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Living Mystery, a Roman Catholic perspective

Living a mystery: a Roman Catholic perspective

by Jackie Hawkins

from Crossing the boundary - what will women priests mean?, ed. Sue Walrond Skinner, Mowbray, 1994, pp.132-148.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

When the idea of priesthood first came into my mind fourteen years ago, putting it into speech felt like mouthing an obscenity. I remember walking with a Jesuit friend for a whole afternoon in the hills round St Beuno’s in North Wales trying to make this simple statement to him. He had been my retreat director a few weeks before and was shortly to return to Africa. I never did manage it. It still isn’t easy. This extreme sense of taboo may seem extraordinary today but although the debate about women priests was well under way in the Church of England at that time, it was not being aired in the public arena and I did not have any ecumenical experience to make me aware of it. My own faith had only recently started to stir into something like adult maturity and I was not much involved in any ‘thinking’ church groups or networks. The word ‘feminism’ had yet to enter my vocabulary, let alone my consciousness!

Why did this idea come to me in a Church where the idea of priesthood and, indeed, all formal leadership, authority, power, responsibility and decision-making has the narrowest of models— that of the ordained, celibate male? How could I as a Roman Catholic laywoman belong in the Church as a priest? For many years I was living a mystery. These many years later I can articulate an explanation. As a woman and as a priest I did not belong in that Church but in a future one, the Church conceived in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council but as yet unrealized. Largely unacknowledged in this country, but evolving at an ever-increasing pace, there is a dynamic, reformed and renewed Roman Catholic Church in which ordained ministry will be open to me, or women like me, on the same terms as men. This will be a reformed priesthood, which I prefer to call ordained ministry, which will be part of such wide-ranging reform that the Church as it was in the 1960s and before the Council will be unrecognizable.

My experience is that the problem of clericalism in Christian leadership is widely acknowledged across the mainstream denominations, although it is perhaps most obvious in the Roman Catholic Church where it is being forced to a visible crisis, largely because of mandatory celibacy and all that that is now seen to stand for. But it is a general challenge, and I therefore write my comments on the assumption that ordained Christian leadership remains in need of radical reform in all the mainstream Churches despite the welcome new presence of women priests in the Church of England.

The new presence of women priests in our sister Church is not in fact the challenge to the Roman Catholic Church that many people suppose it is, despite rumblings from Rome. For many Roman Catholics who have given serious consideration to the ordination of women it is a matter that is taken for granted as proper to the full theological understanding of women’s role in the Christian Church, as well as being a serious matter of justice. The real challenge comes from within, rooted in the theology of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar developments which have followed. At the Council, the understanding that the presence and action of the Holy Spirit is present throughout the whole people of God through baptism was rediscovered and restated, and this, as it is being experienced as the truth, is undermining the traditional clerical power-base of the Roman Catholic Church. The shift is not towards the empowerment of women as priests, but to the proper empowerment of all baptized believers among whom ordained leaders, both men and women, will serve, exercising an appropriate, not monopolistic, authority.

I would also like to dispel the common misconception that religious sisters are frustrated priests, having settled for the nearest substitute to priesthood. Nor are they comfortable with the superior spirituality so often attributed to them by lay people. Roman Catholic religious sisters are in fact lay people. Some religious sisters do feel that priesthood as well as community life is their calling. Most do not. Some are denied the exercise of their Order’s charism by our monopolistic clerical powers. Dominican sisters, for example, members of the Order of Preachers, may not preach in the ordinary course of the Catholic Church’s worship; only the ordained may preach the homily immediately after the gospel. This practice is sometimes set aside, but only a minority of Catholics in this country have ever seen a woman preach at Mass. (Ironically, this includes the priests-in-formation in at least one major seminary in England where the few full-time women staff members are encouraged to preach at Mass.(Ironically, this includes the priests-in-formation in at least one major seminary in England where the few full-time women staff memberes are encouraged to preach at Mass. When priests, these same men are bound to ensure that women do not preach at their Masses.) Vocationally, lay women are in much the same position. Increasing numbers want to exercise full responsible Christian adulthood but only a few feel called to be an ordained minister. None that I know wish to be ordained into the present system. Instead they spend their time and commitment on helping others to come to an understanding of their baptismal mission, their priority being a reformed Catholic Church rather than their own vocation. However, a number of younger Roman Catholic women have, I understand, chosen to train for Anglican orders.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church in this country owes a great deal to the Church of England for bringing the issue of women’s ordination firmly into our consciousness with the thorough and high-quality debate offered in the public media in the past few years, and through the presence of ordained women as deacons and now priests in our local communities and ecumenical experiences. It has also progressed considerably the Roman Catholic debate on ministry by provoking discussion in which different parties within the Church have come to realize their common ground.

