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Denise Donato her vocation story

Denise Donato

"My vocation has been a struggle."If you asked me when I first experienced God calling me to ordained ministry I would probably say: Oct. 1, 1987 (at least that is when I first began to name it). At that time I was involved in the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It was the first day of the second week in this 30 week retreat. The scripture passage I was praying on was Exodus 3, Moses and the burning bush. This was a very familiar passage to me, in fact it is a scripture image which had often spoken to me, but this is the first time I could name it in the way that I did. In journaling about my prayer experience on 10/1/87 I wrote:

I feel the Lord’s call, a much deeper call than I could ever have imagined, but I cannot determine to what God is calling me. It is as if the Lord is preparing me for something. If I was male and single there would be no question in my mind that I am being called to the priesthood, but I am neither so that could not be the case. (P.J.= Prayer Journal)

This last sentence was to become a very familiar line in my prayer journal.

It is difficult for me to explain how I experienced this call on Oct. 1, 1987. I did not hear God’s voice (at least not on this particular day). It was more of a strong felt sense of calling - not felt sense in terms of emotions, but a bodily sense at the core of my being, a very deep sense of God calling me to something more. It was in fact this same feeling which had originally brought me to the 19th annotation.

For quite some time I had felt a very deep yearning to get closer to Christ in my life. I went on women’s retreats, had Bible studies in my home and had been to Life in the Spirit Seminars, Spiritual Gifts Workshops, and anything else my church was offering, but nothing seemed to be satisfying this yearning. I remember being aware that this yearning was not only coming from me, I knew that God was somehow calling this forth from me. However, there was also a great deal of fear associated with this yearning. For quite some time I had been concerned that if Phil and I did not both grow spiritually, this may in fact drive a big wedge between us. So I spent the first 9 years of our marriage dragging Phil to any program, Bible study or church function I possibly could. My fear of causing a rift in my marriage was such that if he was not willing to go, I felt I should not go either. I reached a point however, where I finally realized that Phil was not experiencing the same thing I was, and I knew that I could no longer not follow the yearning I was experiencing. In fact by doing so I was sacrificing a big part of my very self. Despite the fear, and no matter the cost, I needed to follow God’s lead. This was such a profound decision for me that I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I came to this realization. It was less than a week later when I heard about the Ignatian retreat, and I knew immediately that this was something I needed to do.

The struggle

While there was something familiar about my prayer experience of 10/1/87, it brought a great deal of confusion and fear as well. Despite the fact that there are aspects of my call experience which were gradual, William H. Myers -- in his book God’s Yes Was Louder Than My No -- would classify my call story as a Type A call (cataclysmic/reluctant). Reluctant is an understatement. At first this reluctance was best described as a strong feeling of unworthiness. It is significant that I read through verse 11 of Exodus 3. (This was in error, as the prayer experience was supposed to be verses 4 -10.) Verse 11 is where Moses questions God and says “I am nobody.” This was immediately what I honed in on. My unworthiness was best expressed within a feeling that I was somehow fabricating this experience, or at least reading the signals all wrong. Who do I think I am anyway? Am I that full of myself that I would create such a scenario? As the retreat progressed I became more and more aware of my sinful nature, and then even questioned if this prayer experience wasn’t somehow a manifestation of my sinfulness, a sign of vanity and arrogance.

Myers would classify this as a state of liminality, and he believes this is a frequent reaction to a call experience, at least in those call experiences which also include reluctance. He describes the liminal phase as “a period of ambiguity, confusion, doubt, fear, and perhaps internal and external resistance... it is a very unstable period of time for the callee” (1994, 123). Liminality is a common element of Stage 3: the Struggle. This is a struggle with accepting the call. This stage can include resistance to the call, internal or external conflict, and/or crisis.

While the struggle is a stage which I have often been in with my call, I initially experienced this as a period of confusion and unworthiness, but fear was not far behind. What will this require of me? Will others understand? What more will God ask of me? Will I lose myself in the process? The imagery of Exodus 3 provides insight into my biggest fear, a fear which is still at times present for me. If I draw too close to God will I be consumed in the fire of the burning bush, and lose my sense of my self? While I know this is not who our loving God is, at times there is an intensity there which can be described no other way.

