Cabrini's Question: Where Do Women Belong in the Church Today?

My nine-year-old son convinced me to see Cabrini, a movie I am not positive I would have seen without his encouragement. For context, I have watched one episode of The Chosen and have never seen anything else put out by Angel Studios. One night, while we were eating lasagna for dinner and watching Jeopardy!, he exclaimed, “Mama, there is a movie about a Catholic mother coming out soon! You're going to want to see this!” After dinner, he pulled the preview up for us to watch on YouTube, and when I saw that the “Catholic mother” was an early twentieth-century saint named “Mother Cabrini,” I tried to hold back my surprise. I smiled and pulled him next to me, willing myself to look forward at the preview and not at him. This was definitively not the “Catholic mother” movie I was expecting when he said it made him think of me.

With this said, my son hit on a fundamental truth that I do not think most reviewers or those commenting on the success or impact of this film have thus far: Cabrini is a movie that will likely be watched primarily by ordinary Catholic women like me. I am not saying that there will not be men who view this movie or that men ought not to see the movie. They should.

I found it an unexpectedly good movie and an important one, because religious women are not often depicted in positive ways in the media. After all, the other Sister movie playing at the theater where I saw Cabrini was Immaculate, a horror film. Plus, like me, I suspect that when you, dear readers, try to recall other recent Sister films you might also come up with The Nun I and II, both recent blockbuster horror films depicting those in religious life, but not in heroic ways. I encourage everyone to see Cabrini. Perhaps then we might all bring more readily to mind images not of nuns with scary red eyes but of nuns helping children.

I saw Cabrini twice. I went first with a group of women friends from my parish and second with a woman Religious Studies colleague from my university. At different points in the film, when ecclesial and political men deny Cabrini's requests for her mission work, in both the viewings I attended, I could hear women gasping, commiserating with that feeling of slight Cabrini was going through. Likely, they had experienced an analogous situation themselves during work or parish life.

Interestingly, while there were very few men in the theater both times I saw Cabrini, most reviews of the movie have been written by men, and the film was directed and written by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde and Rod Barr, respectively. America, Commonweal, Variety, National Review, The American Spectator, The Hollywood Reporter, Word on Fire, The Catholic Thing, National Catholic Register, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, IndieWire, and USA Today all selected male reviewers for this film. Indeed, one need only Google Cabrini reviews to see many others in this vein.[1] While it is not necessary that a woman review a film about a woman, this pattern of women being perceptively marginalized in a group they dominate (i.e., viewers of a Christian movie about a woman saint) is a pattern the Church ought to take note of—because the women it serves are doing so.

In the United States, 54% of the Catholic Church is comprised of women. Women have long been the majority not only of the Catholic Church in particular but also of religious denominations in general. For instance, since Gallup began its research about religion and gender in the mid-1930s, extensive survey data supports the idea that women have long exhibited greater religiosity than men. Women hold their beliefs with stronger conviction and demonstrate more consistent religious practice, not to mention that they express and practice more profound commitments to congregational activities. Remarkably, disparities in responses to religious inquiries based on gender surpass those stemming from other demographics, such as age, education, or geographic location.

However, a shift is happening that I believe those who care about the Cabrini audience—and the excellent content of the movie itself—ought to acknowledge. In the United States, millennial and Gen Z women (18-45 year olds) are increasingly more likely to identify as “Nones,” or those with no religious affiliation, than their male counterparts. This shift is unprecedented, and I believe it is in large part because Christianity, Catholicism included, assumes women will stay committed to religion in the same numbers even as men's voices and roles in the Church are amplified over women's, even superimposed over women's as we see in the instance of Cabrini.

I may have lost some of you here—those who suspect you know where this review is headed—and I ask that you stay with me. For instance, this is not an essay wherein I suggest women need more political power in the Church, which would provide an easy, feminist reading of Cabrini. Such a reading, however, would miss the point of the movie's potential significance.

Instead, my thesis is this: As women have gained influence outside of the Catholic Church in spheres such as the workplace and politics, the Church ought to make a concerted effort to avoid repeating Cabrini's story of difficulty. It ought to avoid repeating the experience of women having to feel as if they must sidestep Church politics to enact Church teachings. The Church should contemplate how best to help ambitious women live out their vocational callings, in whatever forms those might take, in keeping with the Church's doctrines.

I am not suggesting we change the Church to fit our culture. Rather, like Cabrini, I am suggesting we change the hearts of the people within it to understand that Catholic women’s broader influence is expanding. The Church’s umbrella ought to expand, as women’s roles in the outside world have. In the movie, Cabrini shows herself to be an exemplary politician who builds an empire of hope, as she calls it. Yet, she never seems interested in her religious or political antagonists' jobs (although she does reveal herself to be more than capable of holding Archbishop Corrigan’s or Mayor Gould's positions easily, were she to want them).

