Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Mom, why can't women be priests?" Part II

(Click here for Part I.)

This life is an interesting journey, to be sure...

On a recent Sunday morning, I woke up to an interview of Toronto's Cardinal Archbishop Thomas Collins on CBC radio. He was talking to Michael Enright in connection with the 50th anniversary of the second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. Michael asked Archbishop Collins about the ordination of women, and his reply was that the church cannot change the male priesthood that was instituted by Christ. And I replied, aloud, “where exactly in scripture did Jesus say that only men could offer the Eucharistic meal and that women aren’t allowed to participate as fully in the priesthood as men? And why do you cling to man-made laws over justice and equality for Jesus’ female followers, who hear God’s call just as clearly as men do?” I'm sure I reacted that way because I know a few of those female followers personally, women who feel they are unable to live their vocation because the Catholic Church won't allow it.

Cardinal Collins’ interview was an interesting start to a day that we had planned, as a family, to go to Ruth’s house for eucharist. I’ve known Ruth for almost 30 years, ever since we both worked at a Catholic youth summer camp, but I had lost touch with her until recently, when I learned (by a series of what a friend of mine likes to call “God-incidents”) that Ruth was ordained a Roman Catholic Woman Priest this past spring. I contacted her, and after some thought and prayer and a few emails back and forth, I finally asked my family what they would think about attending a mass with a woman presider. Without exception, they were all VERY interested, so we let Ruth know we were coming, and off we went.

I know that this moodling will ruffle some feathers (if it hasn't already), but I risk sharing these reflections here because, for me, silent acquiescence to a male-only priesthood feels like a perpetuation of injustice. Over the last few weeks, I've discovered that ruffling a few feathers on this topic brings about interesting discussions and new awareness. Maybe, just maybe, those things can help to bring about the ever-dreaded but often-needed event known as change.

When we arrived at Ruth’s house that Sunday, we were greeted at the door by some of Ruth's community. After introductions all around, we and two others who had never been there before were invited into the living room, where the kitchen table was surrounded by living room furniture and a few strategically placed kitchen chairs. There were duotangs containing the prayers of the liturgy, in which God was God, Source of all Being, Father and Mother God, and tender-God, a name with a double meaning that I really like. Readings were passed out among the group, we had a short music practice of a couple of less familiar hymns, and we began the liturgy in the name of God, Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Throughout the celebration, God was transcendently Great and Glorious and Triune, but also close and loving and intimate.

The penitential rite and prayers were less formalistic versions of what we usually hear on a Sunday at our church, with beautiful, evocative imagery. After we heard the scriptures, Ruth began the homily with her own reflections about the story of the Rich Young Man and the other readings, and then invited the gathered community’s reflections. For my husband, this felt more like a bible study than a homily, but our girls were most attentive and interested in the sharing of ideas, one of them expressing her own thoughts. Our youngest said she heard every word of that homily. When I quiz her about homilies from the pulpit at our church, her usual response is a blank-eyed shrug.

The Eucharistic prayer was simple and covered all the usual bases, with no over-emphasis on the masculinity of God. Not having God stuck in male pronouns was refreshing (but no worries, Jesus was definitely male). It was also amazing to hear Ruth pray for our bishops Richard, Gregory and Marie. At that point a tear trickled down my cheek, and I found myself praying that the fullness of humanity could be represented both in the clergy and throughout the liturgy, male and female, simply and without fanfare. A missing piece clicked into place.

We sang no acclamations but the Alleluia and the Holy, but other than that, the mass proceeded as usual until the prayer of Jesus, which began, “Our Mother-Father God, who art in heaven...“and ended, “For the Kin-dom, the power, and the glory are yours...” Ruth broke the bread and offered the plate/patten to the person next to her, saying, “The Body of Christ,” and it was passed from person to person that way, as was the wine. Ruth received communion last of all, a much different model than the one offered by the Catholic Church at present.

After communion, we reflected quietly for a few moments and prayed for peace in the Middle East. The closing prayer concluded with, "The mass is ended. Let your service begin!" We sang River of Glory, and were invited to enjoy coffee and snacks in the kitchen. The cats were allowed out of their bedroom exile, and our girls enjoyed making friends with them while we got to know the other adults.