If part of the purpose of this book is to look at the difference that ordained women will make to the Church then it will by now be obvious that my reflections arise from a very different context from that of Church of England commentators. Having been a member of MOW for a decade or so I am, however, familiar with what has been happening in the Church of England in recent years. As I see it, Anglican women are commenting on how they will affect the model of Church which has been their experience for some years, and which remains and will continue to remain for the foreseeable future. Theirs is a specific, identifiable framework within which to operate in the here and now. A Roman Catholic Church which will ordain women is essentially a vision for the medium-term future. This, I think, is the crux of the difference between the way the Roman Catholic Church is coming to the question of the ordination of women and the way that it has happened in the Church of England. Given the models of authority and governance in the Church of England, ordination has become a realizable possibility for Anglican women within the present institutional structure. It had already been achieved by women in other parts of the Anglican communion, too. The course of events over the past eighteen months has determined that reform of clericalism, and therefore ministry, in the Church of England will happen with women working from within the system. In the Roman Catholic Church, widespread radical reform is preceding the ordination of women. It is the reform which will give rise to ordained women, rather than vice versa.

As I have briefly mentioned, the reform is not just about clericalism or priesthood, it is about the whole nature of the dynamic of the Church. The ordination of women will be one among many reforms. My story of needing a ‘new Church’ in which to be an ordained leader, and the anachronistic situation in which I find myself as a mature, adult Christian in a system which requires immature subordination to hierarchy and to God, are typical of the experience of thousands of Roman Catholics throughout the country including many priests. One way or another, at different times and places, in fits and starts or slowly and steadily, people like me have absorbed the theology of Vatican II and undergone a form of conversion. It is a process which continues. All sorts of individuals and groups are beginning to grasp the real implications of the universal call to holiness and the mission of all the baptized, the fundamental statements of reform set out in the documents on The Constitution of the Church and The Church in the Modern World at the Second Vatican Council. There is a widening and deepening of our understanding of ministry and of the right relationship of people with God and with each other, and people caught up in this conversion process in the Roman Catholic Church are experiencing the truth of this. Above all, many women are discarding the Christian parameters laid down by the patriarchal system of centuries and instead are learning to define their own Christian identities out of their newly discovered self-knowledge and experience of God. This new, richer understanding of Christian identity and experience for both men and women will bring about widespread changes, one of which will be to have women in the ordained ministry.

My story of being called to Christian adulthood through the path to priesthood may appear to be the way that is most challenging to a system which claims divine institution for its male exclusivity. But the conclusions based on the reflections on my own experiences are not just my own. What I offer here are observations discussed and shared with many others: laywomen, including religious sisters, and men, lay, religious and ordained. Inevitably I must reflect, too, on the impact of the vast numbers of women who undertake extensive responsibilities within the Roman Catholic Church already, a fact often not appreciated by those outside the Roman Catholic Church. If there is a gender difference at work in Christian leadership, then the effect that women have must be being widely felt already. Although the concern of this book is with the experience and expression of these qualities in the visible leader of the faith community, i.e. the priest as the representative of Christ, ordained women in the Roman Catholic Church will only become a focus for these qualities long after they are well established within the Church as a whole. Ordination will be the culmination of the acceptance and acknowledgement of women’s qualities, rather than their starting point.

