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Nun stresses role of women in Christian past, present, future

Published January 27, 2014 11:53 am

Catholicism • Prominent female leader to deliver this year's Aquinas Lecture.
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You could argue that Jesus was a feminist.

After all, the Christian savior surrounded himself with women disciples, says Sister Florence Deacon, a nationally respected Catholic nun. He told stories in which women were the main characters, spoke to outcast women and compared himself to female figures like a mother hen.

He healed a woman first, then a man, Deacon says. He raised a young woman from the dead first, then a man.

And, according to the New Testament, women were the first to see the resurrected Christ.

"All these years, people have been reading the Bible with blinders on," says Deacon, who is in Utah to give the 2014 Aquinas Lecture. "They have been missing the key roles women played in spreading the good news of the gospel."

Deacon will explore this topic in more depth during her lecture, "Women of the Gospel, Women of the Church," on Sunday at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Newman Center in Salt Lake City.

Mary is central to Catholic worship, she says, as are female saints.

And even several recent popes have acknowledged the need to recognize and revise the church's approach to women.

"Women's time has come," she paraphrased Pope Paul VI as saying, noting that he hoped women would ensure that the spirit of Vatican II spread into the home and throughout society.

Pope John Paul II believed that if men took seriously the role of women, Deacon says, it would change how they organize everything from religion to government to the economy.

And she has even higher hopes for the current pope — the first one to take the name Francis.

Deacon is director of the Sisters of St. Francis in St. Francis, Wis., the nation's oldest congregation of Franciscan sisters.

"I was thrilled when he was elected and when he took the name Francis," she says, "and even more so when he explained why."

The original Francis of Assisi spoke about being called to reform the church, and she believes this pope will help promote similar values — simplicity; care for the poor, the Earth and the animals.

Deacon is in the three-member presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents more than 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States.

For some years, she was the director of the New York office and U.N. representative of Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization representing more than a million Franciscan women and men, religious and lay, from most countries of the world. In this role, she advocated for peacemaking, concern for the poor and care of creation before a variety of U.N. conferences, commissions and councils.

Before Francis became pope, the Vatican raised some concerns about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but Deacon, who has a doctorate in U.S. history, believes those can be worked out.

For the most part, she is focused on helping today's nuns devote their time to social-welfare issues such as helping sex-trafficked women, battered mothers, prisoners and immigrants whose families are torn apart.

"Our goal is to help create the reign of God on the whole," Deacon says. "It is hard for someone who is worried about daily life and survival to have time for contemplation."

The kingdom of God is with us now, she says, so it is imperative that the church and its people help one another as brothers and sisters. —

Aquinas Lecture

P Sister Florence Deacon will deliver the 2014 Aquinas Lecture on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Newman Center, 170 University St., Salt Lake City. Tickets for the free event can be obtained through the center at 801-359-6066 or online at www.utahnewmancenter.com/content.cfm?id=2015.






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