Jennifer Sleeman’s call for women to boycott Catholic Masses tomorrow week has certainly caught the imagination of many people. She has advocated the boycott as a means of protesting against the male dominance of the Church and the treatment of women as distinctly second-class members.
It is also an expression of horror at the paedophile scandals.
This is Ms Sleeman’s way of letting the Vatican and the Irish hierarchy know that Irish women are essentially tired of being ignored by the Church. The protest is attracting considerable attention not only in Ireland but also in Britain, Italy, Germany, France and the US.
Part of the interest is undoubtedly generated by the fact that she is a most unlikely revolutionary, but her campaign could have revolutionary implications. “At least,” she says, “I hope it will make them pause for thought.” There is already a significant amount of disillusionment among priests, as was evident this week at the inaugural meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests at Portlaoise, where the attendance of priests was almost four times what had been expected.
An eighty-year-old widow, Ms Sleeman is a mother-of-six, with 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Born in England, she was reared a Presbyterian and converted to Catholicism upon her marriage over half-a-century ago. Her son is a monk in Glenstal, which has attracted added attention. “I don’t consider myself a revolutionary,” she says. “I joined the Roman Church by choice and I have no regrets.”
Although treated as distinctly second-class, women have had enormous influence over the centuries, especially on their sons. Many of the leading figures in Irish history were greatly influenced by their mothers. Patrick Pearse’s Irish mother was a prime example. Yet in her day, women had essentially no rights. It was only in 1918 that women won the right to vote in Great Britain and Ireland. More women than men attend Mass, but this has always been the situation, as there are more women than men in the country. With the decline in the number of younger people attending Mass in recent years, however, the gender imbalance in Mass goers is likely to grow as the attendance profile becomes older, because women normally live longer than men.
Many of those who agree with Ms Sleeman’s protest, may have already stopped going to Sunday Mass, so their absence will hardly be noticed. Others may agree with her aims but disagree with her tactics in not fulfilling their weekly obligation, as they may feel like they are being asked to give up their religion, even if only for a day, in order to register their protest. They could, of course, still fulfil their obligation by attending the vigil Mass on Saturday next.
If there is a significant drop off at Sunday masses, this will be a further indication to the Catholic Church authorities of the level of disillusionment.
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