When Bishop Matthew H. Clark arrived in the Diocese of Rochester in June 1979, American society was in the midst of a great shift.
Women were beginning to enter traditionally male-dominated fields in the American workforce in large numbers, seeking equal pay for performing the same tasks as their male counterparts, and struggling to balance their newfound roles in the workforce with their more traditional responsibilities inside the home. Women’s issues and roles were hot topics of conversation in society at large and within the Catholic Church, as well.
Bishop Clark responded to this ongoing shift in April 1982 with “The Fire in the Thornbush,” a pastoral letter on women in the church. In this letter, Bishop Clark emphasized the dignity, human rights and spirituality of all people, including women, and upheld Mary as a model for Christian women. Mary was not only the courageous and faith-filled mother of Jesus, but she also was a perfect disciple as well as a model for the contemporary woman, Bishop Clark stated in his letter.
“When Mary’s place in the life and continued ministry of the Church is recognized and understood, the place of all women in the Church is assured, not as onlookers or maid servants, but as integral co-workers, as necessary for the incarnation of Christ in our world as Mary was to the first Incarnation,” he stated in the letter, which gained recognition nationwide.
The Gospels contain many other examples of strong, faith-filled women who played important roles in the early church, he continued. While many contemporary women are sustained and rewarded by their life within the Catholic Church, others are confused and disappointed, the bishop stated, asking diocesan Catholics to pray and reflect on women’s participation in church life. He encouraged and invited women to participate within the diocese and urged the inclusion of women in the liturgical functions that are open to them.
“It will be a priority of the Diocese of Rochester, all of its agencies, divisions and departments, to encourage and to invite women to participate in full measure in volunteer and paid positions within the diocese and its organizations. … I encourage more inclusion of women in liturgical functions, in those roles now open to them or in new roles that may be legitimately created,” Bishop Clark wrote.
Bishop Clark penned “The Fire in the Thornbush” at the culmination of many months spent carefully listening to the concerns of a group of well-respected local women, said Gloria Ulterino, former director of the diocesan Office of Women. It was a fine letter for its time, and still stands out, she said.
“It’s a good document. I’m very pleased with Bishop Clark’s leadership in writing it,” agreed Deni Mack, pastoral associate at Church of the Assumption in Fairport. Mack was one of the women Bishop Clark worked with while researching and writing the letter, which was intended to “give voice to women,” she said.
The world was changing so much at that time that it would have been wrong for the leader of the local Catholic Church to ignore the issue, she added.
“It couldn’t not come into being,” she explained. “Bishop Clark was then and is still attentive to the signs of the times and respecting women’s gifts and recognizing them.”
The bishop is a good listener and a mindful and compassionate leader, traits that he showed again in 1990 when he convened a diocesan synod, she said.
During the three-year synodal process he listened to local Catholics’ concerns, and at its conclusion in 1993, approximately 1,300 delegates from across the diocese chose five priorities for the Diocese of Rochester to focus on in upcoming years. Mack said the bishop respected and took action on these priorities, one of which related to the role and dignity of women in church and society. One of the fruits of the synod was the creation of the diocesan Office of Women, Ulterino said. This office was short-lived and closed in 1999, but during her tenure as its director Ulterino worked to encourage women’s spirituality. Each week, for example, she studied the upcoming weekend’s Scripture readings and suggested ways for pastors to incorporate women’s perspectives into their homilies. She also formed what eventually became Women of the Well, a story-telling troupe that brings to life the stories of biblical women and other well-known Catholic women.
Another of the synod’s fruits was the 1995 revitalization of the diocesan Women’s Commission, which is a group commissioned to provide the bishop with insights and guidance in dealing with issues related to women and families, said Shelley Fess, one of the commission’s leaders.
“With the majority of the stakeholders in the diocese being male, there needed to be a way for women to feel that they could make their voices heard and be present,” Fess said. “With the changes in American society, there were a lot of contributions we could make to the church and to parishes, and I think he helped to bring that forward and get them to be accepted.”Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark