Childhood reveals characteristics about ourselves before we realize what they are. This is certainly true in my baptismal call and in the call I sense to priestly ministry. I was born in 1970 in California to my two parents who were both English teachers by profession and both sincere Catholics. Theirs is an honest and traditional faith, and they raised their four children in a parish of equally devout faith and traditional religious expression.
Events in my early life indicated my natural predisposition to God and the church. My siblings organized "pretend Masses" at which my younger brother would "preside" and I would perpetually serve as lector, the only "acceptable" role for me to play.
My birthday fell in May and my sister's followed a month later. As a child I would use my birthday money to buy a present for my sister, even though I was encouraged to use the money for myself. I couldn't imagine keeping my gifts only for myself if someone could use them as much as I.
During my gradeschool years, both of my brothers were altar servers, a role my childhood heart longed for, but could never have, as girls were not permitted to serve as acolytes in my parish at the time. Our parents sat us in the first row, and I spent Sunday morning after Sunday morning gazing into the sacristy from the pew, wondering what was behind the half-open door. I was equally intrigued with the liturgy that unfolded week after week before my eyes. I had as rich a prayer life as perhaps any child could have. I prayed "inside myself" to a paradoxically loving and yet fearsome God.
In the eighth grade at our parish school, I was elected to the student government role of taking care of "religious affairs," mostly helping to set up for school-wide Mass. It was a natural role for me, even though I was teased by some of my peers and voted upon graduation "most likely to become a nun." That same year, our class was confirmed, and I was thrilled to have as much ownership in the sacrament as I could, though I was in no way ready for the challenge that a life committed to Christ would bring.
God blesses the teenage years, however, with the doubt - or challenge - necessary to turn childhood faith into mature faith. From the choir loft where I sang in the choir as a child, I remember thinking that being in the choir and serving as lector were the only way I could ever help lead the liturgy. Anger and disillusionment at the church for its (our) exclusion of women filled my heart, but only now as an adult do I realize that God was calling me even then to pursue a path that would ultimately allow me to preside and preach at Mass. I was angry at God most acutely for creating me a women, and I cried often by myself about this.
By the time I was in the full swing of high school, I was a committed secular humanist, having given up on prayer, the importance of the church, and hope in an afterlife. But I still searched and questioned everything that might make meaning out of the void in my heart. As a sophomore I expressed an interest in studying philosophy in college, but I heeded others advice to study something more practical for a woman and chose education, a decision I have never regretted. Through courses in educational theory and social sciences, I was learning practical skills that would later be of great use in my pastoral ministry.
Throughout my four years of college, I approached the concept of God timidly, hoping to avoid the pain of seeing women excluded from the sacrament of orders, and, honestly, the challenge of growing into a more loving and just person. Yet all the while, deep inside I hoped for God, praying in time to an unknown God.
While in college, the Berlin Wall fell, and that night as tears streamed down my cheeks watching Germans chip and hack the Wall away, I decided to live for a year in my ancestral Poland after graduation to get to know my relatives and to be of service, at least in some small way, by teaching English.
While living in post-Communist Poland with a relative, I was open to religion only as a cultural expression. The well of living water that should bubble forth in every Christian was bone dry. I was Catholic externally, culturally, but inside I was empty, and progressively emptier, as I realized that no one had ever inquired about my faith, my prayer life, my role in the church. I was accountable to no one.
Upon returning to the US in 1993, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Polish history and serve the academic community.
I don't know what compelled me to walk into the offices of a nearby parish or what moved me to initiate a conversation with the pastor, but some force greater than me led me to a vibrant parish community, one that worshiped together, socialized together, served the needy together, studied scripture together, and prayed together. I became a regular at parish events and made up for many long years by praying, learning, studying, going on retreats, and getting to know others and their faith journeys.
My second catechist was Polish history itself. The martyrs and saints of Poland - both famous and those unnamed - witnessed their faith in God to me through the books, articles, poems, and biographies I hungrily and wholeheartedly devoured while working on my degree. By winter at a Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, during the thanksgiving, I surrendered myself to God through Jesus Christ for the rest of my life. Only now do I realize that I first needed to make a commitment to my baptismal call before the Holy Spirit could proceed with my formation for ministry.
In the spring I wrote that if women could be priests I would have some serious thinking to do, I wrote in my journal. I would like to serve as a leader in the church, I concluded for the time being. I was 24.
