written is especially elegant. When Paul arrived in Philippi, there were no Christians, but his message soon caught the attention of a small group of mostly women who would gather by the river to pray. Prominent in this group was a successful businesswoman, Lydia. Lydia was deeply moved by Paul’s words, came to believe in the Gospel and opened her home in lavish generosity to the small and growing early Christian community.

We stand on the shoulders of great heroines. We belong to a long line of strong and inspiring women who showed remarkable leadership in the Church from its very beginning and throughout its long arc of history. We are connected to Lydia, the leader of the small Christian community to whom Paul is writing. As Paul entreats the Philippians, so Scripture entreats us: let gratitude, prayer, joy and love lead to a strengthening of our faith community, a deeper knowledge and discernment, the better to equip all of us to be partners in the Gospel.

When Andrea Hattler Bramson, Betty Anne Donnelly, Deborah Rose-Milavec, Chantal Gotz and I were preparing with our women colleagues in Catholic philanthropy to meet with cardinals in Rome about the role of women in the Church we were quite literally sustained by the prayers, faith and love of the wider community to which we belong. Women religious told us that they would be utilizing their formidable social networks to get the word out and hold us in prayer while we were in Rome. Men who had been ordained Catholic priests for decades filled with tears of solidarity upon hearing about our conversations. Our daughters and our friends’ daughters and our friends’ friends’ daughters hesitated in their seeming exodus.

To be clear our mission and conversations with the cardinals of the Roman Curia over this past decade has never been predominantly about what women deserve, but about what the Church deserves and what the proclamation of the Gospel to an often suffering and broken world – requires. We develop relationships of trust, offer concrete recommendations, serve to challenge and inspire. And progress is being made. There is a reason for hope. But like Paul, without a commitment to Christ at the center of our lives, without recourse to the wider community of breathtakingly holy and courageous women and men, without joy (and considerable humor), and without love, all of our work particularly on behalf of young Catholic women, on behalf of children and on behalf of generations not yet born, might well have been in vain.

This passage from Scripture is normally proclaimed during the Season of Advent. There is a component of longing, of yearning, of anticipation befitting such a season. But aren’t we always in an Advent of sorts, desirous of new life, eagerly awaiting a more just world, a more welcoming and effective Church. In the midst of this longing, there can be great joy when we realize that by virtue of our baptism we are all called to advance the Reign of God.

God’s voice is always the voice of encouragement, never discouragement.

This passage is full of encouragement, encouragement to sustain us in our collective effort to promote the leadership of women in the Church.

Like many mothers, I have worried about my own daughter and where and how she will live out her faith in the Church and in the world. Her story is unfinished. I wait in joyful anticipation. She was born in Advent, I have been waiting in joyful anticipation from the moment of her birth. Will she inherit a community of joy and solidarity and welcome? Will she be able to contribute her full capabilities to strengthen the Church? Will she hear the words of encouragement or discouragement when it comes to exercising her own leadership?

Her story is unfolding but what I know to be true is that faith is not developed apart from community. And faith is not nurtured apart from joy. And prayer is a remarkable force for good because it changes the one praying and allows us to see with new perspective.

One gentle evening, relatives and friends gathered in familiar pose and conversation on our porch. The subject turned rather suddenly to the best way to die. The question was specific in its intensity. “How would you like to experience your own death?”

Over bottles of wine and candlelight we took turns articulating the pros and cons of the myriad ways any one of us might experience our own death. It was not entirely morbid. One friend suggested that she would like to die suddenly and quickly, without warning, ideally after a spectacularly joyful celebration. Another suggested that he would prefer to have as much time as possible with the knowledge of a terminal illness in order to make amends, to thank his friends and family, and to be intentional about giving away everything he possessed. Another was certain that dying in her sleep, peacefully, at the end of a long life is the most desirable. And so the conversation ensued until the oldest at the table, my father, turned to the youngest at the table, my thirteen-year-old daughter.

“Sophie, you have been very quiet and very attentive, but you have not yet volunteered an answer. Do you have an opinion on the way you would most like to die?”

Everything became still and silent. I held my breath. Too late I wondered if she was too young for such deep, existential, potentially distressing discourse. Perhaps she had never seriously considered the matter.

Now at the center of everyone’s attention, aware that a response was being asked of her, she replied very simply, “Yes. I hope I die saving someone else’s life.”

I love the Church and I want the Church to benefit from the faith and leadership of young women.

I invite you to enter deeply, prayerfully and joyfully in the importance of our gathering tonight and throughout the weekend. Be challenged. See with new perspective. Be replenished by the example of those gathered here, on your left and on your right. Be sustained by membership in this community of faith, so that you can bear witness to what it means to be Christ-like in our age. Do so with great love, a commitment to prayer, a tenacious grounding in the Gospel. Know that you are never alone. As women and men who advocate for the leadership of women in the Church sometimes at great personal cost, draw strength from those who have gone before us and those who are present to us and those who will come after us. Let Christ be the tie that binds. And let us enter fully into this experience so that when we bid farewell to one another and return to our respective ministries we can serve as examples of prophetic witness. Let us lives our lives, demonstrate our faith through leadership, exude joy and love in such a way that everyone whose lives we affect by our ministry and by our presence might say, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

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