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Called to be a woman priest

Iris Müller

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. 43-52. Translation by John Wijngaards.>

See: bibliography of Iris Müller.

Translator’s note. The major Protestant Church in Germany is the ‘Evangelische Kirche’ which holds a belief and Church order not unlike the Anglican Church in England. To avoid confusion with ‘evangelical’, I have translated ‘Evangelisch’ by ‘Lutheran’.

"The Catholic Church needs to be open to women!"

I come from Magdeburg in East Germany where I was born in 1930. That is where I spent my early years. Magdeburg is a medium-size industrial town, mainly Lutheran, but since the 19th/20th century heavily secularised. I grew up as an only child. My parents belonged to the Lutheran Church and were not hostile in its regard, but neither were they regular church goers. When pressure was put on us school children, on account of Nazi ideology, to leave the Church, my parents rejected such a step decisively.

During my time at school religious education had been reduced to a minimum. However, I still remember some of it in my first year at the primary school. It left a deep impression on me so that I talked about it at home and at family gatherings. I noticed however that the adults considered this information as “stories of a child” and did not take it seriously.

From 1942 the lower classes of secondary schools in major cities were taken to children’s camps on account of the ever increasing bombardments. These camps had been arranged by the Nazi Party. The children received a lot of indoctrination during periods of “service” which ran alongside the heavily reduced school hours. My class had been sent to Wernigerode in the Harz region. There I received Lutheran instructions in preparation for confirmation. I took a lot of interest in them.

First visits to a Catholic church

During the years 1943/1944 I had a religious key experience. One of my class mates, who herself was not a Catholic, told me - in the form of an adventure - of how she had spent her evacuation in the Catholic Rhein Land and how she had met Catholics and the Catholic Church there. To give her story, she asked me whether I would accompany her to a Catholic service. I agreed immediately. It fitted well in that period of my first philosophical experimentations. I was very much in search of the Truth at that time.

The travel stories of the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin were among my favourite books. His descriptions of Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist spirituality made a deep impression on me.

In a spirit of adventure the two of us did visit a Catholic Sunday Mass. There I saw a totally different liturgical happening at the altar and a totally different behaviour among the men and women who attended the service, than I was used to in a Lutheran community service. Although everything was strange to me and although I did not even understand the whole event, I felt constrained, as compelled by some force, to kneel down. I experienced a feeling as if I was “being grasped and held”, an experience which had been unknown to me until then but which would not leave me from that moment. From that time on I often felt the desire to repeat my visits to this kind of service, on the other hand I also had a certain fear to do something wrong while in a Catholic church, something that would somehow reveal me not to be a Catholic.

After one service a religious sister asked each of us children to which parish we belonged. Shy and softly I confessed that I did not really belong, that I was not really a Catholic. Immediately I was dismissed by the nun. She did not give me a second look. I felt hurt and upset and crept back into the childrens’ camp.

During my last years in the secondary school - I was back in Magdeburg, since by now after the war the East German Republic had been formed - the conviction grew upon me that I should study theology. However, the question regarding the phenomenon of Catholicism did not leave me. I hoped to receive more clarity about this through my study of theology.

Political upheavals

I followed the formation of the East German Republic with a critical eye. Especially during history classes I expressed my misgivings and objections against the new doctrine of the State. I even called the emerging East German Republic a one-party-dictatorial system, - - statements which would have severe consequences for me.

In one of the churches in Magdeburg, I attended a service led by a so-called ‘woman vicar’. At that time women were not yet given the full status of parish priest in the Lutheran Church. That is when I saw for the first time a woman in the pulpit - - an experience that I would not forget.

During my last years of the secondary school I frequently met my Lutheran parish priest to engage him in philosophical and theological discussions. Perhaps he made up for my father who had died as a prisoner of war. My behaviour at that time was somewhat unusual for a young girl. That is why I came into heavy role conflicts. I had become aware of the fact that women were underprivileged and undervalued in society. Women were generally relegated to work at home and for the family.

In the year 1950, just before my final exams, the East German Republic had been so well established that in all schools “powers hostile to the Government” both among students and staff were dismissed. On account of my critical remarks during religious studies I too became a victim of this wave of ideological cleansing .

In West Berlin, however, there was a school that had declared itself prepared to enable boys and girls who had been dismissed in this fashion to do their final exams. That is what I did in that school, since West Berlin was at that time still accessible to residents of the East German Republic.

Because of my family I returned to my birthplace after finishing school. Many of my other companions at school, however, left the East German Republic with their families after the exams.

In 1950 I began my studies of Lutheran theology in Naumburg in the Saale region, in a Church institute established especially for those students who were not allowed to visit a university on political grounds.

Stirrings of the Spirit

During the first semesters of my Lutheran studies, I began to feel ever more an interest in mysticism and religious orders.