Although baptized a Roman Catholic I came from a home of intense religious hostility and attended a Catholic school only from the age of eleven. My mother, a woman of great intelligence and formidable strengths, had a loathing for the Catholic Church only possible for an embittered convert of her personal strength I was not allowed to attend any religious education lessons. Consequently, years later when Vatican II came along, I was largely free of the cradle Catholic’s ‘hang-ups’ which haunts many. I’m certain that the irony of this did not escape my mother in her later, but barely mellower years as my desire for some overtly ‘religious’ work became obvious. Back at school, despite my mother’s efforts, I was eventually nobbled by a keen nun and became a rather desultory practising Catholic not untypical of the pre-Vatican II Church.

For various reasons I always had to be independent from very early age; I tended not to join groups or to be only on the fringe. I do not ‘buy into packages’ as someone recently put it. This applied to the Church too, so I find that as an institution it has played a far less central role in my development of faith and my concept of God than for many other people. Nor do I have the sentimental feelings of nostalgia and loyalty so deeply ingrained in more traditional Catholics. This independence from the Church ‘package’, while marginalizing in many ways, has also been a strength in enabling me not to mistake the Church for God and to stay—just—within an institution which has a great deal wrong with it; and which, at the institutional level, is only able to pay lip service to the latter part of the statement that it is ‘ever holy, and ever in need of reform’ (The Constitution of the Church, Vatican II).

The mystery of priesthood has drifted in and out of my life First it was about being a woman and a priest. Later, and more importantly, it became about the meaning of priesthood itself as I came to understand the powerful implication of the baptismal dynamic for every Christian. I have no doubt that the enforced waiting has led me to a more profound understanding of priesthood than if I had been able to be accepted, after appropriate selection, into the system as it stands. Not being able to buy into the present system gave me the opportunity to look long and deep. What was it that I felt called to that I named as priesthood Was that what I saw in the present system? If so, why could not I be part of it? If not, how could the difference be articulated Was I mistaken, or was the present model of priesthood flawed?

I have never doubted the truth of my call to priesthood although for most of the fourteen years until now it has only been part of my conscious life from time to time. The first time I spoke of it was one summer at the beginning of the 1980s when I was on holiday in the West Country. I was in Exeter for the day while my car was being repaired. In the early morning peace of the beautiful cathedral I screwed up my courage and decided to try out my thoughts on an open-minded, progressive member of the Chapter—if there was one. A steward suggested the Treasurer, Canon Mawson. Feeling extremely nervous I finally made myself ring his bell. He was very welcoming. He said he had been visited the previous day by a woman preparing for ordination in New Zealand, and he was the first of many Anglicans over the years to say that, because of our relative authority systems, Rome would probably beat the Church of England to it in ordaining women. He gave me an image I have always found helpful: ‘See it as a cross-country journey’, he said, ‘where you can only see one stile at a time.’ It’s proving one hell of a journey!

Life was extremely tough at the time. I was bringing up my sons on my own in difficult circumstances which were not obvious to outsiders. I was fortunate that my faith deepened in that time. ‘Through a combination of occasional lectures on Vatican II given by a quietly radical priest, meeting a few like-minded people, and through parish ministry of various sorts, my understanding grew too. I came across Ignatian spirituality, totally suited to my nature, and this proved my life-line when conservatism gripped my parish in the form of a new parish priest. As a questioning Catholic woman with a strong personality I was to be actively discouraged, despite my proven abilities. Priesthood surfaced again in my mind. If I was not allowed to express my response to God by using my gifts as a lay person, what chance had my gifts as a priest? I was also increasingly scandalized at what I saw as the travesty of Jesus’ leadership as modelled by the Roman Catholic Church. I took my frustration, confusion and unhappiness to a Jesuit acquaintance. He suggested that I look at my priesthood within the Ignatian Exercises. I agreed— without knowing what on earth that meant. I tend to fall into things like this. I had done a couple of eight-day retreats and liked the style. With a brilliant director I undertook the Exercises by the Nineteenth Annotation in just a few months. The crux of the experience was as follows.

