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I think it’s fair to say that for many Filipino families, religious observances are the domain of women -- that certainly was the case in my family.
My grandmother took charge when it came to the oracion -- the lovely six p.m. tradition also called the Angelus that is rarely heard today outside of the church -- and the daily rosaries, not to mention grace before meals and bedtime prayers. As children, we learned not to fidget while Lola implored all the saints in the firmament, a ritual that consumed all of thirty minutes, a half-hour of kneeling and mumbling “Pray for us” that ended with purple knees and blanched lips.
And then there were the novenas, and the feast days, and the masses, and the confessions, and the processions -- Roman Catholicism has countless rituals. Lolo’s word may have been law in the house, but in matters spiritual, where Lola led, everyone followed.
It’s fair to generalize, at least in the Philippines, that the transmission of religious values from one generation to the next is largely in the hands of women; these are the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunts, sisters, female cousins, nuns, etcetera. Women usually figure center stage at religious celebrations, with one important exception: the mass.
In this quintessential rite, women function on the sidelines as lectors, readers, mother butlers, collectors; they sing in the choir or donate for the offertory, but the role of celebrator is exclusively a male preserve, as are those of altar servers. That is how it’s always been done and one of the tokens of Roman Catholicism is never to question why things are the way they are.
Today marks the final day of Benedict XVI’s papacy, and already, 115 cardinals from all over the world are converging in the Vatican for the special conclave that will elect the next Pope. It’s been rumored that our very own Luis Cardinal Tagle, appointed archbishop of Manila last year by Benedict himself, is said to be among the frontrunners; his erudition impresses many, it has been reported, although at 55, he is said to be too young to be considered a serious contender.
At any rate, the office of Holy Father apparently is one that no likely candidate seriously lusts after. In fact, it is said that during the conclave, when votes are being cast -- a 2/3 majority is needed for one to be elected Pope -- an almost audible petition can be heard as each cardinal whispers, “Lord, please don’t let it be me.”
How true that is cannot be verified because the proceedings of the conclave are entombed in secrecy, just as there is no way of knowing if the Holy Spirit exercises an irresistible persuasion on the electors as to Saint Peter’s successor.
Roman Catholicism being what it is, and the Vatican being what it is, no one thinks to question the process of selecting the next Pope. In a 21st century democracy, it is unthinkable that women are not allowed to cast a vote, just as it is unthinkable that women are disqualified from a top jog solely because of gender. Yet here we have a 2,000-year old institution that bars women from having any say as to who ought to be the leader of the Catholic world.
The status quo only underlines the fact that the Vatican is not a democracy; it is a theocracy that is not in line with 21st century mores about equality of the sexes.
Make no mistake: the Vatican is a State with its own administration. While adherence to faith is its oath of allegiance, the Church’s temporal affairs are in the hands of an earthly government, an earthly government that seems exempt from international conventions about basic human entitlements such as, say, non-discrimination against women.
Reports about the papal election emphasize the need for a Pope who will lead the Church creditably into the next century. The problem is that the next century is already here, 12 years on, in fact.
What is needed in a Pope varies depending on who is speaking. Conservatives insist that Benedict XVI’s successor must guard against the incursions of a creeping secularization in the world, that clinging to hallowed traditions constitutes the best response to the evils of the modern world. Progressives, in the meantime, insist that the next Pope must be amenable to change in order to adapt to a changing world. The Third World, in turn, demands a greater voice in Church affairs since it represents the bulk of the world’s Roman Catholics; the First World -- oh I don’t know what they think.
Whoever the next Pope is, it is important that he -- it’s inevitable at this point that it’ll be a he -- must not only be open to discussion, he must open the discussion on the many issues confronting the 21st century Church, transparency and accountability among them.
It’s hard to get really enthusiastic about an election that basically excludes me or what’s important to approximately one-half of the human population -- an ennui that would horrify my Lola -- but the Church had better start listening to women if it is at all serious about the respect it allegedly accords the Virgin Mary.
What was it that Margaret Thatcher said? Oh yeah: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”