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Called to be a priest

Ida Raming

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. 78 - 89. Translation by Mary Dittrich.

  • Born 1932
  • Studied Catholic theology, philosophy, pedagogics and German in Münster and Freiburg in Breisgau;
  • State teaching qualification at “Gymnasium” (grammar school) level;
  • 1963: Submission to Vatican II (jointly with Iris Müller) calling for the admission of women to ordained ministry, citing theological grounds;
  • 1970: Doctorate of theology (thesis: “Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priestenlichen Amt - gottgewollte Tradition oder diskriminierung?” submitted WS 1969/70, published 1973 by Böhlau-Verlag, Cologne and Vienna. (Transl: English title of thesis “The exclusion of women from priestly office - a God-given tradition or anti-woman discrimination?”)
  • Employment in the Catholic theology section of the University of Münster as scientific assistant, then teaching in “Gymnasien” and adult education.
  • 1986/87: Initiator and co-founder of “Verein Maria von Magdala - Initiative Gleichberechtigung für Frauen in der Kirche e V” (Transl: Mary Magdalene Association - Initiative for Equal Rights for women in the Church", a registered organisation.)
  • Member of the Women’s Ordination Conference (USA), of the Katholischer Deutscher Fraunenband (KDFB) (= Association of German Catholic Women) and of the nationwide network “Diakonat der Frau” (= Diaconate for Women)
  • Numerous publications on the history of the ecclesial movement for women, on the standing and evaluation of women in the history of the Church and its present day, on women and ecclesial office.

“The sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for its young - where then do I go? My home is your altars, my King and my God! You, my God, are my sun and my shield” (after Ps 83,4,12)

I grew up in a Catholic family in a rural community. Unlike most of the highly tradition-bound families in the village, my own home was not as narrow minded as was, or still is, characteristic of purely Catholic country people. My parents were certainly religious, but not excessively churchy. But Church doctrine, for instance on male dominance within the family and on sexual morality (prohibition of family planning) weighed heavily, especially on my mother.

I was meant to be a boy. Surely my mother must have prayed for that a lot, as I had four elder sisters. But it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless my parents looked on me as a gift from God.

I remember developing an affinity for the religious “world” early on. While I was too young to go to school and attend Mass regularly, my grandmother used to pray with me on Sunday mornings. She was keen on litanies, calling out to God, Jesus and his mother. It was my job to respond to each invocation with “Have mercy on us!” or “Pray for us!” because I had not yet learned to read. This joint prayer didn’t seem to me at all boring; it was an important event which left its stamp on me at an early age.

A few years later I was allowed to go to church with my sisters. What I saw and experienced at the altar there was played out later in the woods with one of my sisters or with the neighbours’ children. We would set up an altar on a tree and get hold of a glass for a chalice and some bread. I like to act the priest in such childish games.

Religious instruction, given both in school and in church, meant something special to me. I paid great attention and I remember my teacher in primary school describing the Stations of the Cross so vividly and touchingly that I felt deep and lasting compassion.

Preparation for my First Communion laid in me the foundations of an initial relationship with Jesus, still in traditional form but yet with lasting religious effect. This great ceremony was first rehearsed in church. I remember the feeling of awe and solemnity when we children were all allowed to stand in the chancel near the altar; for in those days girls were not generally allowed there!

After four years at primary school I went first to a nearby secondary school, then to a privately funded Gymnasium run by nuns. Religious instruction, taught by a Franciscan priest and later by a nun, was still very important to me, even though it was still wholly traditional and allowed of no critical questioning or querying. But I was also interested in other subjects, especially German. When we read Goethe’s “Iphigenia” I was fascinated by the grandiose figure of this priestess, especially by her moral fibre and incorruptible character. I formed my own picture of her. And great women in literature made a special impression on me anyway. Their ideal personalities meant that to me they were both models and invitations to identify with them. I was allowed to play the lead in a play about St Elizabeth of Thuringia which was put on by the girls of my school. Because of her work for the poor and her devotion to God the character of Elizabeth was a splendid embodiment of abnegation and greatness.

My vocation

After my school finals I was sure that I wanted to read theology. At the time that was most exceptional for women.

My RI teacher, a Franciscan priest, seems to have sensed in my determination a vocation to a religious order. He asked me if I would like to enter the Franciscan women’s order that ran the school. I declined, because of an intuitive feeling of narrowness in the feminine concept enshrined in and propagated by orders for women (eg the veil, and notions about the nature and role of women). I was reluctant because I greatly valued freedom. However, I stuck to my decision to study theology, and gave my reasons to the RI teacher in these words: “Religion is the most important thing in life”.

