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SHAPING CHANGE:

Women, the Diaconate & Priestly Ordination
in the Roman Catholic Church

OCW CONFERENCE, HOBART, TASMANIA,

November 22-24, 2002.

Opening Speech, Soline Vatinel.

The peace and the joy of the Risen Christ be with you.

It is both a great pleasure and a great privilege to have been asked to open this conference: Shaping Change: Women, the Diaconate & Priestly Ordination in the Roman Catholic church. For this I am deeply grateful to the courageous organisers. It certainly exceeds my dreams...which shows once again that God’s imagination is greater than ours! Well, certainly mine!

It is wonderful to be here this evening, in this beautiful part of God’s planet earth. I have come from a country on the other side of the globe, another island, but it is the same Spirit blowing everywhere.

May the Holy Spirit open our minds and hearts, our mouths and ears, so that this conference may be truly fruitful as we share with one another. And may it be a source of rich blessings of joyful hope for all of us.

What came to me first when I started reflecting on what I was going to say this evening is this passionate exhortation by saint Catherine of Siena: “Preach the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.” And she could have added: It is silence that kills the Church! Well, Catherine certainly did not remain silent.

It is also my responsibility tonight to share with you the little bit of truth which is mine. I offer it to you, conscious that it is both partial and personal, (and certainly not infallible), but also conscious that I cannot withhold it from you. Then you can do with it what you want: Dismiss it, question it, ponder it, accept it, and qualify it.

I have a very simple message for this conference on shaping change in connection with women’s ordination and it is this: DO NOT WAIT ANY LONGER. NOW IS THE TIME. I repeat: DO NOT WAIT. It is my firm belief, from my experience, that as long as we are prepared to wait, we shall be kept waiting. And if we are prepared to wait for ever, well, we shall indeed be kept waiting for ever. This waiting is not a virtue: It is timidity masquerading as patience, lack of faith and love dressed up as humility.

The best definition of humility, certainly the one that has been the most helpful to me in my journey is this one: Humility is knowing one’s place....AND TAKING IT!

Yes, and taking it.

Not asking for it, begging to be allowed, but taking it. This definition of humility is based on Mary’s Magnificat: God, the mighty One has done great things for me. The 25th of March, feast of the Annunciation, has been chosen as the world day of prayer for the ordination of women. And for many very good reasons.

But just consider for a few minutes this alternative version:

Mary is being told by the angel that she has been chosen to bring about the greatest change possible, in fact the most radical change: giving birth to the Messiah.

No small calling. What does Mary say: “excuse me Angel Gabriel, but I need to ask the religious authorities for permission to say yes. You see perhaps they have other plans... And I will also need to consult Joseph...”

And so Mary goes about consulting the scribes who laugh at her presumption and explain to her that this is totally impossible: It has never happened before, so how could it happen now? And they admonish her to dismiss those grand notions from her pretty little head. Mary then tries to get a meeting with the Sanhedrin and the High Priest. She is eventually informed by a contemptuous religious official that “the high priest does not meet people like her...” After all she is a nobody, and this talk of Messiah is plainly ridiculous. Who needs a Messiah? Certainly not they. Managing very well, thank you. We have a very good system in place. A messiah would only create more complications and upset.

So Mary is kept waiting...

No she can’t tell the Angel Gabriel “YES”. Just too bad, but she hasn’t got permission. Not yet any way, but she will keep on trying to persuade the religious authorities that it is a good idea...

Every year she will put in an appeal in Jerusalem... Meanwhile she offers up her suffering, for the good of her soul and for the good of the people. This is what a learned scribe advised her to do. After all, God can afford to wait to send the Messiah, if that is really what God wants. It is an important decision; you would not want to hurry etc....

And then the High Priest, determined to silence this trouble maker Mary declares once and for all that there will never be a Messiah. Such is God’s will. And he is the expert on God’s will. What could a woman possibly know about God’s Will? End of discussion.

Well, aren’t we jolly glad that Mary DID NOT WAIT, did not ask for permission, and just said her YES:

“Let it be done unto me according to your Word”. NOW. Not when everybody and especially those in power, agree it is all right. You can be sure that if she had not, we would still be waiting for the Incarnation. Thank God for Mary’s humility!

This wonderful story of the Annunciation also makes clear that God did not take the trouble to send the Angel Gabriel to the religious authorities to inform them, still less to ask their opinion. And even Joseph, closest to Mary, was presented with a fait accompli. How cavalier of God to by-pass all the male authorities for this world changing event! A dangerous precedent...

