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Claire Daurelle

Claire Daurelle

This is an interview Claire gave in Paris in 1995 during a seminar on the topic ‘Dans les Églises, des Femmes aussi sont ministres’ (= ‘In the Churches, women too are ministers’), Actes du Séminaire, Femmes et Hommes en Église (68, rue de Babylone, 75007 Paris), 1996, pp. 48-52. Translated by John Wijngaards and published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the organisers of the seminar.

The Church should be open to women priests.

I come from Lyon. I have been a minister in the Catholic Church since 1978, which is therefore almost 20 years. I may say that I have been a minister even before I had the opportunity to reflect on the theology of the ministries.

After a period of serious doubts about my faith between the ages of 18 -28, I rediscovered my faith in the year 1973. Because I wanted to be a little ‘well informed about faith’ I had enrolled in the Institute of Pastoral and Religious studies at the Catholic faculty of Lyon, which at that time was totally dedicated to forming catechists. I had taken the precaution of asking the director of the Institute whether I could enrol in it without being absolutely sure of becoming a catechist, which was the way I felt; and he had replied to me positively.

I felt the need to reflect on what meant by saying, “I believe in the God of Christians”. I did two years of formation at the Institute. After these two years I searched for work. I am a teacher by profession. I did not find any job and after having been unemployed for six months, I had had enough. That is why I went to meet the bishop. I told him: “Well, I have done a religious, pastoral course. Do you have a job to offer to me?” I thought that he would send me simply to be a catechist in one or other corner of his diocese. To my great surprise I heard the following: “Well, I would like to appoint you as a chaplain to a secondary school”.

I had no idea at the time what that meant and I thus started my task in the chaplaincy of the high school without any clear idea what it was I had to do there. He had not given me any further information. On arrival, I discovered that I had been appointed jointly with a man who had come from the major seminary and who had been told to do some practical work before being ordained. I then discovered slowly what it meant to have a joint responsibility. It was terrible.

Sharing the work proved very hard because my partner had a different idea than I had, a fact I only understood a few months later. He was saying to himself: “I am a man. I have come from the seminary, therefore it is me who is responsible for the chaplaincy”. I, on the other hand, had in my head what the bishop had told me: “You are appointed to be in charge of the chaplaincy”. It did not go well. At times he made me do things by ‘ordering me’ to do them, by entrusting me with the responsibility ----, while I was the one who really had the top responsibility. I let it pass one or two times but the fourth time I did not take it any longer. I told him: “I don't agree. This will not do”.

That made me realise all of a sudden that I needed to reflect in a serious manner on the notion of responsibility in the Church. I decided therefore not to be taken for granted but to do my own duty well and to exercise my own responsibility in whatever task I had, without allowing myself to be put down. It is true. It is possible to lose one's dignity . . . I know quite a few women today in the Church who allow others to take their dignity, not because of the work but because of the responsibility, under the pretext that they have not been ordained.

Responsibility and chaplaincy

Because I was among the first women appointed to responsible posts in chaplaincies and high schools, I had the chance to take part in the National Committee of Chaplains in Public Education; a place where the question of lay ministries is reflected on in very serious and strong ways. For me personally it had become something terribly important to become conscious of the fact that the Catholic has needs, to rediscover a plurality in ministries, to understand that one could not any longer tolerate that every ministry is confiscated by the three ecclesiastical orders - the episcopacy, the priesthood and the diaconate, confiscated by men, by celibate men.

I began to understand that there should be room for other ministries, that we should make them happen even though it involved taking risks and being exposed to controversy. I have fought quite a lot for that idea, which has given me the opportunity to reflect more seriously about the theology of the ministries.

I worked as a chaplain until 1990 but starting from 1986 I began to say to my bishop: “The world of young people is very interesting and challenging. It is a place of incredible creativity, but I would not like to remain responsible for chaplaincies all my life”. That meant that I had already integrated in myself, without being fully conscious of it, that ministry was for my whole life. It is by asking the bishop: “And what could you offer me with regard to other jobs in the Church, in other places?” that I realised what that meant for me.

I heard him reply: “Why not work in a Parish?” Well, it seemed clear to me that as to a parish, well that was finished, it had no future, it was simply an environment where one would be bored - - I did not see what I was going to do there. But all the same I had immediately replied: “Yes”. I do not even know why. My bishop must have been as surprised as I was.

