Speaking Out: Local woman fights to give women a greater voice in the Catholic Church

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Matt Geiger
Rhonda Miska grew up in Middleton and was active from a young age at St. Bernard Catholic Church. She recently contributed to and translated for “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table.”

“If you are going to talk about motherhood, marriage, family and all they mean in various contexts, the best way might not be a room full of men,” says Rhonda Miska, a Middleton native, author, theologian and translator.

That sentiment is at the heart of  “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table,” a new book published by Paulist Press and launched earlier this month at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome.

The book is the product of the Catholic Women Speak Network, an online forum for theological dialogue and collaboration, administered by the Digby Stuart Research Center for Religion, Society, and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton in London.  

“We are made up of 1,000 Catholic women from around the world,” explains Miska.

The group was founded by professor Tina Beattie in 2015.  “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table” was created as a resource for the October 2015 Synod on the Family with the theme “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.” Its primary theme is that questions of family cannot be adequately addressed without taking into consideration the voices of women.

Miska, a freelance writer currently based out of Dubuque, Iowa, often returns to her hometown to visit her parents, Ken and Claudia.

She called the book “a call to dialogue” rather than “a position paper.”

In “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table,” she translated from Spanish to English an essay by Carolina del Rio Mena, of Chile, and wrote an essay entitled “Young Catholic Women Working in Ministry: Blessings, Challenges, and Hopes.”  

At the October 1 launch at Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome, Miska also coordinated the liturgy  - a Mass for Network members - and interpreted to and from Spanish during the symposium.

Miska’s interest in theology and language were both evident from an early age. She attended Sauk Trail Elementary, Kromrey Middle School, and Middleton High School.

“I loved to read - was and am a fan of Middleton Public Library - and to write,” she recalls. She was also  highly involved with music and drama in high school.  

Miska’s Baptism, first communion and confirmation all took place at St. Bernard’s Catholic parish in downtown Middleton. She was active in music ministry there as a kid and teen, and also was an altar server.  

“I went to World Youth Day in Denver with St Bernard’s when I was 13,” she says. “So, yes, [I was] interested in religion and spirituality as a young person.”

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point in 2002 with double major in French and International Studies, then spent two years as a Jesuit Volunteer in Nicaragua, from 2002 to 2004.  

Miska also worked in parish ministry as Social Justice Minister/Hispanic Ministry Coordinator at a parish in Charlottesville, VA.  

Currently she is a staff member at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque.  

Miska is also a graduate of Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (2011).  “Catholic Women Speak” is the first book to which she has contributed.

 “I studied French at Middleton-Cross Plains schools,” she says. “My Spanish began in 2000 as a junior at UW-Stevens Point.  [I] became fluent when in Nicaragua as a Jesuit volunteer ... and have used it consistently since then in ministry with Spanish speaking immigrants in Virginia and Miami.”

She said the international nature of the book is a natural extension of the Catholic Women Speak Network’s diversity.

“There are essays in the book from women from India, Argentina, Chile, Ireland, Italy, Poland, England, [the] U.S., Canada, Philippines, Sweden, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Nigeria, - maybe more, that’s off the top of my head,” she says. “Pope Francis has spoken of being a ‘poor church for the poor’ so there is a real need to recognize the feminization of poverty and to pay special attention to the voices of women from the Global South and their experience of family – often tragically marked by violence, poverty, HIV/AIDS, forced migration, early marriage, maternal and infant mortality, and other factors which severely limit their human flourishing.”

“As a network, we embrace the preferential option for the poor and seek to uplift the courageous voices from the Global South speaking out of their different contexts and naming the challenges women face, and call upon those voting at the Synod to listen deeply, humbly, and carefully to those voices,” she continues. “In my work with Latin Americans  - both in Latin American and the U.S. - I have seen personally in many cases the challenges women in the Global South face, and how the hierarchal stance of the Catholic Church is not always one of support and understanding.”

But one question remains. Are the messages being espoused by these women ones the Catholic Church is ready to hear?

The answer, according to Miska, is complicated.

“There is a need first to define what we are talking about when we say ‘church,’” she explains. “The Second Vatican Council speaks of an ecclesiology of church as ‘the people of God.’  The Church includes the hierarchy - Pope, cardinals, bishops - but the Church is more than the hierarchy.”

Catholic Women Speak recently delivered 215 copies of the book to floor of the Synod, an assembly of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church where voting members of the Synod – all of them men - were gathered. 

“We hope and pray that they will read and consider our words,” says Miska. “However, the enormous amount of media attention - we’ve been covered in print, online, radio sources internationally - and the fact that the book sold out on Amazon the week of the Oct. 1 launch shows that these are ideas for which the world is hungering, and our call for dialogue around issues of family resonates with many people around the globe.”

“It is also encouraging to know that one of the Synod fathers proposed the idea of women deacons during the opening days of the Synod,” she concluded. “I am tremendously honored and grateful to be part of the project.”

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