What I am asking is this:

What is the greater calling for a woman: To be the mother of God or to be a priest or a deacon...or a bishop, of Rome or anywhere else? If Mary needed nobody else’s permission to fulfill her vocation, why do we need any, when our calling is considerably lesser than hers? My honest belief is that we don’t.

At this stage some of you may think I am going onto very dangerous ground, that I am preaching revolution and subversion. If so, you are quite right. This is exactly what I am saying. But then, I would not be true to myself if I said anything else. And I have definitely not traveled all this way to say words that might comfort the mighty on their ecclesiastical thrones in Rome or in their episcopal palaces.

There is a revolution going on in the Church in connection with women‘s ordination, make no mistake.

And the revolution consists in this: Women are saying “YES” to their callings. And there is nothing more revolutionary. If women were only saying ’NO’ to the religious authorities, they would be mere rebels

And it would be only acts of defiance. Annoying but stoppable. But women who say ‘Yes’ to God are unstoppable. And therefore very dangerous.

We are not rebels, we are faith-full. We have dared to believe in God’s Word to us. Real change, radical change happens when people say YES to God. This Yes does have implications. It engages our whole being, and makes us totally dependent on God. I can tell you from experience that it would be much easier to go along with the religious authorities and abort our calling, as they would want us to do in the name of God, than to say ‘Yes’ to God.

I remember only too well my prayer, when age 17 I first heard the call to priestly ministry: “Do not call me, Your Church does not want me“. It took many years of wrestling with the angel before I could say ‘YES‘, in fact 16 years! But after that, there is no going back. No going back to putting obedience to men, even of the highest ecclesiastical rank, ahead of obedience to God. It then becomes impossible to deny what God has done and is doing in us. Even though this means letting go of being good catholic girls, and all the perks and privileges that come with knowing our places at the feet of our ecclesiastical masters, submitting to the “infallible truth” that silences God’s voice within us.

I want to assert that saying ‘YES’ to God makes for very disobedient women. And this good news is indeed very bad news for the present status quo of male rule over women in the Church. It is collapsing under the weight of all those little ‘YESES‘and all the frantic efforts in the world will not save it. Let us commit ourselves wholeheartedly to Holy Disobedience! The service of the Gospel needs it, in fact requires it. When the truth is told, which is seldom, we can see how many women saints were expert at it... Your own Mary McKillop had the privilege of being excommunicated!

People often ask me: When will there be women priests, women deacons..?” My reply is: “There are women priests and deacons. The question is when will they be recognised officially? Throughout the world a growing number of Roman Catholic women, lay and religious, married and single, are carrying out the ministries of priests and deacons. I mean they minister the sacraments, YES, ALL OF THE SACRAMENTS, and preach the Word. In homes, hospitals, convents, prisons, schools, retreat houses, in the bush and even sometimes in chapels and churches.

I was recently telling a Jesuit priest about women presiding at the Eucharist, and obviously the thought had never occurred to him that it could be happening. He asked me in disbelief: “And do they say the words?” (Meaning the words of consecration). Yes, on every continent we, women, say the words. Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we do what, by the grace of God and the gift of the Spirit, is in our power to do?

It is worth quoting again the well known poem by Frances Croake Franck on this issue of ’The Words’!

Did The Woman Say

Did the woman say?

When she held him for the first time in the dark dank of a stable,

After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,

“This is my body, this is my blood”?

Did the woman say?

When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,

After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,

“This is my body, this is my blood?”

Well that she said it to him then.

For dry old men,

Brocaded robes belying barrenness,

Ordain that she not say it for him now.

My Jesuit friend may have been shocked at such a revelation, but the Irish bishop whom I informed 6 years ago that I was now presiding regularly at the Eucharist, was far from upset; in turn he informed me that he knew Irish women had been doing just that for at least 10 years. Doing this is not indulging in an ego-trip. It is replying to an urgent call of the Spirit, often reluctantly, and sometimes the response will cost a great deal.