He appointed me as pastoral worker in a parish on the outskirts of Lyon, not the ones which we often hear talked about on TV, but in a popular quarter of the town with large residential tower blocks and a world of residents who are becoming poorer by the day, surrounded by parishes of middle class villages. We form an island in the middle of a middle-class ocean, which is difficult enough and interesting for the life of the parish.

Awareness of my priestly vocation

For three years I held the double responsibility of the chaplaincy and the parish, trying to maintain a presence in both locations, which was not all that simple. During the Summer which had preceded my arrival in the parish, the summer of 1987, a question appeared in me which was totally new and about which I had not strictly thought before: “Why can you not be a priest?” I tried at first to avoid this question. I thought that it was a useless question because there was no solution in the Catholic Church. But as the question grew on me, I wrote about it to my bishop and I asked him for ordination.

I received his answer by return post. I know it by heart. It ran as follows: “I know that you know what the Catholic Church says with regard to this question. I do not want to add to it, but I ask you to live it in faith”. I am trying to do so. I do as much as I can. And I can truly say that during the seven years from that moment until his death - - Mgr. Decourtray died last year - this bishop has truly given me pastoral support with regard to that question. He has never taken me for granted. Every time when I telephoned him in order to arrange a meeting, he agreed to it immediately. For him it was very important to give me pastoral support in this question. He never tried to extinguish it in me. He never told me: “Think about something else. Forget about it”.

In the Parish

I am therefore responsible for the parish since 1987. I received an official letter of commission for it, which I have always carried with me in case some people wanted to see it. I have also been officially commissioned during three celebrations on one weekend in the presence of the bishop who gave me the call. It was actually rather comical. We had to search for the liturgical gesture which he was going to make when entrusting the official commission to me.

I said to the Bishop: “I would prefer much that you would just impose your hands on me”. He replied, smiling: “That is precisely the gesture which I cannot make”. We have therefore tried to negotiate the gesture, which he could make. Finally the gesture agreed on, since I was being sent in this parish with two priests, was to receive from the hands of the bishop the Bible so that we together, the two priests and I, myself, could carry it to the four corners of the community and also to the outside of the Church, to signify that we were also charged with announcing the Gospel to those who were not present. We made this gesture on a weekend three times the one after the other, at each of the three Sunday masses of the parish. The bishop played along until the end, repeating the gesture himself three times.

One month after my arrival, one of the two priests fell ill with lung cancer. We accompanied him in his agony. The absence created by the illness of this priest caused me to arrive much quicker than I thought, as far as pastoral responsibility goes, in tasks which I had absolutely not foreseen. I was aware, of course, of the fact that there does not exist a statute, no exact description of what it means to be "in charge of a parish", as we find among certain ministries amongst the Orthodox. In fact, I did not want to be limited to specific roles.

When I had been responsible for the school chaplaincy during a long time, my task had been to look after the youth, for example. I refused, stating that I was quite ready to work in the world of youth on condition that the priests would also join in. And, inversely, I wanted to take part in all their pastoral tasks because I had to learn my profession.

The absence of the second priest made sure that very soon I was put in charge of very precise things, such as the pastoral care of funerals. Fifteen days after my arrival in the Parish I had to assume the looking after funerals. I had just come to lose my mother. I now found myself facing a man who had lost his wife at the age that my mother had been. In my own close approach to loss through death, I had experienced something important for giving pastoral support to this man and his children.

I can say with true honesty that I take my place absolutely everywhere. I do exactly the same that the parish priest does. We share the work, the tasks, in an absolutely equal fashion, except for the sacramental rites. I prepare couples for marriage, and for the baptism of a child. I celebrate with the priest, though it requires his presence. I do not know if we both respect our own charisms, but at the end of the day if one is given the task to make a Parish come to life, one has to put one's hand also to tasks which one would not be able to do so easily.

What about preaching?

During my official commission, I had negotiated a lot with regard to the homily. Bishop Decourtray first said “No”. But I fought with him: how could he appoint someone to carry responsibility in a place if he did not give that person the authority to speak in that place? It was not logical. Therefore it was with great surprise that I heard the Bishop say in the celebration of the commission: “I send you for the ministry of the Word”. He did not write it, but he said it in front of six to seven hundred people.

