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Directly ordained by Christ

Directly ordained by Christ?

by John Wijngaards

The following text contains excerpts from letters I wrote.

“Dear ......, I am favourably impressed by your approach. You seem to me a sensible and balanced person. You are open to renewal, and yet you have a great love for the Church. You are not acting on your own, but listening to spiritual advisers. You pray.

So I am answering your question(s) about a direct ordination by Christ in the context of this overall assessment. I will not write at length, since I feel that you will understand what I am trying to say. I will express what I sincerely believe, as a spiritual director and a theologian. These are the conclusions I have arrived at in my own mind:

1. The experience you had was no doubt an affirmation of your vocation by Christ. This is a great gift. Persons who are called to the priesthood often have spiritual experiences - it is what motivates them to seek ordination, and you have had one that was especially strong. You can be grateful for that.

2. The official Church excludes women from holy orders, and this is a serious and incorrect situation. It creates an almost unbearable conflict between your vocation (which is from Christ) and the hierarchy (who also claim to represent Christ in this matter). As so often in the past history of the Church, Christ allows such conflict and suffering to bring his Church to necessary reforms.

3. In our Christian history we have always recognised two components in any ordination story: the personal call within, and the external imposition of hands with the invocation of the Spirit without. You can appreciate the wisdom of this. Otherwise many people could claim (rightly or wrongly) that they too were ordained directly by Christ.

4. Your ‘encounter with Christ’ was not a sacramental ordination in the proper sense of the term. The reason for this is that, in the sacraments, the external visible sign is essential, at least as far as the external order of the Church is concerned. Read more about this in What you need to know about the Sacrament of Ordination.

Could I not have ordination by desire, just as we acknowledge communion by desire or baptism by desire?

The comparison to baptism by desire and spiritual communion does not apply. God often makes up by giving interior grace when external circumstances prevent the normal application of the sacrament. Someone, for instance, who cannot be baptised physically, then still reaps the benefits his/her interior baptism of desire. God is also giving you interior grace, since the official Church blocks the ordination of women, still it is not sacramental ordination.

The external visible signs are especially necessary in the social sacraments, such as marriage and ordination. In marriage, for instance, one always needs the external consent of the other partner. In ordination, the people of God are involved through their spiritual leader who is the visible, external means through whom ordination is imparted. In other words, in our Christian encounter with God, the external sacramental order is important because Jesus Christ, who was himself in his visible person the ‘sacrament of God’ among us, continues his presence among us through such external visible signs.

Am I then not allowed to exercise any priestly function?

There are many things you can do, even within the present situation. All of us have become 'priests' with Christ through baptism, and this empowers us to minister in his name. Perhaps your encounter with Christ meant him affirming you first and foremost in that ministry. This would include forgiving sins in special pastoral circumstances (though you are wise not to use the official formula). It also includes proclaiming the Good News which is the main priestly task according to Vatican II.

This ministry will normally not include presiding at the Eucharist (since the minister needs external deputation in the sacramental order) -- except in extraordinary circumstances, e.g. when no one else would be there to preside. This can apply to special communities that are deprived of ordained ministers for pastoral reasons, e.g. total incompatibility as happens in today's Church. Read more about this in Celebrating the Eucharist without a Priest?

Do you know of other women who had a silimar experience as I had?

The answer is: just one or two. I know that there are hundreds, or even thousands of women who feel 'called' to the priesthood, but only very few believe they have been ordained directly by Jesus. It is always possible there are other people with a similar experience, and perhaps they don't speak about it. On the other hand, vocations come from God. There is no need for you to feel alone. Many women in the Catholic Church clearly feel a vocation to the priesthood.

How did Jesus ordain the Apostles? How did he ordain Paul? Did Paul too not receive his mission without an external ceremony? Was his mystical experience not equivalent to ordination?

In the lifetime of Jesus, the ‘sacrament’ of ordination as we know it had not fully developed. On the other hand, we find baptism and the eucharist as two sacraments (external signs with words of grace) that clearly found their expression in Jesus’ own life.