A decade before, I had been expecting a third child. She had died when I was seven months pregnant and the birth had to be induced. Bereavement in these circumstances was not dealt with as sensitively then as it is now. Such a death was not regarded as that of a real person. But for me, and my husband, we had lost a real person, someone we loved already as one of our family.

A life had been extinguished which had been a very present reality. One day during the Exercises, I wept as I had only ever wept over the death of this child and the loss of my marriage. I knew that God had stripped my priesthood from me. The experience was synonymous with the understanding that came through the symbol of my dead baby. Just as that child had come to life and. had her reality within me but was hidden from the world, so my priesthood had been conceived and grown within me, a vivid and mysterious reality, but for which there was no visible evidence in the world beyond me. As with my daughter, that which I grieved for was not real to anyone other than mysel£ At the time I did not realize how crucial was my acceptance of this stripping away. Some weeks later, before the Exercises ended, my calling was restored to me, gently but with great power.

Priesthood then went underground while the more general sense of being drawn to some overtly religious work made itself felt. During the years of family life I had decided that I would have to retrain for a new career, as the world of consumer marketing in which I had previously worked had long ceased to be attractive. I combined meeting the challenge of bringing up my teenage sons with a wide variety of voluntary work, work which gave me invaluable insights into myself and my abilities. Part of this was as a journalist for local radio religious broadcasting. Starting just before the station went on air, I spent five years in this ecumenical work, representing the life of as many Christian communities in the catchment area as wanted to co-operate. I did it because I had long felt strongly that the Church is ineffective in using the broadcast media. It was richly rewarding as I was drawn into the lives of so many communities. I learnt their stories and beliefs, their strengths and weaknesses, and gave and received friendship. Most significantly of all in this present context, after two or three years, people began to ask if I felt ‘called to ministry’ or ‘called to preach’, using whatever was the terminology of their denomination for formal Christian leadership. A number of Christian communities, quite independently were acknowledging my qualities and my calling as a Christian leader.

At one stage I had told a Roman Catholic canon of what I believed to be my vocation. I did that because he moved widely in church circles and I wanted to ensure that he could never say, in any discussion about the ordination of women, that he didn’t know any woman who wanted it. He triumphantly pointed out that priestly vocation is not simply a personal thing but a call by the community. He was, of course, quite right, as I later understood more fully. What was so objectionable in his attitude was his dishonesty about the present form of being ‘called by the community’ in the Roman Catholic Church which is actually a process stylized out of all recognition, wholly in the hands of the bishop and a few of his advisers. Furthermore, Roman Catholic communities as such have no expectation of recognizing anyone as a priest/leader in the sense that this might carry any weight, and certainly not a woman, who is excluded by her sex from all formal leadership. Any woman who is distinctive enough to show what might be called vigorous leadership qualities is almost certainly labelled a trouble-maker, maverick or a crank. Only by exercising my leadership qualities as a Roman Catholic in an area in which the Church is largely uninterested, broadcasting—and the clergy therefore unthreatened—and under the ecumenical gaze, was I able to receive the affirmation of Christians who thought of leadership more widely than as simply belonging to celibate men.

As my children approached the time when they would leave home to study I decided that I needed some formal theological education. This would give me some credibility in the eyes of those I assumed to be my future employers, the Catholic bishops. I describe my time at Heythrop as putting theological flesh on the bones of my faith experience. I acquired the evidence to support what my instincts had been telling me about faith and Church over the preceding few years. But two other things happened. Lay employment had been expanding significantly in the eighties. Almost as soon as I stepped over Heythrop’s threshold this trend started to collapse, for an assortment of reasons, and a notable conservative retrenchment set in. Secondly, my combination of knowledge and experience led me to understand the Church as something so different from the current institutional model that I knew I could never work with integrity as its representative. I had arrived, for reasons unrelated to my personal call to priesthood, at the understanding of the need for a new church. Far from my route becoming clearer, it became further confused.

