Why I’m writing
It was during a retreat made in India at Christmas, 1992, that I finally stopped trying to run away from God and accepted that I was being called to priesthood. For the last, puzzling, seven years I have been doing my best to work out what that means and what I am supposed to be doing about it. There has been the constant problem of trying to own the truth of my vocation and explore it further, with getting on with my life and attempting to follow whatever path to ministry is available to me as a woman within the Catholic Church. At the moment I work four days a week as a pastoral minister in a Catholic parish in the Westminster Diocese and am studying part-time for an MA in Philosophy and Religion at Heythrop College, London, UK.
I grew up, the eldest of four children, in a small rural parish in Essex, England. My parents were very active members of the Church and we took part in everything! I was a reader at the age of fourteen and helping out with parish jumble sales from as early as I can remember. I went to a Catholic school, belonged to the Catholic youth group and went on pilgrimage to the Catholic shrines at Walsingham and Aylesford on a regular basis. From a very early age I had an awareness of God and a great desire to help other people. When I was eleven years old I had an overwhelming experience of God’s love for me and of wanting to respond. Earlier that year I had read a book about St.Therese of Lisieux and the words I heard were that I was being asked to be ‘like Therese’. For many years I presumed that to ‘be like Therese’ meant ‘to become a nun’, a desire that I harboured throughout my teenage years. Then, when I was sixteen, someone asked me in a casual conversation, ‘Do you think women should be priest?’ My response was an automatic and horrified ‘No!’.
I did not know it then, but that short exchange was to prove a turning point in my life. In the years that followed I started to think deeply about that question ‘Should women be priests?’ and began to come up with a different answer, a ‘Yes’. I thought about the implications for the Church, and for belief in Christ, of reversing the trend of centuries and ordaining women, and I could see that they were profound. But I also began to sense a certain rightness about it.
Starting to unravel
By the time I reached university I had lost my teenage sense of vocation but I retained my desire to ‘do something in the Church’ which led me to the study of theology at Nottingham University and afterwards to a year’s voluntary work in Liverpool.
It was somewhere around this point that I began to understand that priests and nuns were not direct male-female equivalents. This was a startling discovery for me at the time. As a teenage Catholic girl, I knew that men became priests and women became nuns. Being a nun was ‘the’ vocation by means of which women gave service in the Church and accordingly, that’s what I thought I wanted to do. But what I had instinctively thought it was all about was carrying on the sacramental life of the Church. Nuns, I now realised were not the equivalent of priests, but of monks. They lived in community and offered the Church a special gift, the ‘charism’ of their congregation. Nuns might work in parishes and assist with the preparation of people for the sacraments from time to time but they didn’t exist for that work and they did lots of other things. Ordination for priesthood meant something different and while it was frequently conferred on monks, it was NEVER conferred on nuns. Service in Christ’s Church might be for men and women, but priesthood was uniquely male. While I knew, consciously, that only men presided at the sacraments, somehow it had never previously occurred to me that I was not eligible to celebrate Mass, and that the reason I was not, and never would be, eligible was because I was a woman. The Eucharist was at the heart of my worship,the source and inspiration for all the other things I did, to me it seemed obvious that this was always going to be where I would put my heart. The realisation that I was permanently excluded from the principal office for sharing my faith brought me up sharp and made me question a lot about what it meant to be a woman and a Catholic.
During my voluntary year I began to be aware of a nagging feeling inside, that something was not quite right. The idea of actually becoming a priest kept coming up again and again but each time I fought against it. ‘If I was a man,’ I reasoned, ‘then, of course, that would be what I’d do, but I’m a woman so I can’t. I can work for the Church without having to be a priest. I like caring for people. I can be a social worker, a counsellor, or something, anything, else.’ Even though I had come to accept on an intellectual level that women could be ordained, I was resisting mightily the idea that this should have anything to do with me! It might be pleasant to consider becoming a priest in my daydreams, but the reality was that I wanted to make other plans for my life.
However the nagging feeling just would not go away and three months into a four month solo journey round India in 1992, I made an eight day retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Goa. That retreat was a painful and difficult struggle but at the end of it I had an experience, almost impossible to describe, of God calling me to priesthood personally. To the surprise of both myself and my Jesuit spiritual director, I found myself sobbing on the chapel floor of the retreat house, first with terror at the sheer impossiblity of it, then with joy as I was flooded with the most amazing consolation that God was in this, I had only to trust and God would do the rest. The nagging feeling ceased and was replaced with a feeling of peace. Seven years further on and the feeling remains, a surprising inner calm in a life that has been otherwise plunged into chaos.
