Those Who Feel Called to Priesthood
An Experience of Priesthood
by Fran Ferder, F.S.P.A., Ph.D.
New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry
Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 101-109 .
Published on our website with permission of the Women’s Ordination Conference
Fran Ferder, FSPA, authored Called to Break Bread?, a psychological investigation of 100 women who feel called to priesthood in the Catholic Church. She holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Loyola University, Chicago, and is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, LaCrosse, Wisconsin. She currently serves on the staff of the Quixote Center, Mt. Rainier, Maryland.
It had been a hectic trip … a snowstorm, delayed flights, irritable passengers, and no luggage when I finally arrived. This journey was fitting the pattern. After having been stranded in recent months by a flooded runway in Seattle, an airline strike in Kansas, and a car breakdown in the middle of Montana cattle country, I was beginning to wonder if God wanted women to be priests after all. It was my eleventh trip for the Women’s Ordination Study.(1) I thumbed through my purse for an Atka-selzer as I made my way to the “lost luggage” office to fill out the familiar forms.
Then — somewhere through the elbowing crowd, a voice called my name. It was a warm, friendly, vibrant voice. I looked up and recognized the woman I was coming to interview. She hugged me with an enthusiasm that hadn’t been dampened by her three hour wait at the airport for my late plane. Her unhurried manner was a striking contrast to the pinched faced people who rushed past us, inconvenienced and annoyed at the weather delays. Her primary concern seemed to be for me. Was I hungry? Tired? Feeling all right? She was typical, I thought, typical of the caliber of women I had been interviewing . . . other-centered, relaxed, easy to like.
In the brief hours that followed, we came to know each other better. When I left her, I felt changed.
I would like to reflect today on one interview, one experience of another person’s life. First because it symbolized so very well most of the other interviews. And second, because it symbolized an encounter with priesthood.
When I arrived on a late flight that stormy winter day of 1977, I was coming to perform a service, or so I thought. I had my tape recorder and my interview guide — trappings of a good psychologist. But I also had an attitude of impatience and a growing sense of weariness — trappings of the jet-age world of research from which I had come. In my fatigued busyness I was gradually getting caught up in a world that assigned tremendous importance to brief cases and airline schedules. As the months of the ordination study wore on, as the data piled higher, I found myself relating more and more to my typewriter and less and less to a sense of the sacred in the ministry that I was about… I was becoming an executive. And the church doesn’t need another executive.
The woman in this interview ministered to me. It is difficult to find words, many months later, to describe just exactly how she did it. But, as I questioned her, as I listened to her carefully reflected responses, as we interacted, I very gradually began to feel the old excitement for the sacred return to me.
The first characteristic of priesthood: AN EXCITEMENT FOR THE SACRED. This woman, this priest, had that. She talked openly of her prayer life, of her relationship to God, of her ministry. She talked of her pain and frustration in being denied a sacramental role in ministry. Like all of the others, like all of us, she had experienced moments of doubt about the church, about herself, about God. She didn’t hide this. She didn’t try to “look good.” As she relayed the experiences of joy and sadness that made up her life, I was struck by the fact that God seemed to be so very much a part of all of them. When I mentioned this to her, she said that she had slowly and painfully come to see God as central to all events in her life. She had made Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, the God of pilgrims, her God — a God who walked through her history with her. She didn’t have to use words to describe this faith, this experience of the sacred, in her own life. A few hours with her revealed it. We don’t often talk with each other like this — about our relationship to God. But it seems that when we do, something deep inside of us is stirred, renewed, wakened. Just as when Mary shared her experience of the sacred with Elizabeth, and something — someone — inside of Elizabeth quickened, so too, we do that for each other. Perhaps we, as women, can share more effectively than anyone else the experience of life, the sacred, moving inside of us. Perhaps we, as women, can call forth more effectively than anyone else an excitement for life that brings others back to the holy. That was my experience on so many occasions during the ordination study. I was called back to the holy, I came away from interviews often feeling like I had made a retreat. This ability to re-excite others about the gospel, to call them back to the sacred, to point to the holy in history, all this is priestly. It is of the deepest essence of priesthood. To be a priest is to remind people with our lives that the sacred is reachable, touchable. To be a priest is to give people an experience of the sacred when they are with us. This woman, this priest, gave that to me.
We continued to talk. She was so revealing about her own life— her fears, her hopes, her failures, her gifts. She was secure enough to reveal the good and the bad, the things about herself that enabled her ministry, and the things about herself that needed change and growth. In the very short time we were together, I had the feeling that I had known her for many years.
