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An Interview with Kimberly Baker: “Women of the Church” Conference

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Dr. Kimberly Baker, associate professor of church history at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, was the co-chair of the organizational team for the “Women of the Church: Strength of the Past. Hope for Tomorrow” leadership conference last fall, hosted by the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana, in partnership with St. Meinrad. The conference drew over 250 people, both women and men, and caught the attention of Pope Francis, who sent a letter of blessing to the conference.

The program featured three keynote speakers: Carolyn Woo, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, and Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP. There were also ten breakout sessions facilitated by leaders such as Ed Hahnenberg, Vanessa White, Ann Garrido, and others.

A unique feature of the conference was a Saturday afternoon moderated conversation with Archbishop Joseph Tobin, then of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and Bishop Charles Thompson of the Diocese of Evansville. The conference guests had an opportunity to submit questions in advance. Then, Baker moderated a conversation with the bishops about many of the themes and concerns raised in those questions.

Baker spoke to Church Life Journal about her takeaways from the conference in the following written interview.

What led you to host the 2016 conference on Women of the Church?

The conference began with a conversation among friends about Pope Francis’ call to give the Catholic Church “a more incisive female presence.” As we shared our hope and excitement with one another, we found ourselves dreaming of ways to bring women and men together to acknowledge the many ways women have offered leadership throughout history, to support women in their work in the present, and to encourage those who are discerning what God is asking of them for the future.

A little known fun fact is that a Notre Dame women’s basketball video played a supporting role in sparking the conference! A few years ago, I found myself watching the ND women’s basketball program history video over and over. The vision of this strong, dynamic community of women helped me to imagine myself working more boldly and joyfully in the Church. I found myself wondering, though, why I needed to watch basketball to receive such strength? What would it look like to have a highlights video, figuratively speaking, of women in the Church?

I took that thought to Sr. Jeana Visel, OSB, who immediately suggested that we partner with the Sisters of St. Benedict in exploring this question. We called Agnes Kovacs in from the office next door. And in those moments of hope-filled conversation, under the influence of Pope Francis, a conference was born.

Our hopeful dreaming began in Spring 2014. We gathered a planning committee, and gained the support of our two partnering institutions, Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology and the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana. Those dreams became a reality when our conference took place October 7–9, 2016, at the Sisters’ campus in Ferdinand.

Pope Francis did more than inspire our conference . . . he also sent us a letter of greetings and blessing! We read the letter at the opening liturgical celebration and then gave all participants a copy of their own. What a thrill to share Pope Francis’ words:

It is my hope that the Conference, by exploring the multifaceted contribution of women to the life of the Church in America, past and present, will open new horizons for their greater and more inclusive presence and activity in the future.

He also wrote:

To all of you I express my gratitude and encouragement, together with my prayers that the Conference will contribute to a balanced discernment of how women’s manifold gifts can be used most fruitfully to advance the Church’s mission, for the greater glory of God and the growth of his People in faith, hope and love.

Pope Francis concluded with a blessing, promising “union in prayer,” sending “my blessing as a pledge of joy and peace in the Lord.”

The letter gave a powerful and affirming launch to our conference.

What are three or four things that you learned from the conference itself?

One important thing that I learned is that many women are sensing a deep hunger and need for spaces for conversations such as this one. They want to learn more about how women have offered their gifts to the Church in the past and how they themselves can do so today, particularly as leaders.

Another key insight is something that in many ways is not new, but that was brought to the forefront at the conference. That is, Catholics (and other Christians) exercise leadership by virtue of their baptism. As we planned the conference, we sharpened our focus on this leadership rooted in baptism. Even though leadership rooted in baptism gave the foundation to our conference, the strength and depth of that reality came into view for me throughout the conference weekend.

Speakers spoke of the many ways women have made and are making an impact in the Church, and our speakers and participants modeled that in their own lives. I began to realize that sometimes when we speak of the leadership of all the baptized, the tone can sound like a consolation prize. At our conference, the message was one of call and challenge, as leadership was discussed as a key to the life of the missionary disciple; that is, central to the life of all the baptized. That insight crystalized for me during Kathleen Sprows Cummings’ keynote address when she stated boldly that leadership flows from baptism, and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

One impression that has stayed with me in the months following the conference is the strength of the witness of those on the margins. Several speakers gave powerful examples of witness and leadership from women who express extreme poverty or suffering. Carolyn Woo shared powerful stories of women who offered forgiveness to those who oppressed them or wisdom learned through their struggles. Nancy Pineda-Madrid spoke of how hope can be cultivated in the midst of tragedy, lessons learned from her research involving women living on the U.S.-Mexico border. As Catherine Hilkert urged us to “Go and Tell,” I remember vividly the example she gave of the forgiveness offered by families of victims of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wisdom and strength radiated through these stories of those who may seem to be the least in the eyes of the world. They became our teachers at the conference. And they gave us a model of strength and hope to follow when we face our own challenges in life.

How might some of the insights from the conference seep down into parish life?

Many of the conference participants have told us that they went from the conference with a renewed understanding of the value of their voices and actions. I trust that they will bring a new energy and commitment to their life of discipleship. I can imagine the conference serving as leaven, sparking transforming action and outlooks wherever the participants go. A couple of people have even told us how they have already taken concrete steps to put what they have learned into action. We plan to follow up with the participants to ask them how they are putting the conference into action. I look forward to hearing their responses in the months to come.

My hope is that people will indeed “go and tell,” as Catherine Hilkert called us to do. In doing so, they will inspire others live faith more boldly and concretely. They will do what Carolyn Woo inspired us to do: make the world a better place.

If you ever hosted another conference on Women of the Church, what themes would you want taken up?

I would want to extend the conversation that has already begun in this first conference. More direct attention to the theme of leadership that flows from baptism could help people explore the roots of that leadership and how it may play out in their own call. Considering how such leadership relates to the universal call to holiness could help expand that discussion.

It’s clear that both women and men were inspired, and at times, surprised, to hear of the many ways that women have been offering leadership in the Church already. At a future gathering, a session that tells of women in high-level leadership roles, in the Vatican, for example, paired with a session that speaks of ways that women offer leadership in less visible ways, including in their neighborhoods and homes, could help us to envision even more vividly what it means for all Christians, women and men, to be called to leadership by virtue of their baptism.

Featured Photo: courtesy of Women of the Church.