I found it very difficult to choose a second subject - apart from theology; I really wanted to read only theology, but at that time as a woman, I would have had next to no job prospects. At most a diploma in theology. But theology was always my main field. On it I passed my dissertation towards a Gymnasium level teaching grade, my subject being the concept of truth in the Gospel of St John. This research helped my in my search for my religious stance.

During my studies it weighed on me dreadfully that I failed to find a spiritual or professional niche for myself: for the above reasons there was no question of a conventional calling within an order, but nor did a secular institute meet my expectations. I suffered greatly in this spiritual homelessness. Before Vatican II there were very few women theologians, and our studies gave us no encouragement critically to probe the status of women in the Church - on the contrary, the traditional role of women was propagated and defended. The Professor of Dogmatics, Herman Volk, later to be Bishop of Mainz, made it clear that men could choose between marriage, the priesthood and life within an order; women had only the first and third options, matrimony and consecrated virginity. The Professor explained this by the (passive) nature of women. Again the narrowness of vocational possibilities for women in the Church became depressingly clear to me, but I (still) regarded that as immutable.

Attending the ordination of a fellow student upset and agitated me a lot. I felt that to be my path too. Why was it barred to me? I suffered from the impossibility of choosing freely between being a priest or a teacher - as my male fellow students could. For I was sure that as a woman I am worth just as much as a man. But the restriction of free choice and the vocational homelessness continued to be a heavy burden. This dilemma ended by my falling ill during my studies with a severe and tedious disease (polyarthritis) which lasted for years. Looking back, I see in that a psychosomatic illness, occasioned by the absence of professional prospects. A clear, purposeful orientation was blocked and so inner dynamism was tamed.

During that period of internal and external opposition, and of shaken beliefs, I prayed very hard for discernment of my spiritual path and place.

Rescued by a friend

Fresh, helpful perspectives opened when I met Dr Iris Müller, who was later to become my colleague and friend. She, too, was living in a hostel for women students in which I, still half ill, took a room in 1961. Schooled by historical critical biblical exegesis during her already completed Evangelical theological studies, and on the basis of the office of woman pastor already extant in the Evangelical Church, Iris Müller, a converted Evangelical theologian, was perfectly free in her criticism of the status of women in church and society. She posited the vocation of woman priest as being self-evident, as a requisite for justice for women in the Catholic Church.

To me her witness was meaningful and liberating. Because of my personal history I recognised the vocation of woman priest to be my own, long sought. This was at last the answer to the questioning about my spiritual place, for which I had prayed so hard. I remember that this realisation released in me happiness and inner liberation. And thanks to its healing effects, my illness was gradually overcome.

After my state examination I decided to carry on with my theology studies and try for a doctorate. At last I found a supervisor for an investigation into the status of women in the Catholic Church, with particular regard to their exclusion from the priesthood. Through this research I looked deeply into the long history of discrimination against women in the Christian tradition. Using copious sources from early Christianity and the Middle Ages, I was able to prove that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is based on the concept of the essential and ethical inferiority of women, and that certain biblical passages (eg Gen 2 & 3: creation of woman from man’s “rib” and her alleged first sin) and their reception and effects throughout centuries have formed the basis of this. In the second part of my dissertation I examined the traditional view of the priestly office, whose (apparently necessary) male character is declared to be a bar to admitting women to priestly service. Against this I was able to demonstrate that a concept of priestly service based on biblical pronouncements on church and office is certainly open to active collaboration by women.

The critical dispute with ecclesiastical tradition regarding the position and evaluation of women made me increasingly sure of my ground in rejecting arguments against ordaining women. Because of the sources now in my hands, I could hold out against such misogynistic attitudes. More and more I felt my vocation to be campaigning for the admission of women to the priesthood.

There were two stages on this journey:

1. Drawing up a Council submission in 1963, jointly with my companion Iris Müller, during Vatican II. This was published, together with contributions from other women, in Gertrud Heinzelmann’s book (German and English): “Wir schwergen nicht länger! Frauen âussen sich zum II. Vatikanischen Konzil” (“We shall keep quiet no more! Women speak to the Second Vatican Council”), published in Zurich in 1964.