A second characteristic of priesthood: TO REVEAL. To allow others to get to know us, to let them in, invite them closer. When the first apostles caught a glimpse of Jesus, there was something about him that drew them. They wanted to get to know him better. They followed him. Jesus was quickly aware of their presence behind him. He turned. He had time for them. He wondered what they wanted. WHERE DO YOU LIVE? Theirs is the question all of us have of our priests, our ministers of the sacred. Where do they live? Where do we live? Where do we find our center? Where are we at home? What keeps us going? Where are we headed? With whom do we mingle? On what beliefs and on what values do we stake our lives? Jesus answered their question with an invitation: “COME AND SEE”.
To be a priest is to invite those who walk with us to come and see. To be a priest is to unmask our deepest selves, to avoid hiding behind rituals and lectionaries, to avoid keeping people at a distance. To be a priest is to turn around, to be at home enough with ourselves to invite others to come home with us … it is to be at home enough with the sacred to enable others to find the sacred in their own lives. To be a priest is to call other people not servants, but friends, because we have made known to them everything that we have learned from our creator. To be a priest is to be a revealer. This woman, this priest, was that for me.
We continued to talk. She told me of the beginnings of her call to priesthood. She was 12 years old and wanted to serve mass with her eight year old brother. She felt somewhat like an intruder in the kingdom as she lived out her childhood from her place in the pew, far back from the altar. She talked of high school stirrings to give homilies, to baptise babies, to celebrate eucharist. And finally, she articulated a sense of call that had matured and grown strong during her years in graduate school. It was a sense of call that had slowly become an adult awareness that God was asking something of her. The early childhood musings had become a clear, unmistakable call from God to be a priest.
A third characteristic of priesthood: A CLEAR, UNMISTAKABLE CALL FROM GOD. A deeply felt sense of invitation and a burning desire to respond with all her energy. To be a priest is to have childhood musings about ministry — to stand in the Temple at age twelve and begin to know that we must be about our creator’s business. It is to sense that we have a responsibility for the holy as we see the first water turned into wine. It is to grow more sure of our source as we experience ourselves binding up the wounds of the brokenhearted. To be a priest is to spend lonely nights on mountains, listening, staying in touch with the God who never stops calling. To be a priest is to know, at some point in life, as did Mary Magdalen, that we have to be involved in the banquet, even though we haven’t been invited. This woman, this priest, was sure of that. I was sure of it too, the more I talked with her.
As we talked further, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of her present ministry. It was somewhat confusing. What she felt most called to was denied her. She was frustrated, angry, sad about this. But she did not seem crippled by it. She was deeply involved in serving, in enabling others. She clearly loved what she was doing now. I wondered what she did with her anger. “I decided a long time ago,” she told me, “that I wasn’t going to sit back and feel sorry for myself because I couldn’t be a priest. I wasn’t going to give the present structure that kind of power over me. I wasn’t going to let it keep me from serving now.”
A fourth characteristic of priesthood: TO RISE ABOVE STRUCTURE-TO REFUSE TO BE BENT LOW UNDER THE WEIGHT OF TRADITION. To be a priest is to remember the crippled woman who was healed on the Sabbath — that woman who symbolized all women who had been “bent low,” crippled by the burden of old testament tradition; a tradition that kept women silent in the synagogue, out of the Temple, away from the altar. To be a priest is to take seriously the words of Jesus to the woman who was unable to straighten herself up:
“Woman, come here.
Woman, you are rid of your infirmity.”
She responded to him immediately. At once she straightened up and glorified God. To be a priest is to be able to stand upright even against the backdrop of a tradition that is oppressive. It is to keep on going. It is to stay excited about ministry now. It is to believe more strongly in the healing words of Jesus than in these structures that would keep us bent low.
This woman, this priest, was doing that. She believed in herself, in her call, and in the vision and the possibility of a new Sabbath healing, the kind of healing initiated by Jesus for women. The kind of healing that would stand against oppressive structures and stale traditions, the kind of healing that would once again call women forward.
This woman, like so many of the others, was making a painful choice. She had experienced rejection, ridicule, and the condescending smile that said: “you are a good person, but we don’t believe that you are capable of discerning a call to priesthood.” Or, phrased another way, “. . . some women feel that they have a vocation to the priesthood. Such an attraction, however noble and understandable, still does not suffice for a true vocation. In fact a vocation cannot be reduced to a mere personal attraction” (Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, no. 6). This woman was choosing to stay with the structure that hurt her, with a church who did not take her seriously, because she believed enough in its possibilities. As she talked of the church she both loved and hated, I could tell that she was choosing the church.