The euphoria of the fall of Communism had moderately subsided, and the need for East/Central European history faculty was not what I had hoped. By an eleventh hour act of the Holy Spirit, I defended my thesis and signed a contract at a Catholic high school in the same week, the week before classes began.
The teaching of American history came, intellectually, rather easy, but it was the courses on sacraments, scripture, and social justice that intrigued every part of me. I came to realize that parish ministry was where the Holy Spirit was next leading me. Within two years, I became the director of catechesis at a small parish. It was through this ministry that I heard God calling me to life-time ministry in the church. I was accepted as a theology student at the local seminary and began much-needed courses and formation part-time while throwing myself into my catechetical ministry full-time.
In the first two years, however, I was plagued with confusion over my identity. On one hand, I appreciated my single (celibate) lifestyle, and on the other hand I felt I would like to marry. On one hand, I had the schedule of anyone in priestly ministry (with retreats and youth events on Friday nights or Saturdays), and on the other hand I was told that lay employees of the church are essentially 9 to 5 workers, with less of a commitment to the church than priests. On one hand I was studying theology just as my male peers preparing for priesthood were, yet I could not present myself as a candidate for the priestly formation program. These difficulties I brought time and time before God who, I believe, is the source and animator behind my call to sacramental service in the church.
God seems to operate independently of our own concept of time, yet within it. During the course of a year, I began to have encounters with various people in the community who affirmed - one by one, as though orchestrated - my call to priestly ministry. I was at a parishioners house discussing catechesis for her son, and she stated openly, you are someone I wish I could hear give a homily. Internally I was stunned and didn't realize God could be so blunt. Teenagers asked me, Frances, why can't you hear my confession and Frances, why can't you say Mass for us?
On a service program with teenagers, I ate lunch with a priest who served as a chaperone for the trip and who only just met me. During the meal he said, I think you will be taking my place one day. Are you preparing for preaching faculties? Near that time I bumped into a fellow theology student at a grocery store. She said, Frances, I cannot imagine you not ordained. It is who you are, and everyone sees you in that role.
Not everyone, of course, could. Although I was as private about my call as I could be, when people brought up the subject with sincerity, I shared with them simply my experience, a profound call to be a conduit of God's love and forgiveness and healing and grace - a conduit of God's presence - sacramentally. Although some I have encountered have sought to dishearten or dissuade me, I avoid polemics and arguments.
Even I at times, however, have wanted to escape the burden of this clear yet covert call. I bury myself in the folk culture of Poland, an early hobby of mine. Even in these circumstances, God has sought me out - to listen to a divorcee during a Polish ball, to lead various Polish groups in prayer, to lend a listening ear and reassurance to an elderly Polish American.
This was not the only situation in which I learned that my call was too strong to deny. While serving at a mental health facility for a semester through the Seminary, I encountered the most severe spiritual hunger I had ever seen. Abuse, poverty, crime, and addiction mingled with mental illness to produce a debilitating hold on the spirits of so many ordinary and good people.
Many wanted me to pray with them or simply listen to them. They wanted to be given hope through the scriptures and the sacraments, and I was told once by a patient that if she couldn't go to confession to me as a woman (because of previous abuse by a man), she would give up on the church. I felt so strongly that God was using me as a channel of grace and love and forgiveness, but that I could do more - precisely by being more - sacramentally.
I began to develop more intentionally a sacramentality to my ministry and my life. I began to read as much as time would allow on priesthood, the role of the bishop, the history of ministry in the church, and the theology of women in ministry. My prayer life deepened, especially prayer on behalf of the people of God, and the liturgy of the hours and daily scripture reading have connected me more closely with the tradition and universality of the Body of Christ. I take every opportunity - in the car or waiting in line, for example - for informal theological reflection and for the day-to-day dialogue with God that's essential for the Christian. At liturgy I pray that I can proclaim with my life the gospel I'm not allowed to proclaim at liturgy...and that some day I may.
Over the years I have shared my story of how I have heard the voice of God calling me to serve the church as a priest with those who ask to hear it. Most have been supportive. I have no platform or polemic to push, nor do I harbor any resentment or ill will toward church leaders on whose shoulders the earthly decision of women's ordination falls. I have only the experiences I have lived through, the call I have heard echoed in the silence of my heart and through others voices to serve as a priest.
Frances Scott, USA
|Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?|
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