Letter on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church

Below is a letter that I wrote on one of the topics that is nearest to my heart, the call of women to ordination in the Catholic Church:

Dear Father,

Yesterday, my 23-year-old daughter and I were in attendance at 7:30 Mass. We are local, but not parishioners. When you began the homily saying that you were continuing a series on the sacraments with Holy Orders, my daughter put her hand out for me to clasp, because it is a very sensitive topic for us, especially in regards to women’s ordination, and we knew that we might wind up leaving together in tears. That we did not is a testament to your pastoral sensitivity on a very fraught topic.

I appreciated your statements about the theology coming along much later than the practice of Holy Orders for men only. The two theological defenses that you chose to share in your homily, that the Twelve were all male and that women priests would disrupt the imagery of the church as the bride of Christ, were presented in the most even-handed way possible. Thank you for not going into the whole “male as normative” line of argument, which flies in the face of the constant teaching that both male and female image God and that in Christ all are one. It also elevates maleness above other attributes. For instance, the Twelve were Jews, religiously and ethnically, but we don’t say that that is normative. I admit that the “Bride of Christ” imagery is problematic for me, as I don’t find it especially meaningful. I find much more power and dignity in the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, actively carrying divine love and service out into the world.

I also appreciated the historical context you included on the development of bishops, deacons, and priests in the early church, especially in being clear that both women and men served as deacons. There is also evidence of women serving as priests, presiding in early house churches. There are inscriptions and art depicting women presiders that has been recovered from early Christian burial sites. There is evidence of women, sometimes abbesses, who acted as bishops, into the Middle Ages. This history is not well-known, but it is very meaningful to those who do know it.

I appreciated you quoting Pope Francis saying that the church does not YET have the authority to ordain women, because that is much more hopeful than the statements of John Paul and Benedict. Given that the Pontifical Biblical Commission found no biblical reason that women could not be ordained, there is hope that the Holy Spirit will enable the Church of the future to recognize and accept through Holy Orders all who are called to serve, regardless of their gender.

I know a number of women who have discerned this call. As you said, you can’t know what it is like to have such a call but to be excluded from fulfilling it. The women that I know who felt called but who are vowed religious have all stayed with the Church, serving God and all people through the ministries that they are allowed to perform. Most of the other women that I know that felt this call to the priesthood or diaconate have withdrawn from active participation in the church because it is too painful to be constantly reminded of not being able to be what God has called them to be. Most of these women still identify as Catholic, but do not participate in parish life and worship. A few joined other denominations, including one who is now an ordained minister.

I myself have walked a fine, and perhaps cowardly, line of not knowing. From my early teens, I was involved in music and liturgy planning ministries. When I was a young mother, I had two dreams that I was a priest. I actually went to a discernment meeting in the diocese, back before they specified that you had to be either unmarried or a married man to attend. When we broke into smaller groups, I wound up going with the deacons, who shared that often the deacons’ wives would go to all the courses and training with their husbands, but that there was nothing that they could offer them in the end as their husbands were ordained.

Knowing how difficult it was for my friends who felt called to stay in the church, I decided not to try to discern if I was actually called myself. So, I have spent a couple of decades in this uncertain space. Of late, the deacon at the parish I most often attend has been ill and I find myself looking at the priest alone in the presidential chair and thinking that I could be there assisting as deacon. After a homily about the obstacles we face to saying “Here I am” to God, I went and spoke to the priest about these persistent thoughts of myself as deacon, knowing that, in some diocese, women are pursuing the possibility and that there is an international movement to restore women to the diaconate. I told the priest with whom I spoke that I knew there was nothing he could do in our diocese, but that I needed someone to listen, which he very graciously did. I appreciate his willingness to give me a time and space to share my situation with him and his support in the limbo in which so many women reside, not just on the question of ordination, but in the larger sphere of existing as a Catholic woman, especially a married one, when you are treated as somehow “other” in the one place in which you should be accepted in your fullness as a child of God.

He could neither do nor did I expect him to do anything about my dilemma. This applies to you as well, but I wanted to try to convey to you my thanks for your sensitivity in not causing me or my daughter any more pain than we already feel as women in the church. While my hopes of the “Yet” being in my lifetime diminish, perhaps it will be within my daughters’ lifetimes. We can only hope and pray.

In the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit,
Joanne

(In)sight

An amazing video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyDdVJ81Ixs is making the rounds. It shows a woman who was deaf and is hearing for the first time. What isn’t being as widely reported is that the woman chose to have cochlear implant surgery now because she is rapidly losing her eyesight, upon which she relied to read lips. Her brain, never having had to deal with sound before, will take time to learn how to interpret speech, but, as her eyesight continues to dim, she will still be able to communicate as her ability to understand spoken sounds improves. In the end, it’s not the method of taking in information and expression that matters; it’s that there is a way to experience and share thoughts, joys, hopes, and fears.

The Scripture readings at my church for the Fourth Sunday of Lent http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/033014.cfm  center around sight and include the story of Jesus curing a man who was blind from birth on the Sabbath. As the story is told, it becomes apparent that the greater gift is that Jesus reveals his identity as Messiah to the man, who has been thrown out of the synagogue for defending Jesus in the face of questioning by the religious authorities. As the deacon who was preaching noted, the cured man received not only physical sight, but insight. Those who clung to the rule of no work on the Sabbath had physical sight, but not insight into the healing power of God, which is beyond the human boundaries of time and circumstance.

In the end, it was the ability to be open, to take in new experience, to grow, to change, to ponder, to learn, to communicate one’s own truth, to connect on a deep level that was important. No matter the state of our individual faculties, insight is possible if we are attentive.