My earliest call

Myers actually sees the “call story” as beginning years before the “call experience”, in the Early Religious Experiences of the individual. I was brought up in an Italian Catholic family. My mother brought us to church faithfully every Sunday, and confession every Saturday. My father was a twice a year Catholic- at least until we changed churches when I was a teenager.

This early religious experience was very important for me, as I have come to realize my call to ordained ministry really began several years ago. I recall being a young girl and desiring so strongly to be able to be an “altar boy”. I had no other word for it, all I knew was that I wanted to be closer to the altar table, and thought that then I’d be closer to God too. Week after week I watched the altar boys and wished. Then my chance came to find out if this was possible. Fr. Kelly was coming into our religion class. Now mind you, I was a very shy little girl, and I was terrified of Fr. Kelly. He was an elderly man with a very big voice. In fact you could hear his voice echo through the whole church from the confessional every Saturday. I don’t remember why he came in to talk with our class, but I knew that if I did not ask him then, I may never have a chance again. As he was leaving I quickly raised my hand and said “Fr. Kelly, can I be an altar boy.” His answer of course was “No. Only boys can be altar boys.” Still drawing on every kernel of courage I could muster, and trying not to cry, I asked him why. His words, “Because Jesus was a boy" really stung, but I managed to hold the tears until 1 was on the bus on the way home.

Several years later when I was a teenager, a new parish was starting in Fairport, and my family was one of the first to join. Fr. Kreckle had a very refreshing outlook, and he encouraged me and other teens in the church to attend “Seminar” a retreat for high school teens. I came back from this retreat with a very strong sense of my faith, and a new, more personal relationship with Christ. Before you knew it I was attending “Reality” (a weekly fellowship group for teens) and even was getting up at 6:30 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday mornings to go to mass in the basement of the rectory. Despite the fact that I was the only teenager (and sometimes the only female) in this small intimate group of 6- 10 people, I really enjoyed this mass, and felt it was a great way to start my day.

I couldn’t understand why the teenage boys around me were not talking about going into the priesthood. I felt envious that this was an option for them, and angry that this was not an option for me. I thought they were crazy not to be considering this. Of course I didn’t realize that they were not called to this and I was, I only knew that this was not fair! I recall having a conversation with one of the boys about this, and he said to me “Well you can be a nun”. While I answered him simply, but emphatically, “I don’t want to be a nun!” I now realize that on some level I had a felt sense that this was not my “calling”. Later when I met my husband I knew that I was not called to be celibate, so I chalked all of this up to some kind of ‘fascination’ and went on with my life. Mind you I grew up in a very traditional Italian family. There was no support in this family for forging new trails, or even being in touch with any part of my self that strayed from the traditional female life course of wife and mother.

Seeking affirmation

Another common aspect of the call experience is referred to as the Search. During this stage, the callee is looking for “understanding and a sympathetic ear” (1994, 47). It is also a searching for Sanctioning (i.e. external validation of the call experience). Through the years, I have often experienced a tension between this searching and a real reluctance to share my call, and I have gone through periods of time in each camp. I think there are several reasons for my reluctance, including my own doubting of the call, feelings of unworthiness, and lack of self confidence. Most significant however is the fact that this call touches something so very deep within my soul, that sharing it leaves me feeling so exposed and vulnerable. More recently I have also gotten in touch with another aspect of this tension. This has been a feeling of not knowing which is worse, believing in this call and living with the pain of then realizing that it will possibly never be formally validated within my church, or having it validated and living with the fear of where this call may lead me. A tension between the pain and the fear. I’m not sure if the pain of leaving or the pain of staying is greater.

My first experience of searching for a sense of validation and understanding involved sharing my prayer experience of 10/1/87 with my spiritual director the next week. I spoke about this prayer experience, my strong sense of feeling called, and my confusion about what it meant. Several times during this session I said that God could not possibly be calling me to the Priesthood, because I am not male and I am not single. She listened to me go on and on, and (probably in a desire to satisfy some of my confusion) she said that by virtue of our baptism we are all called to be priests, with a small “p”, and that maybe it was in this sense, rather than the formal priesthood, to which God was calling me. While this gave me some sense of satisfaction, and relief, it was not long before my questioning returned, again as a result of prayer.

