This testimony is taken from Zur Priesterin berufen (Called to be a Women Priest), ed. by Ida Raming, Gertrud Jansen, Iris Müller and Mechtilde Neuendorff, Druck und Verlagshaus Thaur (Krumerweg 9, A-6065 Thaur, Austria) 1998, pp. 107-112. Translation by John Wijngaards.
The dreams of a girl
I was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1962. My whole family, both on my fathers and my mothers side were deeply religious. The duties of going to church on Sundays and being involved in parish activities were self evident. I therefore grew up in our parish community through the usual stages: first communion, youth club, leader of a youth group, and so on.
Unfortunately, one wish was denied to me: I would have loved to have been a Mass server. I do not think that I ever expressed this wish in so many words, for it seemed beyond hope. It would have been useless. For I knew the answer: Thats impossible. Its only for boys! At that time girls were still kept far away from the sanctuary and the altar. In all that, I was not trying to raise myself above other children. It was far more a question of a difficult-to-describe longing to see behind things, to be close to what is Holy. I envied the boys in my neighbourhood who were allowed to serve at Mass -- and could not understand why many were not interested in it!
I recall vividly two experiences from my childhood and youth. The first one happened when I was about 10 or 11 years old. In Austria children go round Catholic homes on Epiphany day as the Sternsinger [= Christmas-star-singers]. It is an old custom which is now used to collect money for the missions. Well, I was allowed to join a group of these Sternsinger, and because there were not enough dresses for the three kings, I was given the dress of a Mass server. I was absolutely delighted! I would have preferred never to put it off again. Still long afterwards I dreamt of it. Later, in high school, our curate allowed me to be a real Mass server at a school mass -- since only girls were present. It filled me with great joy.
After completing high school, the question arose of my further studies at college. More by lack of any other attractive alternative, I enrolled for theology at the University of Vienna. Practical theology would have interested me most, but I did not want to be a pastoral assistant and becoming a priest was excluded. Moreover, at the time I had a rather conservative image of the Church and the priesthood. Becoming a religious teacher seemed the best way out. For I also saw it as my ideal to acquire a husband and children as soon as possible. Also that was the result of my Catholic education and my Catholic surroundings that did not really offer any other viable forms of life to women, and as a teacher one can combine career and family rather well. Later I transferred from the university to the Religious-Pedagogical Academy. I finished my training there and began to teach at a number of primary schools.
Rediscovery of the parish
Although I functioned as a teacher, my heart was not really in the school. My love went out to the parish community. I had -- and still have -- the good fortune of belonging to a dynamic and open parish which has been led by a good and much loved parish priest for the past 30 years. The community welcomes every man and every woman, married priests as much as divorced-and-remarried couples, Lutherans, immigrants and down-and-outs. This community is my second family. It is here that I received my spiritual formation and where I learnt a lot. It is also in this community that I got to know my husband, and although we live some miles outside the parish territory we remain active and at home in it. Until I gave birth to my first child, in 1990, I worked in many areas of the parish. I secretly looked around for professional employment in a parish. Only later did I become aware of my vocation as a priest.
God calls me
One day we had a whole days reflection in our parish council. The theme of the day was: My journey in faith. When, in my workshop, I narrated who had been influential in the growth of my faith, someone remarked: They were all priests! That was true, but it was something that had never struck me. Some time later I attended a one-weeks course on management and guidance of parish councils. I noticed that, somehow or other, I ended up every evening talking with one or more of the attending priests.
When I told some of my companions at college how I was following a course on pastoral care at bereavement, they told me: It would be better for you to become a parish priest rather than an RE teacher! Shortly after that one of my neighbours, who is a lay deacon, said to me: What a pity that you cannot become a priest! That clicked in my brain. Yes, that was what I had really wanted to be all the time: a priest!