In 1955 I continued my studies at the Martin Luther University of Halle in Saale. This was possible because of a certain relaxation of circumstances in the East German Republic after Khrushchev had visited the USA.

During my studies in Halle I often visited the Catholic deanery church, which was close to where I lived. Apart from contact with the dean, I often met the catholic student chaplain, a Jesuit, with whom I used to have religious discussions. In January 1956 my mother died. With that I lost my close family and remained alone. My grandmother had died in the year 1954 and so from my family only one uncle remained whose marriage had been without children.

At that time every theological student, whether man or woman, had to perform a test service including a sermon in the Lutheran Chapel of the University of Halle. Conducting that test service meant a lot to me. A study of theology that led to the pastoral ministry made sense to me.

I tried in vain to persuade the Catholic dean to take part in such a test service so that he could see for himself that we Lutheran female theologians could aim at parish ministries on equal terms as male students.

After receiving my certificate at the Martin Luther University of Halle, I converted in 1958 to the Catholic Church. I had to take this decision there and then. After completing my theological studies I was expected to start the practical pastoral formation as ‘woman vicar’, on pain of losing my residence in the theologians’ hostel. But I decided that becoming a Catholic was more important. I was thrilled by the thought of belonging to this community of faith that truly spanned the whole world, that expressed its following of Christ not just in words but in full sacramental and even eschatological realism. The dean welcomed my profession of faith and celebrated this event with special pomp.

What about my vocation as a theologian . . . and a priest?!

The professional consequences which this conversion had for me as a theologian, was catastrophic. As a woman I now fell under the restrictions of Catholic Church law. According to Canon 968 par.1 of the 1917 code (now canon 1024 in the 1983 code), I had become a creature incapable of receiving Holy Orders. I was expected to renounce my wish to be ordained as a woman. The inner conviction that I had a spiritual vocation lived in me so deeply that I could not exchange it for a secular job. Lutheran pastors who became Catholic could, with dispensation for marriage if they had a family, continue their priestly ministry in the Catholic Church. That is what I too would have loved to do. I suffered heavily under the tension. My Catholic community, both priests and lay people, wanted me to consider my call to the priesthood meaningless and to confirm that my “female nature” made such a call impossible. As a Catholic woman - - in the eyes of Catholics I was no theologian, since only men could be theologians ! - - I was expected to accept the position and valuation of women in the Catholic Church as “willed by God” and in harmony with my created nature. If not, I was told, I should leave the Catholic community again.

My joining the Catholic Church in the East German Republic implied from now on an existence as a Catholic theologian with no prospect of employment. It was not possible for me as a woman to study at the major seminary for priests in Erfurt, the only college for Catholic theology. When, shortly before my conversion, I made a first approach and explained the conflict which a conversion as a theologian would mean for me, it had no other effect on the professor for New Testament exegesis teaching there, Professor Schürmann, than amusement, mixed with cynicism. I understood that in his eyes I was not considered someone to be taken seriously. In his view a young woman was only there to make fun of.

The fact that on the Catholic side there were no professional openings that would do justice to my formation at professional education on the Lutheran side, brought me into a situation of serious personal conflict. However, I did not talk about this to my uncle, knowing that he would not have agreed to my joining the Catholic Church on such terms. My Lutheran parish priest, the Lutheran woman pastoral worker of my home community and my personal favourite teacher, whom I had often visited as a theological student during holidays, broke all contact with me.

Life as a fugitive

My situation became so critical that I had to decide to leave my own home. The Catholic student chaplain in Halle helped me in this emergency situation: he told me to visit the Jesuit College in Charlottenburg of West Berlin. From there he would help me further.

In the autumn of 1959 I left the East German Republic as a fugitive. After a short stay in the Jesuit College, I applied to the emergency procedures in Berlin-Marienfelde. In October 1959 I was flown out to West Germany.

In a society that was totally strange to me I now had to find an existence as a Catholic theologian on her own, without income, and so make a new start.

After many problems I succeeded, with the help of women teachers belonging to the Catholic Teachers’ Association, to continue my studies at the faculty for Catholic theology at the University of Münster until I completed my doctorate.

My income consisted of a small stipend and occasional donations from teachers who knew me and who belonged to the Catholic Teachers’ Association.

Also the men and women whom I had got to know in West Germany expected that I would adapt as soon as possible to a secular existence as a teacher. They dismissed my desire to be ordained as a woman in the Catholic Church as an “absurd fancy”, an idea which could only come from my uncertain living situation.

What I heard in the lectures regarding the valuation of women - - especially in dogmatics and in moral theology it was a topic - - , I found simply shocking. It made me visit the professor for Ecumenical Theology: Professor Dr Hermann Volk. The answer which he gave me on my question why women cannot be ordained or are not ordained in the Catholic Church, upset me deeply. He argued: Since a man cannot give birth to children, he has in compensation the privilege of approaching the altar. A woman on the other hand has the privilege of motherhood.