A fifth characteristic of priesthood: TO CHOOSE THE BETTER PART, Like Mary, the counterculture sister of Martha, she refused to be tied exclusively to a kitchen spirituality. She recognized her right to choose something else, something beyond tradition. And, like Mary, she knew that her choice would be affirmed. When Martha approached Jesus and begged him to ask her sister to return to the world of pots and pans, she was asking him to return her to the world of tradition, to the world assigned to women by the culture of their day. Jesus didn’t do it. The significance of his action was not so much that he affirmed Mary in the kind of choice she made, but that he affirmed the fact that she chose.
“Mary has chosen . . .”
Mary was a Jewish woman. Jewish women did not choose. Jewish women did not study the law. They were not allowed to be educated by the rabbis. It was a bold and daring move for Mary to presume to sit at the feet of a Rabbi and learn of the sacred. It was a bold and daring move for Jesus, the Rabbi, to allow this. Mary has chosen … in her, woman has chosen. In her, woman has been affirmed by God in her choice of the sacred. In her, woman has been assured that she has a right to choose to respond to her own sense of call.
To be a priest is to make choices for the sacred. It is to avoid the traps of culture and the imposed expectations of others. It is to cling tightly to a God-given freedom. To be a priest is to risk ridicule, to endure criticism, to make unpopular choices for the sake of the kingdom. It is to respond to our own inner sense of God’s invitation, to choose a direction for our lives, and to know, that in the choosing, God affirms us.
We talked further. She spoke of her attempts to educate the people in her area about women in ministry. She also talked of the priests with whom she worked. She had reflected often about her feelings toward them, these men who had what she wanted. “They’re good men, good pastors,” she said. “Sometimes they’re chauvinistic, but I usually tell them when they start getting to me. I have to keep reminding myself that they are part of the culture that has shaped all of us. They’ve been taught to view women as helpers of men rather than as partners with men.” She was trying hard to understand them. She was trying hard to understand herself in relationship to them. She was trying to see connections in the way that women and men alike have been influenced by a common heritage. She was trying desperately to avoid viewing these men in her environment, these flesh and blood examples of the clerical caste system, as the enemy. She was working with them, being honest with them, supporting them, and helping them learn how to support her. She was building bridges.
A sixth characteristic of priesthood, PONTIFEX … TO BE A BRIDGE BUILDER. To be a priest is to heal more wounds than we inflict, to win over more people than we alienate, to look hard for friends before naming enemies. It is to bring as many people as possible across the gulf to the other side. And it is to do this without compromising the sacred, without compromising our own truth.
The ordination of women is perhaps one of the most volatile issues facing the Catholic church today. It has proponents on either side who have strong feelings. It has potential to divide us, to inflict unhealable wounds, to alienate, to name enemies. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, it has potential to keep us from being bridge builders, from being priests on the inside.
Judy Collins recorded a song about bridge builders in 1975. The song is called Bread and Roses. One of the verses goes like this:
“As we go marching, marching,
we battle too for men, For they are women’s children,
and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated
from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies;
give us bread but give us roses.”
“As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men.” We are marching, and we are in battle. We have to bond together with one another as women, to support one another, and to move strongly ahead. But we need to keep in mind that we battle too for men. That we battle a culture which teaches little boys that to be strong is to be tough . . . that males don’t cry … that gentleness isn’t masculine . . . and that achievement must be pursued at all costs. We need to battle a church which often gives the impression that men must shoulder the burden of decision making alone . . . that sexuality can be ignored . . . that close involvement with the sacred is primarily a male responsibility.
The women in the ordination study, the women who would call themselves priests, are the kind of women who sense the urgency of building bridges, of creating bonds of understanding, especially with those who are unclear in their feelings about women priests.
A few people have expressed disappointment in the fact that the women in the ordination study did not appear to be more militant. Perhaps they are a different kind of militant . . . the kind of militant that counts it more productive to use hard dialogue, than actions symbolic of war.
It is difficult to know how to go marching. It is difficult to know who to march with. It is difficult to battle too for men. It is difficult to have to march for bread. It is difficult to know where to look for roses. Sometimes, at some point, militance, such as the kind the Episcopalians used, might be called for. But in making these critical decisions, it is good to keep before us the goal for which we march. And it is good to be faithful to that goal even as we march.
Our goal is not simply priesthood for ourselves. Our goal is not the inauguration of a female caste system alienated through unreflected militance from its male counterpart. Our goal is not to force our way into the pulpits of the world, only to find ourselves preaching to a congregation that will not hear us because we no longer remind them of the sacred. Our goal is a renewed priesthood in the Catholic Church. Our goal is women and men sharing this renewed and renewing priesthood together. Our goal is a priesthood that is true to its root meaning . . . PONTIFEX. .. BRIDGEBUILDER.
