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call to the priesthood

Maria's story

I think the call to priesthood came to me when I was about seven - just before the Second Vatican Council. I didn't understand it at the time, any more than I understood why I had just been banned from following my older brothers onto the altar-server rota. But in spite of a very strict Jansenist Catholic upbringing, I kept being met by a God who breathed love, adventure and delight, together with the clear expression that these were costly gifts They might be experienced by me when alone with this Friend, but were not for myself alone. They were to share with others who didn't know they existed. I was being called to being part of that costly sharing.

Shortly afterwards, I was confirmed. Within a year my family life fell to pieces through various tragedies. The Church was of no help to me, needing as I did a faith bigger than what was on offer, and practical support for my family. I became agnostic about Christianity. I had a huge desire to believe and knew that there was a place in Catholicism for questions, but that my youth, sex and poverty meant I had no access to it. I was frequently doubtful about the existence of God, and when at the age of twelve I came close to death after a car accident, I saw a warm tunnel to oblivion.

Faith didn't abandon me, and I struggled for years, trying to find the right books or seek out the right people to ask the questions, but while I must have scared a few professionals, I never found anyone who could speak with me on faith at that level I needed. There were books of course, but far too many, and I didn't know where to start. So many of them were written for beginners, and valid in that, but so many were of the same kind, for those who appeared to lead safer lives, with the chance for choice. There were so few for those who had been obliged to struggle.

In the end, of course, God netted me by direct means. The overwhelming joy will never be forgotten, nor will the way God combined it with stretching me to make me bigger than I thought I could be, and able to turn round and take a new path through life. The pattern of past years fell into place and I realised that all the so-called secular years were a preparation for ministry. It took another year to realise to my shock that what I was being called to was not only the ministry of the faithful, but to the priesthood itself. And that this was the call that I had been hearing and fighting all the years since childhood. The certainty was utterly clear, and since my saying yes those years ago that certainty has never wavered. As with any Sacrament, the inward grace was given, and whether or not the outward sign of ordination, is ever given, in God's eyes I am becoming priest as much as anyone who heard the call, responded and was given the Sacrament.

Reflections

The call has been confirmed on numerous occasions through prayer, through spiritual directors and retreat-givers, through friends, through seemingly chance meetings with strangers, and through those opposed to the priesthood of women.

For many years I have lived with a physically disabling condition, which has borne many parallels to my position as a woman called to the priesthood in a Church that does not want me. My society responded much the same to disability 15 years ago. It has grown since. In the early years I was judged by the able-bodied, who decided how I was to be categorised, whether I was deserving of help, and whether I was to be obliged to attend "training" sessions by which they meant a means of other people retaining jobs through doing things to people like me. My Church too saw me as an object of ministry, not as one called to ministry. Neither Church nor State saw me as fit to live out my vocation, spiritual or secular, to the fullness of my gifts. In society, the playing field remains far from level, but a few of us have won through to use our God-given abilities in the service of others. And we now formally recognise that for society to deliberately prevent us from taking our full part is evil. We now see that the concepts and structures that prevented us from exercising our humanity are obstacles for society to overcome, not reasons to stigmatise us. Is it now time for the Church to follow suit?

The Church has developed many of its moral values by learning from the wisdom of secular society. Justice in the workplace, and more recently, justice for those without work, are shining examples. Perhaps God tries to keep us humble as Church by letting the wider society nudge towards the truth first?

We do it piecemeal. If ecumenism had not led many of us to sharing Communion informally anyway, it would not have been so easy for Catholics to seek the ministry of Anglican women priests where their own Church failed them.

The journey into priesthood has been often hard, frustrating and lonely as well as nourishing, joyful, delightful. It has always been a call to service and I have been privileged in being able to serve the Church in formal as well as informal roles. In recent years my own gift of preaching has at times been recognised. To speak God's words in a female voice created by God to serve that end, is an awesome calling, not least because so few women called are permitted to exercise it. When we serve, especially publicly, we are not there for ourselves, but in the service of others and our voice must also be the voice of the silent others who could undertake this ministry as well or better than ourselves. And, most wonderfully, there have been no objections from congregations. Whenever I have been challenged, it has been on the content of my sermons, not on the fact that I am giving them. Similarly, I believe that, when women appear as God wills, priests upon the altar, their role will be accepted by the Church, and we will move on together.

These are hard times for Catholic women who wish to test their perceived calling to the priesthood. But I believe there is no reason for women to lose their vocation over the hardship. There are those who have turned to the Anglican Church to see if God is opening a way for them there. There are many who are called to stay and change the Catholic Church from the inside. But, don't let us keep saying we need to give the structures time to change! They haven't moved in the last thirty-five years, and without a lot of pushing they won't move for the next thirty-five. We have already betrayed a generation in offering no more than a six-year-old's faith and a moribund Church in a society that regards the Christian Gospel as dead. A Church which has to hear the voices of the unvoiced from within itself before it can move to serving the world, will be a stronger and humbler Church. One worth living for, and risking all for, to take the joy of Christ to a world very short on delight, love and adventure.

Maria - September 2000


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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