Cabrini, on the other hand, seems interested in what I believe women across the political and socio-economic spectrum in the Church are interested in today but are not always finding as easily accessible as their male colleagues: Cabrini wants to belong in the Church. She wants to belong there while filling her public vocational call. In her instance, this call is to help immigrants and the poor worldwide wherever that path leads her, including traveling to places like New York. Cabrini wants to belong while being an ambitious woman. Viewers will likely remember her brazenly telling Pope Leo XIII: “The world is too small for what I intend to do.”

Today, belonging feels like a charged word. Pope Francis has made it a cornerstone of his papacy, and I see the term popping up as a buzzword in the arenas of leadership and psychology, not to mention the workplace and academia. In a well-known address on the subject at St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis stated, “Our Christian identity is to belong! We are Christians because we belong to the Church. It is like a last name: if the first name is ‘I am Christian,’ the last name is ‘I belong to the Church.’ Ah, a beautiful concept, yet how many of us have felt we sometimes do not belong to the Church? If the Christian last name is “I belong to the Church,” then why are so many young women becoming “Nones”? Why do they not want to “stay married” to the Church and remain with that last name forever?

Throughout the film, Cabrini repeatedly is told a message that resonated with me, a millennial woman who has also heard it told to her, often. This message has not been addressed amply, or at all, in the many reviews I have read of the movie and listed above. Bishops, archbishops, senators, mayors, and even a pimp at one point all tell Cabrini a similar rendition of the same message. “Stay where you belong, Mother,” Cabrini is told while visiting the Vatican. Another iteration of this message occurs near the movie's end while she is visiting Parliament: “Mother Cabrini, you have wandered into rooms where you don't belong.”

During Mass on Sundays, Catholics see men front and center in the sanctuary, in rooms where they obviously belong. Priests and deacons wear vestments. They walk, talk, and preach around the altar, sanctuary, and nave, their ritualistic motions and garb indicating at every turn that they belong there. After Vatican II, we see far fewer sisters like Cabrini visibly donning habits and being front and center in these spaces. This is not to say that I am supporting sisters still having to wear habits—that is not my point; I am noting a change that young women and men can no doubt witness or fail to witness regarding Church leadership at Mass each week. In most parishes, there are no visible signs of women's belonging in the Church’s highest positions. Women may read at the lectern, but we do not preach from there. Women religious may be at Mass, but laypeople would not know this from any outward sign.

Moreover, in all the parishes I have ever participated in, laywomen walk to other buildings or other rooms adjacent to the sanctuary to teach religious education classes after service ends. This is a sticky point because it might seem as if I am saying that some rooms and what occurs in them within our parishes are more critical than others. I am not. I am saying the opposite. Religious education and preaching—which I identify as occurring in those classroom settings—are integral to the Catholic Church and its mission.

However, this predominantly women's work is rarely acknowledged in front-and-center worship spaces. The mere physical marginalization of women's work to external rooms sends a message about belonging that we should consider. Do young women feel as if they belong in our sacred spaces as readily as our young men do?[2] If not, how can we make changes within our parishes to recognize and perhaps broaden women's opportunities for leadership within the Church? Ought we ask young Catholic women if it is easier to see themselves as fulfilling callings of leadership and ambition outside the Church? How can we help them to reach their goals within it?

The most pointed question that Cabrini brings up is a subtle one that I believe our polarized world tries to make sharp: Where do women belong in the Church today? While it sounds shrill to our divisive, media-saturated ears, this question is often being asked gently by women like Cabrini, who are already working for the Church in those parish rooms behind that hallway or in the back of the building. Women are asking this question to each other, not to the talking heads on CNN or in synodal listening groups where these women were probably not invited because they were so busy changing diapers that they did not have time to be spotted in pews by their priests, lost in contemplative prayer during Adoration as their male colleagues might have been.

Indeed, perhaps the most well-known and pointed review Cabrini has received is that the saint is not seen praying enough throughout the movie. Supposedly, she should be spending more alone time with Jesus. Paul Kengor, in “Gutting Jesus: Feminist Cabrini, Secular Saint,” writes that “the film could have been easily salvaged at multiple junctures if, just once, in one of her many ‘dark night of the soul’ moments, this Mother Cabrini could have turned to a crucifix, pleaded to Jesus, and prayed. Alas, she does not.” Kengor is right: we do not see long sequences of Mother Cabrini praying.

Instead, we see her working when she is afraid of not being able to do enough for the suffering in her midst before succumbing to a terminal illness her doctors have said will kill her within a year or two. We see her working, teaching children in those back hallways and alleys and preaching about her work in public. It sends a message to Catholic women today that the main criticism of this movie is that Cabrini does not spend enough time praying alone, where nobody would see her or hear about her work. It sends a message about where she, and Catholic women’s work, worship, and leadership more generally, are thought to belong, and where they do not.

