“The realities of exclusion certainly remain the most significant priorities, but they call for discernment. The first criterion is to send the best, most gifted people into these situations of exclusion and marginalization. These are the most risky situations and call for courage and a great deal of prayer… There is always the risk, the Pope recalled, to allow oneself to be overcome by enthusiasm; this might result in sending religious who have good will but who are not prepared for situations they will find in the frontiers of the marginalized where they are sent.”
“Wake up the world”,  La Civilta Cattolica, p. 13

[The Pope’s comment came as an answer to the question, “How do you see the presence of consecrated life in the reality of exclusion in our world?”, found in the section “The Frontiers of Mission: Marginalization, Culture and Education”.]

I will be honest: At first, when I saw the title that the Pope recommended to see reality not from the center but from the periphery, I felt ecstatic. As a feminist Catholic, I have felt on the periphery, at the margins, for years. So have the divorced, the gay community, many intellectuals who have been silenced over the years, women priests, feminist theologians, the homeless and the drug-addicts, plus the many people who do not come to my mind at the moment.

Thus, I felt directly addressed by the Pope’s remark. I had not read the document from which it came. From the little I know of Pope Francis, I soon realized that when he talked of the periphery, he was thinking of the very poor, not of women like me.

Now, it happens that I have experienced the periphery when I lived in developing countries. As an accompanying spouse, I engaged in volunteer work. This usually meant meeting very poor women and children. Men were out of my realm. These poor women touched my heart so much that I went back to university to help them. My dream was to channel help from rich Western women to poor Indian women. I did help them somewhat but not the way I thought I would.

I remember once telling UN women at a meeting that going to the Delhi slums (jugghies) was much more uplifting than spending the afternoon around the pool at the American club. I was saying the truth.

All this to explain that poor women have been a godsend in my life of privileged Western woman and I owe them a lot.

This is how, from Pope Francis’ statement, I got to realize that there are several kinds of peripheries. Indeed, gays, feminists, divorced, women priests, silenced thinkers are pushed back on some sort of spiritual periphery, of spiritual limbo. We are ignored, resented, rejected, condemned, excommunicated sometimes. That’s pretty harsh.

I would think that handicapped people, mentally or physically, also often feel at the periphery of society — whether in a developed or developing country.

I remember one morning walking to the offices of the Working Women’s Forum (WWF) in Chennai (a co-op for extremely poor women). I was walking behind a tall young Indian woman. She was so skinny, she had no shape. It could have been a man’s body. I knew she was a woman because she wore a very cheap saree and had a long braid and looked like a woman. The thought which crossed my mind then was that my constant concern of needing to lose weight was obscene. I just needed to be poor like the young woman ahead of me and all my weight problems would disappear.

I discovered more in the slums. Women are the poorest of the poor. They are at the periphery of the periphery, and they carry the whole world on their shoulders. Their family, of course, but they also perform the most menial work, the least paid tasks. The gender wage gap in their case would blow your mind. And they often are at the mercy of the violence of their drunken husbands, when they are ‘lucky’ to have one.

Now poor women all over the world are the outer edge of the periphery. Whether black women in the States; Arab or Turkish women in Europe; Indian women from the Andes in Latin America. Truly poor women are at the bottom of the pile.

This is when my Feminist concerns seem so light-weight. Yes, of course, my intentions are misunderstood and misinterpreted. The work of Feminist theologians seem to be completely unknown to our lovely Pope. The possibility of women being priests in the Catholic Church is rejected outright. Undoubtedly, it feels like a dagger in their heart. I think I know because I have felt it. I don’t really any longer.

I don’t feel anger (a cross in its own way) because somehow I have come across a Godde with an infinite sense of humor, who made me in Her own image, who loves me, feeds me, walks with me — in my own periphery. There, she stands by me.

Like some other feminist women, I find it difficult at this point to get angry at Pope Francis for not opening the doors of the Vatican to women. Possibly I understand from where he is coming, and how the enormous economic injustice which pervades the world corresponds much more to Jesus’ own concerns and mission than recognizing women as disciples, apostles, teachers, and prophets. Which we are. I just no longer need any man to see me as such. It would be nice, but it’s not important.

So what’s the point of this long post?

I see many peripheries, some of which are described above. Any periphery is a sore and sad place in which to find oneself. It is unfair of me to grade the intensity of the pain experienced. (I suffer more than you, less than you, who can say?}

I know my responsibility is to stand by and walk with those who are at the peripheries. My wealth is to help those who are not as fortunate as I am.

I am grateful for the absence of rancor in my life — this is a grace. I feel for those who are still hurt by their rejection. And while my periphery is rather cushy, I have grown to see it as a home from which I can reach out to some.

I worry for those women at the margins of the economic periphery. They could definitely use the Church’s validation of their suffering and receive a lot of help. But will they be acknowledged and accounted for or will they continue to suffer in a worse way the apartheid their richer sisters experience as well?

Photo: Elavarasi, 29 and her two daughters in October 1991. She was a WWF leader, entrepreneur [what you see is her small ‘restaurant’ on the sidewalk]. Her husband at the time was in a hospital, paralyzed due to alcoholism.

See also:
WIT, Pope Francis: See reality “not from the center but from the periphery”

Mary E. Hunt, Religion Dispatches, The Trouble With Francis: Three Things That Worry Me”