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Giving agency: A priest, a voiceless woman and hearing from God

Monday, 26 June 2023  | Karina Kreminski


Recently I heard a Catholic priest tell a story that intrigued me.

It went something like this. He was visiting an old European city. In one particular tourist spot where people were selling trinkets and souvenirs, he noticed a young woman lying on the ground looking dishevelled and desperate. No one seemed to be paying much attention to her, so he kept walking past. But he described how, a few steps away, he felt a little ‘nudge’, which he interpreted to be the voice of God prompting him to turn back and go over to this woman. He kept walking, trying to avoid the nudge, but eventually God won and he walked back to her. He wondered how he could help her. He prayed and thought about it and said to himself: ‘She probably needs money. And well maybe she needs bread’. So he walked over to her and gave her some money. I can’t remember if he bought her bread. He said that when he gave her money she held onto him desperately and spoke in a language he did not understand. He said that she did not seem to be from that country so he assumed she was a refugee. He was ‘greatly moved’. Then he went on his way.

But a few steps away he felt that ‘nudge’ from God again. He felt that the woman had been calling out to God for help and that God had answered her prayers though his obedience in helping her. So he wanted to make sure the woman knew that her prayers had been answered. He walked back to her and wondered how he could let her know that God had heard her. So he made the Catholic sign of the cross over her, I guess so that she would know it was a Christian holy man who had helped her and therefore she would know it was God, not a random stranger, who had saved her. Then he went on his way.

That was the story.

I had mixed feelings when I heard this account. On the one hand I think the priest was genuinely trying to hear from God and be obedient. He was trying to be kind. And he was trying to teach us to be kind people. I admire that about Catholicism. While evangelicalism, for example, often focuses on correct beliefs, Catholics have a tendency to focus on good works, practicing love in action and not just words. I paid attention to the story and was motivated to follow in his footsteps by looking for opportunities to do merciful acts whenever appropriate. I thought the homily was a lot more effective than many sermons I have heard. And I was moved.

But I could not shake off an uncomfortable feeling I had. When I thought about this more, I realised that what I was a little disturbed by was the assumptions this priest had made and the lack of agency the woman had in the encounter.

The woman is voiceless in the story. She is acted upon rather than given a choice about what is done to her. Even though what was done to her was a merciful act, I wondered whether she still needed to have been given a choice in the encounter. Could the priest have asked her what she needed, with hand gestures if language was a barrier?

I remember a long time ago I was with a friend in Spain, and as we were walking the streets my friend encountered a woman who was sleeping on the street. She, having grown up in a privileged area of Australia and having never seen homelessness, was shocked. She walked right over to the sleeping woman and put some food and money next to her. However, this woman woke up and threw the money and food back at my friend and yelled at her for making the assumption that she needed to be given a handout. I knew what she was saying because I speak Spanish and I understood all the expletives! It taught me not to make assumptions, no matter how things look to me; to always ask for permission and give others agency, particularly those who seem more than most to be ‘acted upon’ rather than having the privilege of being able to engage on the same level with rest of society. At least this is how I try to live. I don’t always get it right.

I also wondered why the priest needed to go back and make the sign of the cross ‘over’ this woman. Was it not enough that he had helped her? What if she was of another religion? Would she have been offended? I’m not sure. I wondered if this act, while seemingly innocent, was another form of unconscious ‘power over’ a vulnerable person with very little agency. It made me think about a conversation I had with a friend who is a strong atheist and very much in tune with matters of agency. She questioned me about whether I should be asking my Christian friends to pray for those in my community who are not religious or Christian. At first I was annoyed and didn’t think it should be an issue. But on the other hand, does she have a point about giving others agency? I know there is a lot to say on the matter; and who cares about agency if someone is dying of hunger? I get all of this. However, I think it would go a long way if we who are privileged thought more carefully in any situation about allowing space, agency and voice in contexts where we have all or most of the power. It can do a lot of damage to make assumptions in those situations and more often than not we could be contributing to the problem of societal power imbalance rather than helping to solve it.

Today I was walking our one-year-old dog who is extremely shy and still fearful of most things in life. A woman walking by was in awe of Molly’s cuteness and stuck out her hand, expecting to be able to pat her. But Molly glared at her and quickly backed off. The woman looked almost annoyed that Molly had not been a ‘good dog’ and interacted with her. I have to confess I also felt a little annoyed at Molly for not being a ‘good girl’. But then I thought, ‘Why should Molly have to appease a stranger?’ Given a choice, she chose to back away from someone she did not know, and that’s fine. Even dogs should be given agency.


Karina Kreminski is co-founder of Neighbourhood Matters and the author of Urban Spirituality (2018). She is an ordained minister, has a doctorate in missional formation and was a Lecturer in Missional Studies at Morling College.


Image credit: Priest with hand blessing. By Lunamarina.

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