In the course of my continued studies, my inner tension rose evermore. On the one hand I felt that my spiritual call as a Catholic had not diminished. On the other hand my Catholic surroundings expected from me that I should accept the valuation and position of women in the Catholic Church without further questions and only strive to become a teacher which would give me a guaranteed income.

Joining a religious order?

Considering myself a Catholic woman theologian, I urgently sought a spiritual place within the Church. A secular profession which would be justified by my conversion to the Catholic Church, could not resolve my inner turmoil.

I took up contacts with the convent of Benedictine Sisters in Eibingen. I was told in no uncertain terms that a life in a women’s order was only possible if I would unconditionally and uncritically accept the ecclesiastical image of the nature of woman. A questioning of this presumed female nature would not be tolerated. The nuns who talked to me in the visitors’ room, seated behind a big trellis, made this very clear to me. According to their conviction, a woman could in the Catholic Church only live as a spiritual bride, which was expressed through the veil and through the ring.

The same kind of statements I heard on the occasion of an investiture in the Carmel in Cologne. The newly vested Sister Ancilla told me bluntly that one had to forget everything one had learned in one’s theological studies, since the style of living in the convent proceeded on a totally different footing.

Although I had felt attracted to religious life, I realised with sorrow that it would not give me a spiritual place.

From every side, therefore, life seemed impossible to me. The only options open to me as a Catholic woman seemed to become a nun or a married woman, or, if that did not come into question, an unmarried teacher.

All attempts on the Catholic side to talk me out of my desire to be ordained and to be involved in the priestly ministry had no affect. I was convinced that I should not allow myself to be sidetracked from it since it would betray my deepest identity and inner conviction.

I came to the recognition that I had to be faithful to my own conviction. As someone with a call to the priesthood, especially in surroundings that were so hostile to women I had to testify to it. I was sorry that I had to give this witness without approval, only on the ground of my charism. For my surrounding at the time I had no status. I was only a fugitive, a nothing, someone without a track record deserving respect. The acquaintance of and finally close friendship with Ida Raming, who was the only Catholic who took me seriously and supported me, has kept me going on this Catholic road. Getting to know her has been my happiest experience on the Catholic side. Without her unshakable loyalty and tender care I would hardly have been able to continue on my way.

A new religious community of women with a priestly vocation?

Through some inner inspiration I felt the deep wish to build up a spiritual community with like minded women, a community in which women called to the priestly ministry could support each other on their journey. I had understood that the first generation of future Catholic women priests will have to face great difficulties in their ministry on account of the centuries old ecclesiastical traditions that were hostile to women. I had the vision that the right kind of Catholic women could build up a new community on emancipatory principles since the traditional orders of women because of their patriarchal understanding of a woman’s position do not give scope to what women need today. I also recognised that Catholic women would have to be introduced quite slowly to a more active involvement to the liturgy, in order to develop gradually their own self respect as persons. Because the conviction that women are excluded from ministry at the altar has sunk deep roots.

If such a spiritual community were to be established, I would do everything in my power as a woman priest to confirm my spiritual sisters in their call and to encourage them to develop their charism further. Its aim is to further the theological research about women, to test the traditional theology and challenge it in its hostility to women, and to find new theological formulations that do justice to Jesus’ message and which agree with our own time and culture.

In 1987 I initiated and co-founded the Association of Mary of Magdala.

From 1980 I have been involved in building up a special library on the position of women in the three monotheistic religions of the world to further interreligious and comparative studies about women. I did this as scientific assistant of the Catholic Theological Faculty of Münster. In 1990 this library was greatly enlarged and entitled “Woman in the Religions”. This library helped me to publish Aufbruch des männlichen ‘Gottesordnungen, usw.’ (= Escape from masculine ‘Divine’ Institutions. Reform movements by women in Christian Churches and Islam) which I co-authored with Ida Raming in 1998.

As much as I can I continue to contribute to structural reforms in the Catholic Church:

  • transition from monarchic-hierarchical structures to more democratic renewal;
  • the empowerment of lay people on all levels of Church structures;
  • the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Church;
  • overthrow of mind control and a reform of the Magisterium in harmony with its biblical roots;
  • a removal of theologically untenable rulings from Church law and of scientifically outdated tenets from official Church doctrine.

Iris Müller

Webmaster's note.

  • On 29 June 2002 Iris Müller, with six other women, had herself ordained priest by Bischop Romulo Braschi of the ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’. Read the full report here.
  • On 21 December 2002 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at Rome excommunicated all seven women. Read the text of Rome's Decree here.

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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