In the early days of my being a Catholic priest, a lot of people who were non-Catholic came to me to go to confession. They already knew that I would give them communion, and they were intrigued by the idea of actually going to confession and learning what it was all about firsthand. Now, understand something here: the things told a priest in confession are held in the strictest confidence and in fact, priests have over the centuries gone to their deaths rather than reveal what someone else confessed. Kings have demanded to know if their wives had committed adultery. Political rulers have demanded to know if someone was guilty of murder or sedition. We priests understand going into this vocation that hearing confessions is a very serious matter indeed. If asked, we can neither confirm nor deny that any specific person came to us for confession—that’s how serious the sacramental seal is.
So having affirmed that, let me give you the heads up on something I learned while hearing confessions. Abortion is an issue that the larger church has always condemned and there are still people today who want to make it illegal, like it was “in the good old days.” Speaking personally, I am not a proponent of abortion, although I do not support efforts to make it illegal. And here’s why:
Over the years, I’ve heard the confessions of several women, young and old, who have had abortions. None of them did it casually or because it was an easy choice. Some of them were impregnated by their fathers or other family members. One was raped in her own home. Some were still in high school and in a panic, knowing that society and, more importantly, their church would condemn them. So they made the only choice they felt was reasonable. But here’s the thing. Not one of them that I’ve met and talked to has been able to forgive herself. Not even after being molested and raped as young girls. This was and is heartbreaking for me, and I can hear very clearly the voice of Jesus calling out to these heartsick women, “Talitha cum!”
Today’s Gospel reading gives us two stories of two women, the one contained within the other. Both women are “dead” and they represent two different age groups. The younger one has died before time, at the onset of adolescence, and the cause of her death is unknown; the older woman is socially dead. Jesus raises both to new life.
Let’s begin with the older woman, where Mark adds a detail that Matthew and Luke omit, namely, that she had suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years, having spent all her money on treatments. There are many implications here that derive from the Book of Leviticus chapter 15:19-33. Given her condition for 12 years, she would have been physically weak. She was religiously ostracized since she could not have participated in worship – she could not enter the synagogue or the temple. She was socially isolated because she could not participate in any of her family’s social events. Her husband, if she had one, would not have been able to sleep with her or even come into physical contact with her. And she was broke besides. Dead, because everything that makes her human has been taken from her. Like the younger woman, life is over.
At the heart of raising these women to life and restoring their humanity is the humane compassion of Jesus. In both cases, there is touching involved—which means Jesus had to knowingly break the taboos written in the Law. But in that touch, Jesus reveals his faith in the woman as much as the woman has faith in his ability to heal: “Daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace and be free…” (Mk 5:34).
In the second case, Jesus breaks the taboo by touching a dead child. Touching the dead body would have rendered him unclean. He could not have participated in social interaction without having a bath following such a contact with the dead body. He might have worked the miracle by simply uttering a word, but he touches her to teach us how we, too, can restore humanity to those who have lost it.
Today, we, the believing community of Jesus, have the responsibility to be channels of that same compassion of Jesus, especially to women. How can the Church accompany young people who are afraid of our judgment? How can we ensure that no victim of rape of sexual abuse feels rejected? It’s not enough to accept the status quo in our society and blame the woman for getting pregnant, or condemn her for getting an abortion when none of us knows her situation and how she has come to that decision. Maybe we need to man up and break a few taboos, just to get things going.
To be sure, we are living the best of times and we are living in the worst of times. Some of our political leaders are showing their complete disdain for women in the way they refer to them, in the ways in which they use them for their own selfish pleasure and in the way they treat them. On the other hand, there are voices of courage as well. Pope Francis, for example, has consistently called for the whole Church to do some soul-searching. And just this past week, the whole Catholic hierarchy, including the Pope, have condemned the separation of children from their mothers at the border.
Each of us is called to bring Christ to birth in our world. Each of us is called to become the “mother of God” in our world through allowing our faith to gestate within our hearts, resulting in lives lived in worthy service of Our God. To do that, we have to come to a profound change of heart and mind when it comes to the ways we treat women.