The insights that I can now articulate about my call to ordained ministry are made up of the accumulation of fourteen years of experience, intuition and knowledge that have come together in an understanding which continues to deepen. This enforced fast from priestly ministry, so to speak, has sharpened my awareness of what it is about. The waiting and ‘pondering these things in my heart’ has, I believe, given me a much deeper understanding of what priesthood is than many of the men who are able to go straight into the system of priestly formation. This is not necessarily a criticism—if a system is there and you are eligible, why look further than you need? Where I and other women in waiting find common ground is among priests who have been ordained for a number of years and are increasingly uncomfortable with the model of priesthood in which they were formed and which remains the institutional model, still used in seminary training with the odd cosmetic change. They are unhappy with their monopoly of institutional power, however effectively they delegate, recognizing that participation in Christian mission is the baptismal right of all believers, not something to be delegated as a favour to them by the priest.

The wider reforms to which I have referred, rooted in the growing understanding of the equality of baptism, are rapidly changing Roman Catholics’ perception and expectation of who may be gifted with leadership qualities. As well as in Roman Catholic schools, in which religious sisters have an established historical role, gifted women now hold a significant number of leading roles in the very public spheres of justice and peace work, religious education and aid organizations. In more limited circles, women are leaders in the world of spirituality and theology, both practical and academic, and in pastoral work of all sorts, and perhaps above all in parish ministries and catechetics. This exercise of their gifts given by the Spirit to women is familiarizing people with women who have ‘put on Christ’ in their baptism and are wanting to express this fully in their lives. Whether or not they would immediately put the tag ‘leader’ on all of these women, there is no doubt that Roman Catholics in this country, by and large, are increasingly familiar with women leaders as part of normal parish life.

‘The number of women, religious and lay, working in the field of spirituality, especially in spiritual direction and retreat giving, places women firmly at the core of Christian faith life in the role of spiritual guide, formerly regarded as almost solely the role of the priest (at least in the last couple of centuries). The evident quality and gifts of these women raises the question for many people as to why women should not be priests, and the spiritual leaders of Christian communities? In a sense it is but a short step to seeing women as spiritual leaders of the community in this way, when there is so much visible, dynamic witnessing to Christ already self-evidently in progress. The required paradigm shift may seem to demand a huge leap, but I believe for Roman Catholics genuinely seeking an effective Church for the future, the process of conversion towards accepting women as ordained leaders is well under way.

My present career illustrates how Roman Catholic women are also being recognized more widely as authentic leaders. ‘This, I must say, is due in no small measure to the appointment three years ago or so of Sister Lavinia Byrne IBVM to a senior executive post in the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, becoming in the process that rarity, a Roman Catholic woman with public authority. The effect on raising the public profile of able Roman Catholic women has been remarkable as she has networked with others to meet the impossible demands on her personal time. At present I am executive editor of two highly regarded international spirituality journals. This is a far cry from the parish community—or its future equivalent—where I would like to minister to people in the name of Christ in the nittygritty of their ordinary lives. But it has opened significant doors. It is another symptom of how so many factors are working together to create the new Church which will accept ordained women. Speakers are needed for the many theology and study courses which are run regularly, especially in Lent, and ecumenically since the national initiative of Lent ‘86. Organizers now look beyond Roman Catholic clergy for a view from that denomination. Some even recognize that there is a significant number of lay people, especially women, who are better informed than many of the clergy. In short, they are accepted as providing as valid a view of the Roman Catholic scene as a priest. In this way, Roman Catholics attending these courses or study days themselves become accustomed to seeing and hearing Catholic women speak authoritatively. This is a very helpful development for me, as speaking in this way is something I do well and to which I find people respond. Best of all it has led to invitations to preach, a gift I am denied by law to exercise in my own Church.

It is not my purpose to give an exhaustive list of the qualities of women and how they will bear on priesthood. Such qualities have been described at length in the writings of women working in all aspects of Christian activity. But I will identify a few qualities which I think will be especially significant to the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the aggressively male, patriarchal system which is our present experience. There is, for instance, the attitude to institution. For certain sections of the Roman Catholic Church the centralized (if not monarchical), authoritarian institution of the past 150 years seems to have become an end in itself, despite the briefly hopeful rediscovery of collegiality during Vatican II. In a rigid form of institution, conformers are rewarded, the institution counts for more than its members and not to conform puts at risk all that the institution provides, especially for its officials—power, status, security, identity. Far more than in any other denomination, most Catholic priests have their identity locked into the institution. Although I mentioned earlier my personal reasons for not being institutionally inclined it is recognized that women in general do not take on institutional packages as blindly as many men: they are not so prepared to defend the flawed, or the indefensible, for the sake of a false sense of unity. Perhaps this is because for most of history women have not been a part of institutional life in any way that was to their real advantage. They have had nothing to gain by pretending that an institution is any better than it really is, nor anything to lose by being honest about its flaws.