It might help now to put Cabrini’s devotional life in conversation with another famous New York Catholic who has had steps made toward her canonization, Dorothy Day. Day saw The Catholic Worker Movement as inspired by Cabrini's life witness, even taking a pilgrimage of penance to Cabrini's shrine after World War II ended. Day hoped such a pilgrimage would prove to be a balm to the personal and global suffering after the trauma of that time. Like Cabrini, Day as a youth held a dream that many young women today share—a youthful, ambitious dream shared by Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys alike—to “conquer New York.” “If we are to build an empire of hope,” Cabrini tells her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Italy, “we must first conquer New York.”[3]

A generation after Cabrini's work ended, Day took up the torch of her work. For those who have seen the film, it might be better said that she took up Cabrini's gas lamps, cinematographic symbols of how Cabrini's Sacred Heart Sisters lit up New York with physical and spiritual light. In one of Dorothy Day's most often quoted observations, she perhaps anticipated future critics like Paul Kengor and what they might later say of Cabrini’s life, and by proxy women like Day and others within the Church today who—as women—are accused of choosing doing over praying. Day writes, “I believe some people—lots of people—pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?”[4] For Day, working is praying.

Where do women belong in the Church? This is the question women ask each other in the film, and it is one they are asking now in those marginalized parish spaces, though not always finding good answers or at least not satisfying ones. Cabrini can help to jumpstart a conversation for Catholic women along these lines. When Cabrini travels to the Italian Parliament at the movie's end to ask for funds for a hospital, she experiences a dream of floating underwater. She does not belong in the living world or God's kingdom, it seems. She is in a liminal, or in-between space. Her dream is reminiscent of a childhood experience when she nearly drowned. Is she supposed to be here, still, on this Earth at all, doing this work she is? Should she have died as a child? Why is she alive? This existential question haunts her entire life, as it does so many of us who consider ourselves seekers. Does Cabrini belong on Earth, and/or in this Church, where she is repeatedly told no when trying to fulfill her vocation?

During this dream sequence, Cabrini is shown praying, yet she does not encounter a vision of God. She encounters a visit from her closest friend, an ex-prostitute from Five Points, Vittoria.[5] Dorothy Day's quote about prayer comes back here: “I believe some people pray . . . through . . . the friendships they have.” Vittoria, reminiscent of Jesus's friend Mary Magdalene, reminds Cabrini that she, like David, must put on her armor—her habit—just as the nun did in New York when she conquered her fears there and founded her orphanage there. She must march into Parliament and unabashedly state her case for the hospital she now dreams of. Women’s friendship brings Cabrini back to life and mission; community among women buoys her. Perhaps, for some, time alone in contemplative silence energizes them for whatever spiritual battles they must face. Perhaps that is how they experience God. For women, friendship often helps them not only form but also solidify their values and encourage that sense of belonging they so need. Belonging can lead them to fulfill their vocational paths for the Church.

Here, it seems pertinent to mention feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan's research, which posits that men and women often develop and enact different ethical modes. In her foundational 1982 book, In a Different Voice, she explains that men tend to prioritize an “ethics of justice,” focusing on abstract principles and rules that can be universally applied.[6] In contrast, women tend to prioritize an “ethics of care,” emphasizing interpersonal relationships and moral judgments based on the context of a situation. Recent studies continue to bear out Gilligan's hypotheses, indicating that these orientations exist in workplaces and other spaces, still generally demarcated along male-female lines. Ideally, men and women can learn from each other and reconsider how they come to live out their ethical frameworks; realistically, men and women approach life differently and rarely come to an awareness of the other’s framework.

The latter is where I think the Church, not only broadly but also at the individual parish level, can use the Cabrini story to consider how it is treating the women it serves. Consider: Do the women in your parish feel they belong? Is it easy for them to foster a sense of friendship and community among themselves so an ethics of care can flourish? Is women's work within the parish being lauded in the front and center spaces as much as their prayer lives are? Are women being asked to speak about what they are organizing, teaching, and doing for the parish in some way that is visible? Do women plan to stay in the parish after they have reached adulthood? If not, how can we extend care to them, create community for them, and make our spaces more welcoming to women of all types?

“I shall speak here now!” Cabrini tells the Italian Parliament after her dream. Following it, she awakens, looks in the mirror, puts on her habit of armor, walks past a giant statue of David, and enters yet another room where she knows the men believe she does not belong. “Only men are allowed to speak here!” someone shouts at her once as she strides into the spacious government hall. She ignores this man, shooting him what I would call an optimal “mom look.” She tells the room she will speak now for the poor, even if they do not want to hear what she has to say. “All that matters at your deathbed is what you have done for the poor,” she declares loudly, and with certainty. She leaves Italy soon after for the United States, having won the Italian Parliament’s support (and their funding). Like Taylor Swift and the Gen Z and millennial women who listen to her, Cabrini is unafraid to speak now.