I was then, and remain, convinced that I would not make a very good priest and God would be far better off choosing someone else. I find it very difficult now to meet women working in pastoral positions who would make far better priests than I ever would, but yet who say that they have no calling to priesthood. Why me? Why not them? Let me go, God!
At the time of my retreat I thought I was the only Catholic woman in the world hearing this call. However, since then I have met many others and realise that the Holy Spirit is at work calling women all over the world. Women from all different sorts of backgrounds, some married, some not, some in religious life, some not, but all of whom have in common an understanding that ordination would make a difference to their ministry, that God is somehow asking this of them. Meeting these women, hearing their stories and visiting the places they minister in has convinced me, probably more than any academic argument, of the great need to recognise these vocations for what they really are and to stop depriving the Church of the fullness of their much needed gifts.
An adult Church
In the parish work I do now, I can see that the position of women in the Church, at least in parish structures, is clearly distorted. Women are given little direct responsibility for parish life and generally acquire such responsibility as they do attain primarily through the amount of influence they can exert over the men they work with. This is not an adult way of proceeding for either men or for women. Indeed, the same would be true for men in ministry who are not celibates and for lay people generally. A more mature approach to ministry is very much needed. Decision-making powers and responsibility for the faith should be spread much more widely if our Church is to truly grow.
The book of Genesis tells us we were made male and female in the image of God and, for me, the continuing exploration of this mystery of our existence in two inter-related genders must surely be an integral part of Christianity. Women would bring to the ordained ministry the feminine face of Christ, whom we believe, was God made human to bring us to salvation. Sometimes I fear that in stressing the importance of the maleness of Jesus we have risked tying ourselves down to the worship of masculinity rather than the worship of God, who is without gender and yet encompasses both male and female. Is women’s closeness to God only at second hand? In saying that only men adequately represent Christ how can we proclaim the good news?
The roller-coaster obstacle course!
In the years since my retreat in Goa the effort to remain faithful has been a constant struggle. Had ordination been possible for me, I would still have had to battle with all the obstacles, internal and external, which have made me want to give up over the years. By ‘coming out’ about my calling to many people I have been conscious of the extra burden of responsibility in trying to live out my vocation as best I can in the circumstances in which I am able to minister. I worry that I might make stupid mistakes and people will point to my example and say, ‘See what happens when women want to be priests!’
For all my fears, I have tried to answer the call from God as I have understood it. Ultimately, it is for the Church to decide whether I would indeed make a suitable candidate for ordination. All I can do is simply come forward and say that I would like to be tested.
The publication of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ in 1994, restating that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women and that there is, therefore, no further need for discussion on the matter, has increased the acuteness of my dilemma. For me, it happened that the occasion of experiencing a call to priesthood was also my deepest experience of God. It is from that experience I speak when I talk to other people about God and witness to my faith in Christ. If I cannot speak about the one, how can I speak about the other?
I know it would be much easier to stay silent and trouble no-one, but this would be untruthful. What encourages me to persevere is the discovery that so many other people around the world are also starting to believe that the Church is being called to ordain women.
Researching for www.womenpriests.org
Researching for the web has revealed for me the misogyny so sadly present in the conclusions drawn about the nature of women by many of the Church’s Fathers, whose decisions yet continue to guide the teaching of the Magisterium. But it has also been important to learn of the many threads in our rich tradition which point the way to a future theology of women’s ordination, often implicit in the writings of these same Fathers. The small scraps of information that we have on women who were deaconesses or mystics or saints or theologians down the ages further inspire me with the conviction that this vocation to priesthood is not a new one for women but only one which has lain as yet unrealised.
‘To be like Thérèse’
In my own life, where the desire to ‘be like’ St. Therese of Lisieux was so important to my original call, I have been intrigued to discover that Therese herself had longed to be a priest and had even been grateful that she was to die at twenty-four, the earliest age at which she could have been ordained, so that she would not have to live with the disappointment of never being one.
And for the future?
I find it at times painful and frustrating to work within the official structures of the Catholic Church. It is painful to be told repeatedly in Church documents that the vocation to which I believe God is calling me is illegitimate, when it is that very vocation that has driven me to service within the Church in the first place! When I preach, or preside at a communion service, or take on a new responsibility, or speak out on some issue, I am always wondering whether what I have said or how I have acted is okay for me as a woman who is NOT a priest (but who would like to be). All the time it feels like the emphasis is on being careful about what I can’t do, rather that on what service I can give which would be to the greater glory of God. It shouldn’t have to be like that.
In the Church of the third millenium women and men should be capable of living out their Christian vocations to the full alongside one another in each and every walk of life, including priesthood. With a little prompting from the Holy Spirit, I am convinced that we will become better able to listen to one another’s vocations and allow God to give us the renewed Church we long for.
|Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?|
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