Being reassured

In my journal entry of 10/21/87 I wrote about my frustration that this call is not clear, and I expressed a desire for God to make this call as clear for me as the call that Moses received (of course I’m assuming that Moses found clarity in his call-which is highly questionable!) I also wrote:

Lord I have no degrees, no titles, no collar herein I find again this feeling of being called to the priesthood, and my answers came: “right now you do not need to worry about a title, degree or collar to do my will.” (P.J.)

In this prayer experience my answer from God came in the form of a voice deep within me. Myers would refer to this as The Reassurance. This is a common element in the call stories of the prophets. He sees this as God providing some assurance to the callee to help alleviate some of the fear or confusion. Throughout the retreat I was to have several instances of experiencing a very deep sense of calling. On 2/8/87 I wrote:

I still have a vision of priesthood someday, in what way I’m still unclear, but the vision has not left me and it was revealed again today. It is very clear, except that it is impossible and this becomes confusing and frustrating. One thing I do know is that my time has not yet come to understand this call more clearly. (P.J.)

Throughout the retreat there were similar moments of clarity intermixed with a great deal of confusion.

This in fact has continued to unfold over the years, and I have cycled through periods of new aspects to my call experience, struggle, and searching. I have had several dreams of consecrating Eucharist, and I have received some strong validation from others. I recall that in the year or two following my 19th annotation retreat, I had a spiritual director who was very validating of my call. At one point when I was again questioning this call he said to me “Denise I’m not sure how many more ways God can say yes to you!” I believe that part of the reason for my continuing to cycle through these stages of call, is the fact that the path to my call is blocked. I feel that this interferes with the sixth stage in Myer’s understanding of the call story. This is the stage of surrender. He says that surrender usually brings an end to the struggle and search. This usually involves the beginning of a new lifestyle, as well as a different understanding for the callee. I would contend that surrender is not fully possible when the path to the call is blocked. In many ways I have spent years questioning and denying my call solely on the basis of gender. My journal entry of 2/20/97 reads:

“I have denied my call to ordained ministry for so long that I continually questioned my motivations and at times assumed there was something disordered in me that I was making this presumption.” (P.J.)

Housecleaning

Within my call experiences through the 19th annotation, there continued to be a recurring theme of God preparing me for this call. On some level I had a sense that this was more of a time of preparation than anything else. “I really feel as though I’m being called to do some ‘housecleaning’ in my own life before I’m called further.”(P.J.) When I made this statement on 2/8/87, I had no idea what this meant, or how gut-wrenching this “housecleaning” would be. Had I known, I may have gone running in the opposite direction. (I must admit that this is said tongue in cheek, because I am not really sure that I could have delayed this even if I had desired to.) Soon I found myself in the midst of re-evaluating my life and my relationships. It was really a journey of discovering who I was as a person. This process was difficult and painful, not only for myself, but also for those I was in relationship with, most especially my husband and my parents. I can now recognize how essential all of this was, as this was a tremendous period of growth. I am a much healthier person today because of it, and my marriage has grown in ways which would not have been otherwise possible.

In the midst of this “housecleaning’’, I became aware of some significant aspects of my original call to the priesthood. This included a call to minister to the emotional and spiritual needs of others, a call to leadership and a call to celebrating Eucharist. I also became aware of a deep desire to return to school. I thought frequently of getting an M. Div., but I questioned how much ministry I would really be able to get involved in as a woman in the Catholic Church. I decided instead to go for an MSW degree. I felt in this way I could at least begin ministering to the emotional needs of others. Myers would possibly see this as an attempt to resist the call by replacing it with another vocation. I really felt that I did not have much choice given that my call to ordination was blocked by the institutional hierarchy of my church. I also must admit that even in 1990, when I first entered Nazareth for my BSW degree, I already knew that I would be pursuing the M. Div. degree at a later date.

Pastoral ministry

Following school I worked 3-1/2 yrs as a Clinical Social Worker in a Community Mental Health Center. While I enjoyed this work, and still do enjoy doing therapy, my desire to be in ministry led to a growing dissatisfaction with my job. When the position of family minister opened up at Corpus Christi, I really felt that this was meant to be my next step in the journey of following my call. I was not alone in this feeling, in fact many people (most of whom had no idea that I feel called to priesthood) said to me that they felt this job was created just for me. In fact one member of the hiring committee came to me, before I even mentioned an interest in the position, and said that he felt I would be perfect for the job. I must admit that there is a feeling of “coming home’’ in my work at Corpus Christi. I know that this is exactly where I am supposed to be at this time. Through this position I now feel I am also ministering to the spiritual needs of others. I also feel some aspects of my call to leadership are fulfilled in this position.

