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Author pushes for change in the church

Angela Bonavoglia can't envision herself except as Catholic, just the way she can't think of herself except as Italian.

"I'm Catholic," said Bonavoglia, "I love the Eucharist. I love the Mass. I love the ritual. I love the church. I can't just whisk that away."

But she qualifies it, seeing herself as a Catholic in revolt, a Catholic in exile, a Catholic trapped. No longer, however, is she a silent Catholic -- that stereotyped "good Catholic girl" who acquiesces to the hierarchy.

Not since she wrote "Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church," which recounts how women who are working for reform by leading parishes, founding groups for sexual abuse victims, lobbying for the rights of gays and lesbians, ministering to divorced and remarried people.

"With all my hurt and all my anger, I am Catholic still," she writes in the epilogue. "Because of the love. Because of the hope. Because of the community. And, oh. Because of the beauty."

She was particularly inspired when she heard the story of Sister Joan Chittester, a member of the Benedictine Sisters who are based at Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pa.

In 2001, Chittester had been invited to speak at a women's ordination conference in Dublin, but when the Vatican found out she was told she could not go, Bonavoglia said.

Chittester's community rallied behind her. In a public statement, Chittester was backed by her prioress, Sister Christine Vladimiroff, and the community. Vladimiroff said: "I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing. I do not see her participation in this conference as a 'source of scandal to the faithful' as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of importance to the Church are forbidden."

Once Bonavoglia started paying closer attention and talking to others, she found women were in the forefront of church reform.

"I think they are fighting for the soul of the Catholic church," said Bonavoglia, who was interviewed by phone from her Westchester home. "And that's what brought me back and also inspired me to write this book." In 2005, the book was named one of the top 10 women's history books by the American Library Association's Booklist.

For many years, Bonavoglia was a contributing editor to Ms. magazine and has also written for the New York Times, Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Newsday. Bonavoglia, who has been on a book tour, said people want to talk about how they feel and want to know what they can do.

"They see their parishes threatened with closure," she said, "and they also see money going out of the chanceries, and they know nothing about it.

"They want to know what they can do to own their churches, to have their voices heard," she said. "What I'm sensing is a move toward collaboration between progressive groups.

"The other thing I've heard a lot is that people say they don't feel alone anymore," she said. "So many women have not been able to say what they really feel, particularly around sexuality. But they come up, one by one, and they tell me.

"But it gets me into trouble to say these things," said Bonavoglia.

Some recent examples: After she was interviewed by a Web magazine called the Social Edge, she was told that a Franciscan retreat center in Arizona pulled two ads it had been planning to run on the site; then, the day before she was supposed to speak, the bishop of Patterson, N.J., wouldn't allow her to appear at a Jesuit retreat house, she said. The talk was moved to a Lutheran church, she added.

"Their problem is that I speak about abortion and women's ordination," said Bonavoglia, who wrote "The Choices We Made," in which men and women speak about abortion during the decades from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Asked for her views on how she'd envision the church of the future, Bonavoglia said she believes the church should use its considerable power and influence to eliminate poverty and hunger, to promote peace and to give women equal footing by allowing them to be ordained.

"It would begin to give people the many, many ministers we so desperately need," she said. "Right now, we know that more than 80 percent of the church's paid staff is women, but they can't celebrate the sacraments, and that ties our hands.

"I'd like to know that during the next enclave, we never have to look at a group that's mostly white, aging and all male.

"Besides that, I think church has to rethink sexuality and guide people, not chastise or condemn them. "Church should be a place where you are loved and supported and made a better person," she said.

Bonavoglia will speak at 7 p.m. Thursdsay in Room 202 of Schenck Hall at Daemen College, under the auspices of Call to Action.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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