Here I am particularly thinking of Irene McCormack, an Australian missionary sister to Peru. Today I want to remember her with gratitude, as priest and martyr. She was executed by the Shining Path in 1991. A few months before she was shot dead she wrote a letter which has been published. There were no priests left in the village where she was. She was the one left behind, the one who had chosen to stay with the people whom God had entrusted to her, despite the danger to her life. She was baptising and celebrating with them, but there was no Eucharist. They came to her and they said “Give us the Eucharist”. At first she did not want to. She was a woman and she was not ordained. But then she realised God was calling her to do so and she wrote:

”They freed me to exercise Eucharistic ministry among them”.

I quote further from her: “Not only is it a contradiction to the proclamation of Jesus that there is no distinction between male and female, but a lack of appreciation of the plight of villagers like ours all over the world that our Church continues denying its official ministry, that is by nature ‘communion’. As we in our little communities in the Andes gather in memory of Jesus, there is no power or authority on earth that can convince me that Jesus is not personally present....”

Following the example of Jesus Sr. Irene McCormack shed her own blood for the people she loved.

So the truth of the present situation is that Roman Catholic women all over the world are ministering in increasing numbers in ways which are considered officially to be not only illegal but also invalid.

Illegal and invalid they may be by the standards of canon law, but there is a greater law, the law of love.

And this law of love authorizes women’s ministries and makes them fruitful. It never ceases to astonish me that one could question the suitability of women as ministers of Word and Sacraments, given the fact that it was a woman, Mary of Nazareth, who gave us Jesus, the one great sacrament.

But then, as I have mentioned earlier this was not done with the permission of the male religious authorities... A woman’s womb would not have been deemed a suitable place for the Son of God... Just like today our official leaders teach that women’s hands and voices are not good enough….unlike those of their brothers.

How do we still tolerate this appalling nonsense, this scandalously destructive teaching which amounts to telling us that sexism is a sin in the world, but the will of God in our Church? If we believe that this is not the will of God, we are duty bound in conscience to act accordingly. We are called to both ask for the change of all teachings, rules and regulations which discriminate against women AND in the meantime to disobey them.

To go along with the discrimination after one has judged in conscience that such discrimination is unjust and against God’s will is colluding in that injustice. By action or by omission. We cannot morally wait until we have the permission of the official authorities to put an end to this sin against women, the church community and God. We need to allow God to change us and make changes NOW. Otherwise we are abdicating our responsibility as baptized and confirmed members of the Church. In this respect we all need to examine our consciences, as individuals and communities.

A few months ago I was asked to preside at a marriage. It was the bride and groom’s strong desire to have their union blessed by a woman. My first reaction was akin to mild panic: a mixture of anger and fear. Why me? Then while praying about it, I understood what was really happening for me when I heard myself say: “My time has not come“. And I thought of Jesus at the wedding feast of Cana. I wondered if it was also how he had felt, when his mother had put Him on the spot and asked Him to take action? I then knew I was getting the same irresistible nudge from Mary. I said yes and experienced a great sense of peace, all my anxiety left me.

The wedding took place on the 8th of September, Mary’s birthday.... I asked a male priest friend to preside at the Eucharist; I presided at the nuptial ceremony. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, deeply right and good. In fact it felt like I had done it all my life. I did not have to play a role I just had to be the person God wanted me to be and let the Spirit blow freely in my life.

Perhaps that is what we are most afraid of: What will happen if we give the Spirit free rein in our lives, our community, our church, our world? And again I repeat my message, with a great sense of urgency:

Let us not wait to open ourselves and our communities to the power of the Spirit, under the pretext that we cannot do so without permission. We are living through a time of profound change in our church and in our world. A time of crisis.

This quote from Eric Hoffer seems apt:

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.

When it comes to women and ministry, our male -only official magisterium undoubtedly belongs to this latter category. I see a new church being born out of a dying one. The dying one is being kept alive by all kinds of increasingly more desperate means of artificial respiration. But the breath of the Spirit is not in them and so they will not work. They only serve to prolong the agony and increase the suffering of the whole church. I am thinking particularly of the repressive measures taken to silence consciences. But at the same time a new church is being born: the Spirit is calling us to be mothers and midwives. NOW.

So let us not wait to say YES.

I would like to conclude with the words of an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, words which have been a source of encouragement to me and many others over the past decade.

“History says, ’Do not hope
This side of the grave’,
but then, Once in a life -time,
the longed for Tidal wave of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea change
on the far side of revenge. Believe
That a further shore is reachable From here.
Believe in miracles, and cures and healing wells”.

Thanks be to God.

Soline Vatinel

November 11th 2002. Feast of Saint Martin of Tours

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