The Blogosphere as Mission Field: Catholic Women on the Web Transform What Women’s Leadership Means
By: Lisa M. Hendey
February 23, 2015
As a Catholic author, speaker, and blogger working from my suburban home, I often marvel at the unique vantage point I have to share my voice in service to the Church I love. My laptop, a strong wifi connection, and a patient husband combine to enable me to engage in serving my Church between loads of laundry and trips to the market. This “geeky” living out of my life’s vocation began for me as a hobby. I wanted to better know my Catholic faith and to more lovingly and effectively share it with my children. Fifteen years ago, I was happily married to a non-Catholic and was seeking answers to raise our two sons in the faith. My online search to find other moms facing our family’s challenges rendered few results back then. Instead of taking a class at my parish, I purchased a domain name and a few of those “For Dummies” web design books and launched a website. In creating CatholicMom.com, I did not intend to send the message that I was an expert, or even a very holy woman. Rather, what motivated me was a deeply held desire to connect with other women like myself, women who loved God and wanted to share that love with others.
The years since my early venture into the Catholic blogosphere have blessed us with my husband’s conversion and have formed me in my faith in ways that continually amaze me. Through the prism of newfound relationships with holy Catholic women literally around the world, I now have tangible evidence of what Saint Pope John Paul II truly meant when he gave us his theological teachings on the feminine genius. For me, the words of Mulieris Dignatatem have been echoed and lived out in real-life friendships with my coworkers in that vineyard popularly called the Catholic blogosphere.
In an age when many discount the role of women in the Church, I hold an opposite perspective, one edified by personal relationships. Indeed, Pope Francis recently addressed the International Theological Commission on “The Role of Women in Theology” stating, “Female theologians are able to take up certain unexplored aspects of the unfathomable mystery of Christ.” His observations mirror my own experience online, where I have a front row perspective to witness women of varying ages and vocations who have devoted their lives to the New Evangelization. While few of them would perhaps call themselves theologians they have engaged me in a more profound consideration of gospel truths.
To better understand what lies at the heart of women’s successful foray into the New Evangelization, it helps to consider the motivation for those who find themselves ministering online. Jennifer Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, now understands her platform as a means of connecting Catholic women. Fulwiler, a radio host and bestselling author, has for several years documented her own journey to faith online. Her blog has become a virtual home for those perplexed by the most challenging spiritual questions. “I see an epidemic of loneliness,” notes Fulwiler, “and I hope to use the gifts God has given me to remedy that.”
My personal mentor and Patheos Catholic Channel editor Elizabeth Scalia tends to eschew gender stereotypes when looking at religious leadership roles. Noting the lives of the greatest saints of the Church, Scalia ponders that “their greatness was rooted in the fact that they fully loved Christ Jesus, and love simply serves. Real leadership is not ‘leading’ at all: it’s serving.”
After years spent fighting the comment box wars so common online, Scalia now views her platform differently. What makes a difference in her work for the Church today is a renewed perspective on journeying with others toward an ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ:
“I am now encouraging them—and myself—to look at Jesus only; to take in the vastness of all we do not know; to trust in the wideness of God's mercy; to remember that all things—all things, including the whole rip-roaring battle over what men and women actually are—work toward God's purpose, and in his own time. I can't claim that communicating any of that is a particularly ‘feminine’ thing, though. Jesus did it first.”
Sister Margaret Kerry, FSP is a Daughter of Saint Paul actively engaged in media literacy and spirituality. “In social media women's voices are on par with other communicators offering a platform to speak and proclaim the gospel while monitoring that pulse of the culture,” Sr. Kerry contends. “In this way the culture is evangelized.” Women online have what she refers to as, “the ability to challenge, clarify, offer practical options to complicated issues, and re-focus on what is truly gospel priority.” For Sister Kerry, an added value to having a voice online is the ability to break stereotypes of religious women and open the doors to the gospel through relationships that are “honest and real.”
Kelly Wahlquist is currently giving her life to founding an apostolate dedicated to Women in the New Evangelization. A noted author and speaker, Wahlquist pinpoints the gifts that women bring both to the world wide web—and traditional ministry:
“Women are naturally inclined to build relationships, and relationships are both the means and the ends to all the work of the Church. Relationships with those around us helps us share our faith, a deep relationship with Jesus Christ enables us to live our faith fully, and to be back in the familial relationship of the Blessed Trinity is our ultimate goal. Life is relational and women are by their very nature radically relational.”
Her own work in educating women on Saint John Paul II’s teachings on the feminine genius has motivated “Among Women” podcaster and author Pat Gohn to use the latest technological tools to further the evangelization she initially carried out in her own ‘domestic church’ and in parish ministry. Gohn points humbly to what motivates her in the work she does in online ministry. “As a catechist and as a woman of faith,” Gohn confides, “I hope to echo the Church's voice… the voice of a loving Mother who loves her children and wants to see them close to the heart of Jesus, and obedient to his calling to carry out their mission as sons and daughters of God.”
Building a successful platform online today means cultivating dialogue and fruitful communication. As social media coordinator for the Daughters of Saint Paul, Sister Anne Flanagan, F.S.P. has built a sizeable following for her @nunblogger Twitter platform by applying the feminine genius to her use of technological forms of communication and ministry. “To me, the most significant attribute of the ‘feminine genius’ in terms of social media is receptivity—I think of it as ‘creative availability’: an openness that doesn't pre-determine outcomes; that is ready to collaborate so that a greater good can come about, no matter who gets the ‘credit’ for it.” The role of Catholic women online in Sister Flanagan’s eyes is to employ these gifts of receptivity to take media which are too often “selfward” and to redirect these tools toward a more collaborative journey toward Jesus Christ.
Collaboration, a service orientation and the willingness to walk alongside others are each critical elements of building an online presence in today’s wired world. The social media have forever changed one-dimensional forms of communication into a dialogue that is ever shifting and evolving. Catholic women around the world comprehend that these same elements can and must be applied effectively to the New Evangelization. They are rising up in record numbers and claiming their unique and worthy role and sharing their voices with impact.
In Evangelii Gaudeum, Pope Francis teaches us about the joy of sharing the gospel with others:
“We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”
Today, each of us, men and women alike, are called to the New Evangelization. For women, our inherent “feminine genius” and the gifts of receptivity placed within us by a loving creator make us truly and uniquely qualified in this age to journey in companionship with others toward true salvation in Jesus Christ.