Mary and Kali: Interfaith Research on Powerful Women

Melissa Cedillo ’18 has one of the best gigs on campus. As one of the recipients of the yearlong James L. Fredericks Fellowship, she gets paid to pursue her own research. Better yet, she partners with a faculty member on the project, not just as an advisor but as a research collaborator.

Cedillo, a theological studies major, has partnered with theology professor Tracy Tiemeier on the Fellowship. Together, they spent the last six months studying two female religious figures: Catholicism’s Virgin Mary and a Hindu goddess, Kali. Their project, “Shameless Women: Reclaiming Mary and Kali,” considers the ways these figures can be sources of healing for women who have survived domestic violence.

For Cedillo, a research project about women’s empowerment was a natural choice. She is this year’s president of Belles, the LMU service organization for women, and an active volunteer at Good Shepherd Shelter, a domestic violence shelter.

“In Catholic theology, Mary is seen as the ideal woman: both virgin and mother,” said Tiemeier. “But if this is what we emphasize about Mary, she becomes an impossible standard that can contribute to the shame many Christian women feel who are struggling to recover from violent domestic situations.”

Cedillo agreed. “My introduction to Mary was a woman who is pure, quiet, and modest,” she said. “But we can also see Mary as a fierce woman who said ‘yes’ to being a part of a story that changed the world. Mary is a fearless mother.”

Learning the stories of Kali, the Hindu goddess, can help Catholic women see the powerful, fearless qualities in Mary. “Kali is a mother and a strong woman,” Cedillo said. “She is often depicted stepping on demons and evil forces. She teaches that you can be fierce and shameless while still being a symbol of motherhood.”

“So Kali can be an inspiring image for women who are healing,” she added. “And when we remove some of the patriarchal, traditional stereotypes about Mary, she can be a real source of hope and freedom for women, too.”

Cedillo will present this research at the 2017 Undergraduate Research Symposium; she and Tiemeier plan to share it at their department’s annual research event, too. But the community where Cedillo is most excited to bring the research is the Good Shepherd Shelter, where she volunteers. She plans to offer discussion-based spirituality workshops at the shelter, weaving in the empowering and healing messages of Mary and Kali.

Offered for the first time this year, the James L. Fredericks Fellowship supports joint student and faculty research in comparative theology, to promote religious literacy through theological inquiry in two traditions. It was established in 2016 to honor the legacy of Father James L. Fredericks, emeritus professor of theological studies, a longtime champion of interreligious dialogue.

“It is a great gift to me that LMU values student research,” said Tiemeier. “Developing student research is an important part of my vocation as a teacher, and it also enriches my own development as a scholar.”