Did Jesus ‘ordain’ the Apostles?
* When Jesus chose the twelve and made them 'apostles' (Mark 3,13-19), would he not have used an external sign, like imposing hands on them? Jesus always used such signs as we also see in his cures. And the text says clearly: "He MADE (epoiesen in Greek) them apostles".
* The Council of Trent, following medieval theology, stated that the apostles were ordained at the Last Supper when Jesus said to them: "Do this in commemoration of me". We also read that Jesus breathed over his apostles when he said: "Those whose sins you forgive, etc." (John 20,21-23). Now, while Jesus may not have had the present-day idea of sacrament in his mind, hr certainly wanted to commission his apostles to continue his work, and it is likely he used words and signs to express this, even though these were not fully recorded.

What about St. Paul?
* Scripture makes a clear distinction between Paul being called, 'invited' by Christ in a spiritual vision (Acts 9,15-19, Acts 22,5-21) and his actual ordination later on. First, Barnabas as representative of the Church invites Paul (Acts 11,25-30) - did that involve some external sign too, we do not know. Some kind of ordination is clearly mentioned in Acts 13,2-3. "The Holy Spirit said: I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.' Then, after fasting and prayer, they LAID THEIR HANDS on them etc."
In the early Church, from the very beginning, the laying on of hands with the invocation of the Spirit was the standard form of ordination. No deacons, presbyters or bishops were acknowledged without it. Does it not show us that this must have been a practice the apostles took over from Jesus himself? Otherwise, where would they have got the idea from -- since the practice was so universal??

My inner experience tells me that I have been ordained a priest. Should I not listen to God in my heart?

Your experience certainly has made a deep impression on you, as meeting God always does. But it cannot, in my view, imprint a sacramental character. Please, think about it. Ordination as a sign has a necessary purpose.The external visible signs are especially necessary in the social sacraments, such as marriage and ordination. In marriage, for instance, one always needs the external consent of the other partner. In ordination, the people of God are involved through their spiritual leader who is the visible, external means through whom ordination is imparted. In other words, in our Christian encounter with God, the external sacramental order is important because Jesus Christ, who was himself in his visible person the ‘sacrament of God’ among us, continues his presence among us through such external visible signs. We are ordained priests not for ourselves, but for others, as the Church teaches. We are ordained through external signs so that other people can know we are truly representing Christ.

I know the priesthood means much to you. But are you not devaluing it by minimising the sacramental sign given by the community of believers? So I repeat what I wrote to you last time. In my view, your ‘encounter with Christ’ was not a sacramental ordination in the proper sense of the term. The reason for this is that, in the sacraments, the external visible sign is essential.

I also repeat that you should reflect on the universal priesthood with Christ we all receive through baptism. If you look around you and see how Catholics underestimate that priesthood, do you not believe that Jesus may, first and foremost, have affirmed you in that priesthood? Are you fully putting that gift into effect? Does Christ not want you, as part of your vocation, to exploit it to the full? As I told you before, all of us have become ‘priests’ with Christ through baptism, and this empowers us to minister in his name. It includes forgiving sins as I explained. It also includes proclaiming the Good News which, according to Vatican II, is the main priestly task . On reflection, I also feel that your encounter with Christ has the trademarks of a prophetic vocation. All the Old Testament prophets were called in similar ways. Prophets existed in the Early Church, but the ministry disappeared after a while. It may be another link with the prophetic mission we receive with baptism, another aspect of our Christian vocation which we lose in practice.

I feel desperately lonely in my struggle to become a priest.

I understand and appreciate, at least to some extent, your inner darkness and stress. But you are not alone. There are many others in our 'community of faith' world wide who are going through a similar struggle. Jesus will be with you. He will want you not to give up your ties to the external community, because of your feeling isolated. Priestly vocation is for the community. I am convinced that women like you have an enormously important vocation for the community, especially for women, but the fruits will only be seen in the future.

I have been a missionary in India for many years. Many missionaries work in isolation, like some of my colleagues in totally Muslim or Hindu communities. I once gave a retreat to priests in the North of India. One 'parish priest' among them had only ten parishioners in the whole district of two million inhabitants. He was the only priest there. He was not accepted by the vast majority of people. He worked for others mostly without recognition, and always feeling lonely and on his own.
"Why have I become a priest?" he wanted to know ....

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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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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