First, I needed time to get used to the idea. Only later I spoke about it to others, of whom I knew that they would understand me. Now I mention it openly on the right kind of occasion. However, in my experience most people have not yet given a lot of thought to the question of ordination for women. On account of our negative Tradition they are inclined to reject it. Many are of the opinion some women want to become priests just to give themselves more status. This results in my stating my disagreement, often with a suppressed sense of frustration. A few times it has happened to me that someone remarks: Women dont even want to be priests! When I reply: Not at all, I do!, the answer is usually: Ah, yes, you, you have studied theology, but the other (that is normal) women dont want it -- an answer which is both somewhat illogical and comical.
Because I would like to be ordained, quite a few people consider me rather mad, strange, unrealistic (which I am not), a career woman, a heretic or simply a person who needs to draw attention at any cost. Anyway, I have now firmly ackowledged my wish. I allow myself to have it.
Only the Church can decide whether someones vocation is genuine or not. It annoys me, however, that the official Church is not prepared to test a womans vocation, as it does for a man. I am rather sure that I myself will not experience the ordination of women in my life time, but I would like to know whether I am wrong or not in my sense of vocation. With regard to liturgy, for instance, I have passed all courses that are accessible to women. I am involved very much in liturgical worship and I have always found that people accept women quite well, as long as they themselves can give shape to the ceremonies.Twice ever year I preside over a liturgical service for school girls. It attracts a high attendance, something that can no longer be taken for granted among youth.
I have also very positive experiences in conducting services in homes of the elderly. Once, when putting on my alb, some women got worried and asked: Is it a Lutheran service today? I answered: No, it will be Catholic. The Archbishop has given me the mandate to conduct liturgical services of the Word. They were all reassured and told me afterwards: You have done that beautifully! I consider this very important that women, fully conscious of their own dignity, without false modesty, exercise the ministry and show: What I do has the same value as what is done by a man, a priest. Also at the only funeral service I conducted, those present were quite content.
In my parish I am often given the opportunity to preach. So far I have had very encouraging responses. The only negative reaction, from a few, concerned the circumstance that it was a woman who delivered the sermon; never regarding the contents. Such experience prove that the majority of people do not object to women exercising a priestly ministry as long as those women perform the service well. And the same is true for men: priests who do not bother are given a poor response.
My hopes for the future Church
I have noticed, when preaching, that many people, and in particular the women, are grateful for an approach to the Gospel from a womans point of view. And this is what I would hope and pray that women priests would bring about:
- that the Gospel is reflected on and explained from a greater variety of points of view;
- that the image of the Lord God be replaced with an image of God that carries both male and female features;
- that therefore the divinization of Mary as substitute will no longer be necessary;
- that the language used in the liturgy be inclusive;
- that our parish communities be more pluriform and colourful;
- that the Church become more friendly and democratic;
- that all individuals in the Church be given the same respect, dignity and rights;
- that people be given the option whether they rather entrust themselves to a male or female minister;
- that the good of every human being be central rather than that of the ministry;
- that power be applied in a more positive fashion;
- that the experiences of women be made use of to build up the Church.
In the Spring of 1996 I was asked to become spiritual director of the Catholic Womens Organization in my deanery. When priests were reluctant to undertake this responsibility, the women grabbed the opportunity and requested a woman. How and why I was selected for this honour, I do not know, though I am sure Gods Spirit must have had a hand in it. I accepted the task gladly, but unfortunately as of today (Spring 1998), I have not yet received an official appointment because the dean, for reasons he has not explained to me, does not agree. However, I have already started my work with the women. I believe this instance is symptomatic of what is happening in the Church.
Women, with their skills and their spiritual charisms, are respected by many people in the Church.Women are entrusted with a variety of ministries. They are confirmed by their communities. But the leaders of the Church are not prepared to accept us, women, as equal partners. However, they cannot stop us. One day even the Pope and the Bishops will come to see us as sisters with equal dignity and equal rights to men.
Andrea Mayerhofer, Spring 1998
|Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?|
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