Water, women, and Jesus

Yesterday was World Water Day and the lectionary readings for today were also about water, including the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, all in the month of March, which is Women’s History Month in the US.

Women and girls are most likely to be dealing with water access and pollution problems as they are usually the ones most in charge of fetching, carrying, cooking, washing up, laundering, etc., especially in the parts of the world where clean hot and cold water do not run abundantly from the tap, as they do for me and my neighbors. Water is a necessity of life and access to it is a justice issue.

In the gospel story, it is a woman who comes to fetch water from the well of Jacob, her ancestor. She is in a socially vulnerable position, female, a Samaritan, sexually exploited. Yet Jesus asks her for a favor and engages in conversation with her, breaking with the norms of the society both on gender and ethnic grounds. What is even more astonishing is that he reveals his identity as the messiah to her and that she, despite her lack of community standing, becomes an apostle of the Good News, one who “goes and tells” others of salvation.

Preaching on this gospel often revolves around the woman’s sinfulness, because she has been married five times and is living with a man who isn’t her husband, but Jesus, although he tells the woman that he knows this about her, never condemns her for it or discusses any need for forgiveness. He offers her the living water of the Spirit, truth, salvation, and the love of God, which she gratefully receives and, energized, brings other people to meet Jesus so that they too can encounter him and believe that he is the messiah.

The woman, unnamed as are many of the women who encounter Jesus in the gospel, stands for all the other nameless women who are exploited or marginalized because of their gender or their ethnicity. Her modern descendants in spirit might live in Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, or might be victims of human trafficking in Thailand, Brazil, the US. God offers radical, unconditional love, not guilt or blame about their exploitation.

We are called to do the same.

Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras! So, theoretically, I should be gorging on all the fattening foods in my house, consuming as much as possible before Lent begins tomorrow.

But that’s not my way.

While I will observe the traditions of my church in regards to fasting and and abstaining from meat on certain days, I don’t find it spiritually useful to give up chocolate or dessert or some other food or drink.

Instead, I strive to live moderately and thoughtfully in general, so that, when a special season such as Lent occurs, I can concentrate on spending additional time in prayer/spiritual reading and service, as well as making special monetary donations to charities.

I am certainly not discounting those who truly find fasting and giving up luxuries a spiritually beneficial practice. I am only sharing what works for me.

So Happy Mardi Gras! You can have an extra doughnut or pancake for me.

putting away Christmas

In my faith tradition, this weekend marks the end of the Christmas season, so it is time to pack away the rest of the decorations. We had already taken down our tree last weekend, after the celebration of Epiphany, a tradition we share with several friends.

While putting up the tree is more festive, taking it down is more meditative. We place all the ornaments on the dining room table before we pack them into their boxes, so, at a glance, I can appreciate their diversity, and, focusing in, can celebrate their uniqueness and the memories each holds.

Ornaments from our trees growing up – my favorite silver ball with handpainted pink roses – the horn from my husband’s tree that actually makes a sound if you blow into it…the rocking horses and unicorns that I made from a kit when we were newlyweds that became the bottom-of-the-tree ornaments when our daughters were small, due to their cute and colorful, yet indestructible, nature…the circus animal ornaments from my friend Angie, who passed away eight, almost nine, years ago…Hawaiian ornaments from my daughter and son-in-law, who live in Honolulu…ornaments made by my artist-friend Yvonne…the cedar ornament that became a teether for my older daughter’s first Christmas…the set of small wooden angel-musicians and all the other music-themed instruments which commemorate the many years of church music-making in our family…the felt horse heads -a pair made by my husband as a child, another pair made by his mom when she was helping her third-graders make an art project/gift for their parents – that transform into hobby horses with the insertion of a candy cane…a Florentine-paper origami bird, folded by our younger daughter…the nature-themed ornaments, made by Latin-American artisans using native gourds…gifts from friends and relatives over the years…ornaments we have bought in our travels – a painted ceramic ball from my first and only European trip to Sicily – a carved wooden house from Deerfield – cloth ornaments from Skaneateles – enameled ornaments from Winterthur…

Though the ornaments are packed and stored away, the memories linger and warm our hearts, so the peace and joy of the season last a little longer.

gospel about the healing of the ten lepers

This past Sunday’s gospel reading was Luke 17:11-19, the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. The homily was quite good, focusing on communication and gratitude, but, most often, preaching on this reading centers around only the Samaritan being grateful, while the other nine were not because they did not return immediately to thank Jesus. I have long thought that this was being overly judgmental, as we do not know what happened to the other nine. I prefer not to use the silence of the gospel to assume the worst.

Year ago, I wrote a letter to a columnist from the (Syracuse) Catholic Sun about this gospel reading. I wrote about how the other nine (presumably) Jewish men who continued on to show themselves to the priests were doing as Jesus told them to do, acting in accordance with Jewish law, which had previously forced them, as lepers, to keep a distance from the community and even from their own families. Only by showing themselves to the priests could they rejoin their family and community and go the the temple or synagogue again. They may very well have given thanks to God and lived lives overflowing with gratitude. They may have found Jesus at a later time to thank him. They may have become his disciples. We simply do not know.

Maybe this healing story shares an underlying theme with some of the parables, such as the the Good Samaritan. Observance of the letter of the law prevents the priest and Levite from helping the man who was robbed and beaten. For them, the Law takes precedence over love of neighbor and showing compassion.

The columnist did not appreciate my insights, but perhaps you will…