Dr Geraldine Smyth OP shares her story
Belfast-born Sr Geraldine Smyth OP, noted theologian, former prioress general of the worldwide Irish Dominican Sisters and pioneering director of the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) is one of those exceptionally gifted persons who barring accidents would always have risen to the top of any organisation and left a legacy of achievement.
Gospel-centred, articulate, eloquent, clear thinking, and highly intelligent both emotionally and intellectually (they don’t always go together) Dr Smyth was once described in my hearing by a senior Protestant Churchman as “one of the cleverest figures in the [Irish] Catholic Church”.
Pope Francis’ call for the development of “a profound theology of women” will be listened to with particular attention by those who are disturbed that the giftedness of Geraldine Smyth and numerous other women does not currently blossom to its full potential in the Church.
Were Dr Smyth a man there can be little doubt that all other things being equal she would be widely known as one of the most powerful voices in the Irish hierarchy if not an influential figure in the Roman Curia.
Educationalist, passionate bridge-builder, with an enviable research record in inter-Church relations, ecumenism and peace-building she turned 65 last month.
She will retire as associate professor in Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies at ISE next September.
One of a family of six brought up off the Falls Road she went to St Dominic’s High School where Mary McAleese was a few years behind her.
One day when she was 14 she was walking home when a school friend asked Geraldine if she ever thought of being a nun, as “they are ordinary people but have a clear sense of what they want to do with their lives”.
“I said, are you wise? But it sowed a seed and I thought about it and made up my mind very quickly and I never changed my mind after that.”
Geraldine spent more than six years with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in England but eventually found the draw of the Dominican charism irresistible including ”its liturgy and its rootedness in history and tradition”.
She was finally professed in the Dominican Convent Falls Road on the Feast of St Dominic in 1976.
With a first class honours degree in English from the University of Ulster under her belt she taught in the Dominican Grammar School Portstewart from 1975 to 1983 before becoming at 36 the youngest prioress of the convent on the Falls Road and then being called to headquarters in Dublin to membership of the General Council from 1986 to 1992.
As one of her chief responsibilities was ecumenical affairs she enrolled for a Masters at ISE which quickly became a TCD doctorate. This entailed field work with Presbyterians in Belfast and the beginning of a lasting friendship with Rev. Ken Newell and his congregation at Fitzroy.
When the directorship of ISE became vacant in 1994 Dr Smyth was prevailed upon to apply and was successful.
One of her most noted achievements was in the late Nineties when she led negotiations resulting in the integration of ISE, then a cash strapped independent college, into Trinity College Dublin thus achieving its financial stability.
Last year when she completed a second spell as director overseeing the physical transfer of ISE from Milltown Park to the site of the old department of physiology at Trinity.
The ISE at TCD offers full time and part time Masters and PhD degrees in peace studies, conflict resolution and reconciliation. It has a second centre in Belfast and students can study in either city.
Her first spell as director was interrupted in 1998 when she was elected to a six-year term as prioress general becoming leader of 500 Irish Dominican sisters based in Latin America, USA, South Africa, Portugal and of course Ireland.
That experience “underlined the sense of the Church Catholic and different ways of being Church”.
When I met Dr Smyth she had an already well-thumbed copy of Pope Francis’s recently published Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in her hand.
What would she say if she had 10 minutes with Pope Francis, I wondered.
“The Church has to begin to listen to women, to their experience, to their theological reflection” in the context of half a century of feminist theology.
“I would [describe myself as a feminist] in the sense that I think we can’t do theology and shouldn’t do theology without taking a feminist critique on board no more than we can do theology without doing a liberation critique.”
She stresses: “We have got to ask the critical feminist and liberation questions: who defines the agenda? Where are the power relations? Who is missing from this debate or discussion? What perspectives need to be included?”
Dr Smyth says the type of issues that need to be addressed include “the sin of clericalism, the sin of patriarchy”.
“We can put that theology and language on it and it may be emotive language but we have got to start thinking about these things.”
Dr Smyth does not think that the teaching against the ordination of women priests stands up though she herself has never felt called to be a priest.
“I don’t think that it is right. I don’t think it is in accordance with the truth of what we understand and know about the human being made in the image of God.
“I don’t think it accords with what we see and saw and reflect on in the Gospels in the life of Jesus.”
She added that she did not think the reasons for not ordaining women “stood up theologically though I think they may stand up in terms of Church discipline”.
Dr Smyth said the teaching was on “very shaky anthropological and theological foundations” and was “effectively saying there are two different levels of human being”.
“You are essentialising women and essentialising men into roles that have been culturally and socially determined and you are saying that God and the Holy Spirit while working through cultural and historical dynamics and patterns and realities has to stay stuck in one particular configuration of those.”
She added: “I think that is heresy.”
Dr Smyth warned that reformed governance would not work if it meant “taking lectures from organisational theory and slapping it on ecclesial structures”.
“It doesn’t work if there isn’t a more profound self-reflection and self-critique in the light of the Gospels and in the light of what we know about the human condition and the mystery of the human person.”
There was also a need to explore “what is missing from the Church, from culture and society if female experience and female approaches to pastoral care to children, to marriage are actually excluded a priori from the theologising. We are still at the level of tokenism.”
Dr Smyth said the Church “is still operating out of old biological mind sets and social constructions of the human person that are highly dualistic and deeply excluding of the inherent irreducible dignity of women as created by God.”
She said it was “too early to know” if Pope Francis represented “a paradigm change”.
But certainly in terms of “symbol, language, attitude, the content of speeches, all that has opened up a different rhetoric and signalled a need for deep renewal and change”.
Geraldine Smyth does not strike one as a lady who does retirement.
When she leaves her beloved ISE she will “re-focus my future work to examine the Christian meaning of the past, memory and forgiveness in the contexts of sectarian division”.
Her own family have known the pain of that division, a cousin was murdered by the UDA in 1972.
She is deeply committed to reconciliation in the North – recognised by Queen’s University with the conferral on her of an honorary doctorate as far back as 2003.
Whatever happens to the stalled proposals of Richard Haass – and Eames Bradley before him -Geraldine Smyth will always have something challenging to say about contending with the past.
And she’ll be poised to debate and critique any proposals for reform that emanate from Rome.