I therefore went to meet him afterwards in the sacristy and I put this question to him: “What does that mean?” He answered: “It means that I authorise you to preach”.

Over the past eight years I have preached regularly, when my turn comes, once every two weeks, and that is not nothing because it is an important place of visibility in the pastoral task. It is not always easy but I see it as a form of participation where my position as a woman is seen and heard.

With regard to my relations with the priest with whom I work, there has been a lot of development in eight years. The first years were rather demanding on my part. I kept saying: “Explain it to me. I do not understand how you function. I do not know what that means”. I was trying to understand and by acting being stupid all the time, I obliged him to share with me how he experienced things. Since he had been a priest for twenty-five years, he was used to pastoral work. I challenged him non-stop about his functioning with questions, perhaps completely naïve and stupid questions but for which I needed answers in order to be ready for my own ministry. I believe that this rather trying period allowed a great truth to grow between us. We have now truly arrived at a stage where we truly share everything in truth, even those things in which we do not agree. People recognise it: “One feels how much the two of you are united in the pastoral task”.

We really take all our decisions together in our team of pastoral animation. The fact that a woman has this pastoral responsibility has challenged many lay people to take on responsibilities in the parish.

Before, we only had priests, and I would almost say a surplus of them. In the Parish where I am now, at one time there were four full-time priests… At present, we are just two of us: a priest and a woman, both full time and the task is the same. At that time there was a surplus of priests; in today's Church the reverse is true. One can only hope that that will challenge lay people to take more responsibilities of which they are capable!

To love my ministry to the end

Lay people can take their own place in all places in preparation for the sacraments. The fact that I had been nominated pastoral worker, together with two priests, acted as a real challenge, a stimulus for many to commit themselves also.

Ever since my experience as a school chaplain, I had taken the decision to go to the end in my apostolate. I feel the call in myself to be a priest and yet I do not know if I ever shall be one. Perhaps, we should be visionaries and still dream of seeing it in our own life time. But, for myself I AM already a priest. Even if ordination will never happen, I am telling myself: ‘Why should it matter?!’

What I want is to live my ministry faithfully, as far as I can carry it forward. This is a permanent struggle, first against myself. At certain moments the thought comes up in me: “Enough is enough. It’s time to look after my own flower garden!” It is also a struggle against a community so full of prejudice. It’s a struggle against believers with little background information who prefer the traditional role modes. It’s a struggle against the priests with whom I work and against a suffocating ecclesiastical structure.

It seems to me that every location in the Church has the right to ministerial service and that it is not right, as one does nowadays, to lump parishes together or to entrust 15 to 20 parishes to one overworked and ofyten aging male priest, whereas so many men and women, celibate or married, are capable of blowing life into these communities because they have receive the formation for it.

Church leaders should acknowledge that the ministries can be exercised in another way and accept that each community has the right to its own minister. Sure, that requires competence in the minister, skills, formation, the feel for pastoral work, but it also requires recognition by the institution. You cannot appoint yourself a minister or a pastoral worker. One needs the link with the diocesan and universal Church.

I talked just now of homelies. The response of a young woman may be interesting. “When I heard you preach”, she told me, “it dawned on me for the first time that I too can preach the Gospel.” That encouraged me because it is important that women too should dare proclaim God in their own way.

Someone asked me recently to talk about a topic that annoys me: about ‘Mother Church’. I hate calling the Church ‘mother’. I can no longer swallow it. It is an effective way to put women off. The Church is the place where we all meet as brothers and sisters. We have to re-learn how to live being Church. My experience during the past 8 years makes me live the Church in a new way. For me, priests are not first and foremost priests, but my brothers in Christ. I notice how it is not only myself who lives the new reality. Many men and women in my parish who formerly addressed the priest as ‘Father’ now simply call him by his first name.

And now about my joys and hopes. My greatest joy is to speak about God with people of all ages: children, youngsters, adults, grandfathers and grandmothers. Speaking about a God who creates life, a God who breathes love, a liberating God.

My greatest hope is that the Church will have a future, not an artificial future laid down by so-and-so; certainly not a stifling future, an imprisonment in Tradition; rather an open future with the Holy Spirit leading us onto new paths . . . .

Claire Daurelle 30 September 1995

Claire Daurelle died in November 1999. Read the tribute in La Croix.

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story
Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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