Vatican II rediscovered the dynamic of the Church in the world, and dynamism is incompatible with rigidity and authoritarianism. The Church needs to become again a much more loosely-knit, flexible organization to accommodate the gospel dynamic. Rather than trying to distort human nature in order to live by some rigid set of rules, it needs to become a Church much more akin to the informal community groups in which women have traditionally nurtured, reconciled and worked with individual strengths and weaknesses to achieve wide-reaching benefits, both collective and individual. There is, of course, an unavoidable tension in an ongoing institution needing some form of order which is flexible enough to embrace change yet cohesive enough to provide a sense of stability. Flexibility will apply to priesthood too; once it no longer monopolizes ministry there is no reason why it should be full time, permanent, or life long. And women have age-long experience of changing life direction several times over, if only through biological dictates.

Vatican II views all baptized believers as in a continuing process of maturing. Women, I believe, find this interpretation congenial for they more naturally want to move members of their believing community into a state of mutual, mature interdependence of faith, rather than maintain the hierarchical ranks of states of holiness which is the mindset of centuries. Sensing that the accusation of stereotype is never far away, I nevertheless wish to suggest from my own experience as a wife and mother that women have a particular awareness of the need to bring each individual within their care to ‘fullness of being’. (I of course acknowledge other contexts in which nurturing is practised but I cannot speak for them as specifically.)

This nurturing of children is about preparing individuals for healthy freedom and autonomy, letting the individual go so that he or she may learn to relate in a context of growing adulthood within mature interdependence. However imperfectly women carry out this task of nurturing and letting go, as mothers they encounter this fact of life—the formation of individual beings who need to shift from dependence to interdependence. While consistently preaching maturity in terms of the primacy of conscience, Roman Catholic authorities nevertheless continue to maintain in practice an authoritarian and patriarchal system of dependence.

So long as there are women priests who have experienced the ‘old Church’ with its seductive but utterly confining expectation/ definition of the woman’s role, they will be alert to the need to nurture to the full the giftedness of each believer. Only through this awareness can real maturity be discovered, through exercising the freedom born of the Gospel. This will in turn enable each believer to become most fully what God has created her or him to be, however unlikely or uncomfortable that may seem to the institution. We will then be released to act as though we truly believe that the Spirit may blow where it will, that it is to be trusted; to know that it is creative beyond our wildest imaginings, and to rejoice in the way that all of this would revitalize Christian communities and their effect on the world.

Parental nurturing also contains the challenge of acknowledging weaknesses within the context of love. This is, of course, fundamental to Christianity; we are a Church of sinners. The Sacrament of Reconciliation currently has an uncertain role, if any, in the lives of many Catholics. It has been revamped in such a way that it is, potentially, a deeply moving encounter with God, but many priests lack the qualities or personal development which go with such a tender process. A priest recently mentioned to me in passionate terms how he believes that women will transform the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was good to have his endorsement that women are less juridical and law-bound, and more ready to kneel before God with the sinner as one who is also frail and weak. The reformed rite of this sacrament is much more nuanced to looking gently but deeply at our weakness in the light of the gospel love of God, and seeking to nurture our goodness within that love rather than to condemn our failings. This is certainly the way many women would understand positive nurturing within a family, for both children and adults, even if they often fail.

