By Chava Redonnet (right), from the bulletin of Oscar Romero Inclusive Catholic Church in upstate New York (4th Sunday in Lent)
Something I really do not enjoy doing is arguing. It’s one of those character traits that can be seen as either a virtue or a fault, but whichever it is, it’s me. Live and let live is more my style. We don’t all have to agree.
So in recent years I have found myself less and less interested in trying to convince anyone why women should be priests. I figure my priesthood is my argument for women priests. If someone can look at my ministry and say it’s not valid simply because I’m female, I don’t think anything I could say would change their mind.
After some pretty draining conflict in a community I was part of for many years, I said, “I’m not willing to spend another minute of my life discussing whether or not I ought to be a priest. I AM a priest, and I have work to do, and I’m not going to sit around arguing about whether I ought to be doing it or not because I’m a woman.”
Mostly that works. Shake the dust off, and get to work.
Recently, however, a high school classmate asked me on Facebook to explain to her how women could be priests, because she really wanted to know. And for old time’s sake, and in hopes that she does really want to know, I’ve been thinking about it all week and decided to make that the theme of this week’s bulletin.
People sometimes speak of “women wanting to be priests.” It’s not an accurate way to describe what’s going on, though. It’s not about wanting. It’s about responding to a deep, insistent sense of call. Call needs to come in two ways, inner and outer – that inner sense needs to be verified by others who see those gifts in you. But first, almost always, is that persistent sense that “this is what I must do.” Back when I was in Divinity School, someone once asked me why I was following that often discouraging road – going to school while working full time and raising my kids. It was not hard to find the answer: “Because I will not rest easy in my grave if I do not do the work I am called to do.”
God has been calling women for a long time. St Therese of Lisieux had a call to priesthood. There are lots and lots of female Protestant ministers and Episcopalian priests who began life as Catholic, and found no other way to respond to their call than to change to a denomination that would ordain women. (And every one of those denominations went through a process, a change, before opening ministry to women, most within the last 100 years or so). As deeply as I know I am called to priesthood, I knew in those years that I was preparing, that I was not called to pursue ordination in another denomination. The call is to Catholic priesthood. I believe my sister priests would say the same. And now it is possible, albeit outside the bounds of hierarchical approval. That’s okay.
Being on the outside is actually a great blessing right now. I think we are called to be where we are in this moment in history. All those years in Divinity School, I carried the question, “What is the role of a priest in a community of equals?” What a joy it was to discover the Roman Catholic WomenPriests, where I met dozens of women asking the same question. We are clear: if women were to enter the hierarchy as it now exists, we would become part of the problem. So right now it’s a blessing to be right where we are, asking our questions, working on exploring what it looks like for church to be a community of equals, and what our role in that might be.
Being on the outside is also a blessing because it forces us to the margins. My own ministry is almost entirely with people outside the mainstream – maybe because of their health status – or because they lack a home – or because they speak a different language. How much better to minister from a position of understanding the rejection and stigma that are so often a part of the reality of life on the margins. If you travel low to the ground, you don’t have so far to fall. I think that’s a good thing for church. Pretty hard to “walk with” people if you’re riding in a limousine… maybe the “limousine” of comfort and privilege… maybe in a literal fancy car. Either way, that’s a distance you don’t need if you are about accompaniment and solidarity.
So here we are, hundreds of us, now, answering with our lives and our ministries that persistent question: “Whaddaya mean, you’re a priest?!”
I don’t know that my response answers the question, but it is what this not-much-of-an-arguer has to offer.