2. Writing my thesis, the first specifically critical one from the woman’s angle at Münster University and in Germany, which was submitted to the theological faculty in the 1969/70 winter semester and published in 1973 under the title “Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlicher Amt - gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung?” (“The exclusion of women from priestly office - a God given tradition, or anti-woman discrimination?”) , Böhlau-Verlag, Cologne and Vienna.

The struggle

But these initiatives brought about serious effects and burdens on my livelihood: a total ban on professional work within Church spheres, no prospects whatsoever of carrying on with my scholarly career in Germany (only if I emigrated, eg to the States, had that any chance), and moreover defamation of my person, not openly expressed but spread around behind my back. Nevertheless, I felt I must follow my path, because deep inside me I refused to conform opportunistically for the sake of personal advantage, which would have curtailed my freedom of expression.

In our committed action for complete equality for women in the Church my companion Iris Müller and I felt the lack in Germany of a body of women in the Church and universities. So in 1981 together with other likeminded women, we ventured to try and set up a formal action group of Catholic theologians. But from our viewpoint that eventually failed, because most of the women theologians in this group were not working for the opening of ecclesial office to women, but just wanting to work on theological content. So, together with women in sympathy with our ideals, we left this association which later became “Feminismus und Kirchen” (“Feminism and Churches”). Some years later, in 1986, Iris Müller and I tried again. At the Aachen “katholikentag von unten” (= a congress for the rank and file), after lectures we delivered on the situation of women in the Catholic Church and the German universities we collected signatures of women ready to work for full equality of women in the Church. We invited them to an initial meeting in Münster in March 1987. That was when “Maria von Magdala Initiative Gleichberechtigung für Frauen in der Kirche e V” (= Mary Magdalene Association - Initiative for Equal Rights for Women in the Church", a registered organisation) came into being. Here, at last, a number of women assembled who respected the vocation of women to the diaconate and priesthood, and wanted to work towards the opening of these careers to women. Further aims of this organisation, such as altering the one-sided patriarchal depictions of God to others suited to women and language and liturgy doing justice to women, serve to overcome misogynistic tradition in the Church. Within “Maria von Magdala” there is now a special group for women priests, which offers women with the call solidarity, spiritual strengthening and mutual exchange.

The persistent “definitive” No of the Vatican to women’s ordination weighs heavily on me. Now and then one doubts whether the R C Church will ever allow itself so to be reformed that it is “livable” for women. But the repeated prohibitions of ordaining women do in fact point to weakness and fear in the leadership. Only broad-based “international” uprising and protest movement by the people of the Church, so it seems, can propel the necessary reforms in the Church. That is why I draw hope from the popular movements now launched in more and more countries that God’s Spirit is still stirring in this Church and will bring forth new life.

I have specific ideals, expectations and requirements as to how the calling of a woman priest should be shaped:

* Women wishing to serve as priests should have a deep connection with Jesus, in whom the fullness of the “Wisdom of God” resides, and who called them to be his followers;

* And devotion to Mary and prayers to the Mother of Jesus will be most important to the future woman priest; for Mary is in a way a prototype of the priestly calling, since she gave humanity the corporeal Messiah Jesus and so links heaven and earth.

* Great (female ) saints, eg Mary Magdalene, Theresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, will be indispensable guides to the future women priests; venerating them and praying to them can bestow encouragement, help and strength.

* By virtue of such fundamentally religious orientation, women priests can be role models for the people for whom they are responsible.

* Women priests will have to stand by one another. So it would be most advisable for them to set up a spiritual association, especially because they will have to struggle for recognition of their calling, and because it is likely that for quite some time society will look askance at them.

* They should be open to all humanity’s problems and not exclude certain sectors by having adopted social prejudices.

* To the people entrusted to them they should be companions and fosters on their path to God, not dominating but guided by the servant Jesus.

* Since they have experienced, precisely in the Church, a long history of oppression, they will be keen to work towards a fundamental renewal of the Church, for an end to patriarchy and for democracy in ecclesial structures.

* They should devote very special attention to the pastoral care of women. For women whose personality is often stunted and twisted are in special need of the encouraging example and pastoral support of sisters in (ordained) office, so as to find the way to a liberated, dignified and responsible existence.

In this way, through the service of women priests, new and spiritually-charged life could develop in the Church, so that it could truly become the “Salt of the Earth” and “Light of the World”.

Ida Raming

Webmaster's note.

  • On 29 June 2002 Ida Raming, 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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