Our goal is a priesthood that doesn’t back away from militance, if militance becomes necessary, but it is a priesthood that doesn’t draw the sword impulsively. Our goal is a priesthood that isn’t afraid to storm the Temple, if storming the Temple becomes necessary, but it is a priesthood that remembers that Jesus only stormed the Temple once.
Jesus was a person of bridge building. His was a priesthood of reconciliation. We see him in the synagogue, strongly, yet gently unrolling the scroll and telling the people of his call: “I have been sent to proclaim liberty to captives, to set the downtrodden free . ..” We see him slipping away from the angry crowd because he sensed that their anger was out of control and that violence would not be productive at that time and in that place. We see him going to supper with enemy tax collectors, and visiting at the well with women from the opposition. We see him healing the ear of the high priests’ servant and hear him telling Peter to put away his sword. We hear him dialoguing with the rich young man, talking in secret to the fearful Zaccheus, and confronting the Pharisees and scribes. And finally, we see him led as a sheep to the slaughter, dumb before his shearers.
Telling, dialoguing, talking, confronting, sharing, eating with, going to … Jesus was a person of bridge building. His was a priesthood of reconciliation. Perhaps we sometimes shun bridge building because it is so very painful, more painful than militance. Jesus did not die because he went to war. He died because he tried to build bridges.
This woman, this priest, like so many of the others, had a sense of that reality. She was strong in her conviction that all of our efforts toward bringing about a renewed priesthood in the Roman church have to arise out of a context of gospel reflection and a commitment to building bridges. She had a sense that we must spend more time talking with than shouting at, more time dialoguing than demonstrating, more time confronting than attacking, and more time reflecting than fighting.
Who is she? Who are they, these women who would be priests? Perhaps they are, above all else, women who have already discovered a new priesthood because they have had to work so hard and reflect so intensely on its meaning. How do they do it? How do we do it? How do we live the characteristics of priesthood? How do we keep alive this essence of the holy in a world that would, sometimes, just as soon drive us from the city as ordain us? How do we image the sacred in a church that says that we don’t bear a natural resemblance to Christ? How do we reveal gospel truth in a church that doesn’t believe that we are capable of discerning the holy? How do we hear a clear, unmistakable call from God in a church that keeps telling us that God only calls men? How do we go beyond a tradition that often does bend us low, or rise above a structure that often does make us angry? How do we choose to be involved in the banquet with a church that cautions us not to get too close to the altar? How do we build bridges with the clergy, the hierarchy, the people, when often it seems that they don’t want to cross them anyway?
These are critical questions. They bring us face to face with reality. A reality that says that we are called but not sent, qualified but not recognized, priests on the inside but not on the outside. We can heal hearts but we can’t sacramentalize the moment. We can bake bread but we can’t consecrate it.
How do we live with all these contradictions? Why do we keep going, to the banquet? Some have become angry with God. They have stopped believing in the promised land. They no longer point the way to the holy. Some have withdrawn, left the church, pulled out of the structure. They’ve forgotten the vision. They no longer invite others to come and see. For some, the call isn’t as clear as it used to be. They have grown weary of waiting. They have stopped praying. They have nothing to say about the gospel. Some have been trapped by oppression. They have given in and given up. They have decided to live with whatever others will give them. They no longer want roses. Some have stopped choosing. They’ve given up “the better part” — the right to choose. They’ve gone back to the kitchen. And others, some of them, have stopped building bridges. They’ve grown bitter and cynical. They have become hardened by anger. They have lost sight of the goal. They’re still willing to take up the sword and they are still willing to storm the Temple. But, when they get inside, they won’t feel at home there, because they’ve lost touch with the sacred.
As we search for ways to make priesthood new, it is important that we look long and hard at priesthood itself — at what it means, at what it stands for, at what it serves. And as we struggle to live with an oppressive reality, it is important that we look long and hard at ourselves — at what our marching means, at what our battle stands for, and at how our marching and our battle will renew priesthood.
As we march for bread and go looking for roses, we need to keep alive, in our own lives, the essence of priesthood. We need to keep alive a priesthood that is close to the sacred; a priesthood that responds to a call; a priesthood that builds bridges; a priesthood which serves a God who heals, a God who calls the crippled parts of our lives to straighten up. And finally, we need to remember the crippled woman healed on the Sabbath, and to keep alive the hope that one day soon there will be a new Sabbath healing — the kind of healing that will call women forward, in the Temple, back to the altar, to Glorify God.
1. Ferder, Fran, FSPA, Ph.D., Called to Break Bread? (Mt. Rainier, MD: Quixote Center, 1978).
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