This past year when I made the decision to return to SBI and actually matriculate into the M. Div. program, I expected to feel excitement and anticipation as I was fmally following God’s call for me. What I found instead was a variety of mixed emotions. As I spent some time in prayer with this what I discovered was an overwhelming fear of where all of this will lead me. I finally came to a fuller realization of why I had gone for the MSW degree first instead of the M.Div. I was not sure if I would be able to live with an M.Div. (the degree which would be recognized for ordination in any other denomination) and remain in a church which would not recognize my call to ordained ministry. This continues to be a tension for me now. Through the years when I have spoken about my call to others, a frequent response was “Why do you remain in the Catholic Church?” Up to this point my response has been that I am not feeling called outside of the church. This has become even more pronounced for me in the wake of the responses I received to my questionnaire. At times I have been torn between a strong desire for God to call me to another denomination, juxtaposed with a strong fear that God may in fact do just that- will I be willing to leave?!

This semester, as I began to prepare for this class, I knew that the Lord was going to use this time to help me continue to discern my call to ordained ministry. It is in fact very interesting to note that in January we had an all day staff meeting at Corpus Christi. We opened the day with a “state of the heart.” This is where we speak to what is going on for each of us personally. I remember that day speaking about a deep feeling that something was going on for me spiritually. While I could not identify what this was I said that this feeling is a familiar one to me, and somehow I felt as if the internal work of my Self Discernment in Ministry class was starting early. My journal entry of 2/2/97 confirms this. It reads “I am again in the presence of the burning bush and I’m torn between attraction and fear- uncertainty and self doubt.”(P.J.) This is evidence of the fact that in many aspects of my call I continue to be in the liminal state.

Surrender to my vocation

Through the years I have continually struggled with thoughts such as “Who do I think I am?” and “I must be mistaken because, I am not worthy of this call.” I have also had periods of being so painfully aware of my flaws that I could not imagine God having any intention of this call. As the semester continued however, one thing that became more clear to me through my prayer and discernment is that I need to more fully embrace my call. I found however that I was not as prepared as I thought I was, for the depth of the pain that would be associated with doing this. I have now come to realize that while my denial of my call, and questioning its authenticity has held a great deal of pain, this pain could not compare with the pain of finally realizing that: Yes - God is calling me to priesthood, but this is not possible in my church. In the midst of this semester I had the experience of seeing Christ handing me a gift. It was beautiful wrapped with a great big bow on the top of it. As I prepared to open it however, I had this profound feeling of sadness. I realized that the gift is my call to the priesthood, and that as long as I remain in this church “I can never unwrap it - I can’t unpack it - I can’t check out its nuances, its uniqueness, I can’t see how it fits or how it looks on me.” As I wrote this in my journal the tears were streaming down my cheeks, the sadness was overwhelming for me. I have realized that up to this point, my denial of my call, my questioning myself and my motives, my never being sure I was interpreting this call right- all of this protected me from this pain of acknowledging it will never be fulfilled.

At this point in time my discernment of this call continues to unfold. I must admit that my strong desire to celebrate Eucharist, has now broadened to a strong desire to share all of the sacraments with others. Of late, I have found in myself a curiosity to speak with women of other faith backgrounds, and a desire to be in the presence of a woman consecrating the Eucharist- possibly in an Episcopal Church. While I say that, I am also aware of a strong hesitancy in this regard. A friend gave me two names of female Episcopal Priests 2 months ago, and I have yet to call them. While I know the pain of not being ordained will be great, the pain of having to leave the Catholic Church to do so will be equally great. I will however try to remain open to God’s unfolding of this call in my life.

Denise Donato, May 8, 1997

Webmaster's note.
On February 22 2003, Denise was ordained priest for the Spiritus Christi Community in Rochester N.Y. USA, by Bishop Peter Hickman. Peter Hickman is a bishop of the Old Catholic church, a branch of the church that ceased its affiliation with the Pope after the declaration of papal infallibility in the 19th century.

Read also Denise’s letter to her bishop

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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