The mass in Ruth’s living room was simple and beautiful, and there was a warm sense of community among the dozen of us who hardly knew each other at the start. I’m sure Jesus was there among us, and present in the bread and wine consecrated by the Holy Spirit and Ruth, yet at the same time, I felt Rome breathing down my neck, saying, “WE HAVE NOT SANCTIONED THIS. HOW DARE YOU GO AGAINST MOTHER CHURCH!”

It reminded me of the disciples running to Jesus and saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9.38) -- just change the pronoun's gender.

Ugh. If it wasn’t for Rome's rules, it would have been a perfect day.

Our daughters enjoyed the experience of mass at Ruth’s, and told Ruth herself that they look forward to return visits. They don’t have their parents’ hesitations and hang ups when it comes to stepping outside of the boundaries set by Rome. My own struggle is not with the idea of women presiding – it’s that so far, the Holy Spirit hasn’t nudged the hierarchy to give Roman Catholic Women Priests full stature in the Church. The Church seems to be going the other way entirely, putting women's ordination on par with pedophilia as a grave sin (I wish it weren't so, but here's a link to a Time Magazine article.) Simply by the fact of her ordination, Ruth has suffered the Church's worst punishment -- being excommunicated -- even though she can trace apostolic succession right back to Christ through the laying on of hands, just like any other priest. But she clearly loves the Church, prays for it, and does what she does because of her love and her desire that it come to fullness in Christ. She IS faithful to the Catholic Church and has been all her life -- the only part of the pope’s teachings that she ignores is where it says that only men can be priests.

The more I think and study and pray and learn, the more I understand that Jesus didn't set out to be the founder of Catholicism, or even Christianity... those things just happened on their own (with some help from the Holy Spirit, whose true intentions are rarely fully followed by we imperfect human beings with our very human biases). That God loves us and wants relationship with us is what Jesus came to show us. Unfortunately, his followers make church about power and authority too much of the time. But as Henri Nouwen says in my Bread for the Journey daily reflections book on October 26th,
There is such an enormous hunger for meaning in life, for comfort and consolation, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for restoration and healing, that anyone who has any authority in the Church should constantly be reminded that the best word to characterize religious authority is compassion. Let's keep looking at Jesus whose authority was expressed in compassion.
I suspect that very compassion would rule out sexism if Jesus had his way. Sexism is an ugly thing wherever we find it in our world, and not, I'm convinced, what Jesus intended. Most of the other Christian churches have recognized this and made necessary changes already. I can't help but think how much richer the Catholic Church would be if everyone who discerns a true calling from God could share their priestly gifts within Christian community! As Ruth is doing. We certainly wouldn't be facing a shortage of time-pressured priests that forces our faith into mega-churches; rather, we would have a wealth of men and women connecting with a world of people hungry for God -- and I'm guessing that most people can find God more easily in intimate Christian communities than in a huge crowd of strangers.

As much as I loved mass at Ruth’s house, I won't turn my back on my little parish community, though I am praying that God’s calling of women to the priesthood in the Catholic Church will soon be as fully recognized as men’s vocations are. I'm delighted to see Ruth quietly answering God's call and living her vocation in her own way, even if it makes her persona non grata in the eyes of the hierarchy. I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work gently through the Roman Catholic Women Priests, and that it won't be long before they are called back into the arms of Rome, because when that happens, I think the Church will become much more welcoming and less narrow-minded -- it will become fully inclusive, and create a greater sense of community in the world through its wide compassion.

I was a little concerned that mass with a woman presiding would feel like “playing church,” but that wasn’t the case at all, and I am sure we will join Ruth again from time to time. Eucharist at Ruth’s was a simple, beautiful, and deep experience of God's love, and I came away wondering, for the second time that day, “what is the magisterium so afraid of?” But I suspect the real question is, “Is this the Holy Spirit’s quiet and gentle way of bringing about change, a few hearts at a time?”
God of Conscience, God of Courage, give us whatever grace we need to work for the coming of the reign of God now, here and always. Amen.
-From a prayer by Joan Chittister

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