Those who know Taylor Swift's “Speak Now" song, though, might remember the lyrics focus on leaving a church, on stopping a wedding. “Don't say yes, run away now, / I'll meet you when you're out of the church at the back door. / Don't wait, or say a single vow.” We want women to speak now and say yes to and in the Catholic Church. We want them to act, to be ambitious, and to build solid friendships and communities that help them to lead ethical lives. We want them to see their stories front and center. We want them to extol role models like Cabrini and not feel as if they have to run away from the vows they take there.

While we want young women to respect models like Cabrini, we do not want them to feel as if they cannot speak unless they don “armor” like her and force themselves into rooms where they have been told, or implicitly feel, they do not belong. If women over one hundred years after Cabrini's legacy have begun to feel that the only way to belong, the only way "to speak now," is to run away like Taylor Swift encourages in her song and thereby refuse that last name of belonging the Pope tells us is part of our identity as Christians, then we are not learning from this film's, or Mother Cabrini's, legacy as we ought. We are keeping the bad, not honoring the good.

Mother Teresa once said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Cabrini believed the same. “Forgive me if I don't have the strength to think like you,” she tells Archbishop Corrigan in the movie after he tells her there is no more hope. Humans simply will not look after each other, he relays scornfully. Women may be leaving the Church today, but I am asking readers of this piece, and viewers of the Cabrini movie, to speak now, as she did then. I am asking women, and all those who remember that as members of the Catholic Church we can see God in each other, not to leave but to stay and to speak up for women's work and for women's ways of seeing and being in the world and in our Church.

“We don't choose how we came to live in this world,” Cabrini tells her friend Vittoria during one of their many heartfelt conversations, “but God gave us the freedom to choose how to live in it.” Sometimes, we think change happens only if we barge into those Parliamentary spaces, and, yes, change does happen that way. But it can also happen through our friendships, through making women’s lives and work in the Church visible, and through building a sense of belonging not as a buzzword but as a lived practice. As parishioners, we all belong to each other. We are all God’s children.

In this way, my son was right: I have come to regard a Catholic Mother whose name I previously had not heard as a maternal presence in my life. She is a mother like I am, and I aspire to be one like her. I am proud to belong to a Church with someone like Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini as a leader in it, someone who has helped me to remember that I (and my ambition and quirkiness) belong in it. Further, I need to check in on others who may sometimes—like me— wonder whether they do, too. In the words of Pope Francis, “I am a Christian. I belong to the Church.”

[1] For one excellent review of Cabrini by a woman, see Bronwen McShea's “The ‘Cabrini’ Film and Catholicism's History Problem.”

[2] It bears mention that it is likely the case that the religious education curriculum that is chosen, while often taught by women in parishes, is likely approved by and perhaps even chosen by men. Moreover, suppose Catholic women want to build community outside of religious education classes at their parishes, perhaps by creating or leading festivals, running youth groups, creating community charity events, being a part of community service days, hosting book clubs, giving or inviting public lectures, or any other types of activities. In that case, this can be met with red tape that can restrict that feeling of belonging and women's agency within the Church. This is not to say that men do not find similar obstacles or desire to lead, run, and volunteer for such activities, only that women are usually tasked with and volunteer for these types of functions at the parish level more often, suggesting that they encounter these logistical problems more often as well.

[3] New York "is what dreams are made of," to quote Alica Keys in “Empire State of Mind.”

[4] Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus, ed. Carolyn Kurtz (New York: Plough Publishing House, 2017), 39.

[5] Although the Bechdel test, which has long been used to determine a film's feminist credentials, has come under scrutiny about whether it is the best way to ascertain if a movie has met a particular feminist bar, I believe it is helpful in examining the potential good that can be mined in a film like this one about women for the Church. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, “a film may be regarded as feminist if it satisfies three basic requirements: the film has at least two female characters; these two female characters within the film talk to each other; and what the two female characters in the film talk about has nothing to do with a man.” There are a plethora of instances between Cabrini and Vittoria where this movie passes the Bechdel test so easily that it is incredible how feminist this movie is (i.e. how does Cabrini deal with her illness, how can they get more attention on their charity, etc.). Their friendship is one of the most admirable and compelling aspects of the film from this reviewer’s perspective, not simply because it “passes” this test but because it shows true depth in female friendship, not to mention the other intriguing aspect of the friendship in that it occurs between a Sister and a laywoman of the Church. See Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, “Bechdel Test,” in Dictionary of Film Studies, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[6] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Featured Image: Still from the movie Cabrini, Fair Use.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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