Preaching, language, communication—women exercise all these very differently from men. A recent letter from a papal nuncio to a large gathering of clergy was more an exhortation along the lines of a bad general to his troops before battle than to colleagues, let alone brothers and fellow believers in Christ. Because all Roman Catholic official communications come from men (and one has no reason to think that the writers are other than men), the involvement of women, whether in the written or spoken word, would make a significant difference. This may well be put to the test in England and Wales with the unique appointment of a woman, Pat Jones, as Assistant General Secretary to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Perceptible signs of her influence are watched for with interest.

Women speak more naturally out of their own experience. Men may use personal stories, but they often shift back to a rather cerebral, clinical way of developing the point. Men have, I believe, much more invested in their status, and in the image of their role, and they are more bound by history and expectation. As things stand, they have a good deal to lose. Prophetic women are, I believe, less interested in living up to an image rather than being themselves. And Roman Catholic women come to priesthood with personal knowledge of the harm done to self and others by priests who have regarded themselves as separate, apart, superior. The Catholic system is littered with clerical casualties. In being more openly self-revealing, women encourage others in the struggle with their weakness by sharing their own. This openness to the need for grace naturally leads to the ability to share something of the experiences of redemption and resurrection. In this way women may facilitate a real capacity within a community to reflect openly on the presence of God among its members, and a real capacity to build up the Body of Christ. This is already done very effectively, but on a short-term basis, in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) groups— courses of reflection and preparation for people interested in joining the Roman Catholic Church, but also used by people who are already Catholics. Most RCIA catechists are women. This role for a woman priest would therefore be familiar to many who are now Catholics but who associate it with a specific and occasional educating and formation process rather than with the normal course of parish life.

The ability and desire to take on and live out the vision of Church which was proposed by Vatican II is a matter of conversion, involving opportunity, openness of heart and the action of the Holy Spirit. Many are way ahead of me in understanding, many are well behind. It is always a mystery as to why opportunities are greater for some than for others. Reason and facts have little to do with it. You cannot force conversion.

The situation was summed up for me in an unexpected experience in the summer of 1992 at one of the final MOW rallies before the Synod vote that November. The summer session of the Synod was meeting at York University in July. The entrance of the main hall looked out across a small lake where a walkway connected the two sides. As Synod representatives assembled for the evening session, MOW members gathered on the other side of this lake in vigil. The light was fading early in a grey evening as we gently sang Taizé chants and lit our candles. People looked across at us, their faces too far away to be seen clearly. I wondered what they were thinking. Supporters came down the walkway to happy, grateful greetings. As I looked across the water I felt a profound sorrow as I glimpsed what it means to be so excluded, misunderstood, shut out. The water between us became deeply symbolic. Even if we could have walked across it, I felt that that would not have been enough for some of the people on the other side. And yet I did not blame them. The mystery, the struggle, the puzzle of all that is meant by Christian truth hung in the air and was embodied in us as women seeking priesthood.

For women in the Church of England, claiming their right to priesthood was an issue sharply defined and now achieved. How effectively they will reform ministry will be watched with great interest. The process in the Roman Catholic Church is, I believe, more evolutionary, with the ordination of women being the ultimate recognition of the qualities with which women are increasingly affecting the Church here and now. While it must be seen as part of a larger movement of the Spirit, the importance of this representation cannot be overestimated. The priest both represents the believing community to God and represents Christ to the community. Women will see themselves offered to God more visibly in language, manner, sentiment, their whole way of being, and what is in them of God will be reflected back more authentically. In representing God through Christ, women will model all that is feminine in God, affirming its goodness, representing the image in which women are made and for which they, and others, should value them. This new imaging must surely influence the perception of male ordained ministry, but how this will come about is beyond the scope of my speculation.

As some aspects of priesthood, such as preaching and the leading of liturgy, open to me in non-Catholic contexts, I am still left living a mystery. Despite all that I believe to be true about developments in the Roman Catholic Church, I know nothing for certain about what may happen in my lifetime, however long that may prove to be. At the conclusion of a retreat of great importance to me in 1993, I meditated with Mary at the foot of the cross. At the end of it she said to me ‘My son will honour you if you watch with him’. That’s all I really know.

My thanks to Anne Brown, Judith Carpenter and Elizabeth Ridley for their comments in the preparation of this chapter.

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story

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