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olive Powell's ordination story

Olive Powell

My vocation flows from my prayerI was born in 1953 and baptised a month later at Maryvale, Old Oscott, Birmingham, England. Our family moved from the area when I was four, but I can remember visiting the chapels and going to Mass there. From a floor-level window in the mezzazine Sacred Heart chapel at Maryvale, a small child could look down over the priest’s shoulder to the main altar below, then turned to the wall.

I learned the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be as soon as was feasible, but had no concious awareness of what prayer meant until my First Holy Communion at the age of six. I spent most of that Mass hating my de rigueur white dress, and was completely surprised at being taken into a new quiet place after communion.

For the next thirty years or so I lost touch with these memories. Family life was troubled, I took refuge in academic work, and was eventually diagnosed as having the bi-polar mental illness commonly known as manic depression.

But, during this period I was fortunate to live on a friends’ farm while writing up my PhD. In the silence of walking the fields came the gradual realisation:

“I want to pray.”

All kinds of prayer

I decided on a daily Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be. It felt like starting from square one because I had kept right away from prayer for nearly six years. I was determined to keep these vocal prayers in a tiny compartment separate from the rest of my life. But the desire to pray, like Topsy, just grew and grew.

The next step was to find myself reading the Bible each day. At college, I had been a keen member of an ecumenical Christian group in which we regularly meditated together on scripture producing a strong personal attachment to the Bible.

Both in those ecumenical surroundings and later at this point, around 1980, I considered joining another denomination. The call to be ordained did not enter the question as I had no idea of it. I had, of course, dropped out of Roman Catholicism partly because of unspoken attitudes towards women, especially educated women, but finally chose to return to RC practice for three identifiable reasons: the centrality of the eucharist; it being my tradition (not least because of the influence of particular people within the Church); and the offer, in my opinion, of the deepest and most varied wisdom about prayer.

I took to Sunday Mass, and, about a year later, daily Mass. Then I left my job, and moved to join a Benedictine community. By then I knew I wanted to delve into ‘all kinds of prayer’, and the monastic setting provided a perfect education. Although it is nearly fifteen years since I left, a shortened office - with tunes to the psalms - continues to be part of the framework of my prayer ife.

Not all kinds of prayer

I moved to Manchester at the end of the 1980s to work as a cleaner in a project to help alcoholics. I planned, in recovering from breakdown, to base the rest of my life on the Benedictine pattern of prayer and manual work in a poor area; a semi-solitary life which would suit my increasing deafness.

But one point irritated: I could not engage in silent prayer. With a local priest giving spiritual guidance, I attempted a period of silence each day. For a few months, it was an incredibly painful experience which we attributed to the psychological impact of a difficult childhood.

Then an image came of a vast, dark wood. At first, I wandered along the outside edge in light and busyness. Over the next few weeks, I entered the wood, sounds fading, and the pain intensifying until one day I reached the centre, a clearing of real light, rapt silence and being fully as God made me. I knew then that all my life had been/is/will be about “celebrating the eucharist for people.”

This is the prayer I am being asked to live out. But the very tradition that fosters it will not permit me to serve the community in this way because of my gender.

After this time of realisation, I followed the Ignatian Exercises in lay life. For about eighteen months (I took the 30 Days slowly!), I put aside the ordination question so as to test it. But the Exercises proved to enhance this knowledge about myself in Christ - without suggesting any concrete resolutions on the way forward.

What to do?

This is the journey of someone who is part of the whole Church, so there was vital affirmation for me, in the mid-1990s, in becoming a member of a support group for women called to RC ordination. “New Wine” meets four times a year, and all of us have matured in each other’s company.

This group experience has helped me to see that I should become more pro-active about my vocation: to study theology and pastoral care despite the Church’s lack of encouragement. There are no grants available for lay people to undertake substantial courses in theology. However, thanks to anonymous, ecumenical generosity, I have been able to join an Open University-type first degree course in Contextual Theology at the ecumenical college, Luther King House, in Manchester.

Our residential weekends are, to me, an embodiment of the Church of the future: women and men, young and getting-on; married and single; with and without children; respecting and learning from each others’ traditions; enthusiastically open to thinking and debate; collaborative (celebrating the eucharist with people; and throughout all focussed on Christ.)

Many in my year expect to be accepted for ordination. When asked about my aim, the reply emerged: “to be the best nuisance possible.” The next generation of RC women must not be subjected to this block on their prayer life.

However, I do not now feel, as I did for much of the 1990s, that an institutional obstacle dooms me to stunted prayer development. I will press for institutional reform as opportunities arise, but I can live out my eucharistic calling in work as a cleaner, in solitude at home, in courses of study, in contact with people .... Moments happen to all of us when consecration and communion become real in our world:


under the trees, a different tatoo:
rain falling, pouring, meets a new umbrella,
leaf-focussed drops snap fresh nylon
- there’s rhythm, could be a rhythm -

in this drenched suburban avenue, why not
register the beat, heartbeat of the universe,
break free, even from the charge of romancing
to hear the foetal pulse, our pulse, inside Your Being?

Olive Powell February 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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