Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Roman Catholic woman priest wends her way home

I'm in the midst of saying good bye to a dear friend, and this Sunday's first reading about the anointing of David speaks to my friend's experience: "The Lord does not see as the human sees; the human looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7b).

God saw something in my friend, Ruthie, and called her to the priesthood as a young child. She had two great-uncles who were Redemptorist priests, and they would visit her family and say mass. To hear her tell it, Ruthie, the oldest in her family, became the clan presider when the kids would "play church" together. It went much deeper than play for Ruthie, though, because she knew God was calling her to do as her uncles did.

Of course, humans and human institutions don't see the way God does. Because the Catholic Church doesn't yet see that women could be called to the priesthood, Ruthie chose the next best thing. Her love for God led her to become a sister with the Ursulines of Jesus, and she taught in the Catholic school system for many years, sharing God's love with her students and colleagues. She also took courses at Newman Theological College and developed a solid foundation of theology, scripture and tradition.

I first met Ruthie and some of her siblings during my summers at Our Lady of Victory Camp. Not only was she an excellent quarterback for touch football, but she wrote the camp theme song of the time, Love Life, which was published in Young Peoples' Glory & Praise and recorded by Carey Landry. We sang her melody and performed the actions to the song hundreds of times at camp each summer, the woods around the campfire ringing with enthusiastic young voices and guitars. Love Life was a song that told the story of salvation history in a way that kids could understand -- Ruthie has always been about helping people to understand and experience God's love.

Our lives went different directions after camp, but about five years ago, I heard that Ruthie had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Exploratory surgery revealed that there was no way to remove the cancer so she opted for experimental drug therapies. Aware that her time would probably be short, she left her home to a Muslim family that she had befriended and moved in with her longtime friend, Jocelyne, who cared for her through the progression of her illness and the side-effects of different drugs. Their friendship, which dates from their joining the Ursulines, is a really beautiful story in itself.

With no time to lose after her cancer diagnosis, and with a fresh perspective on what was really important in her life, Ruthie chose to follow her conscience and obey God's call to the priesthood. After learning about and connecting with the Roman Catholic Women Priests of Canada, Ruthie went through a thorough screening process, and because of her already extensive theological training and pastoral experience, she was ordained by one of Canada's Roman Catholic woman bishops on March 31, 2012. She is in the line of apostolic succession thanks to a Cardinal who followed his conscience and ordained the first women priests and bishops in 2002 and 2005.

When I met Ruthie again eight months after her ordination, she was exercising her priestly ministry with a small inclusive Catholic community that gathered in her home most Sundays, and she welcomed me like a long-lost friend. The Sunday liturgy was simple and beautiful, with no pompous prayers to distance us from the tender Father and Mother God who loves us all. Ruthie presided with deep joy, consecrating the Eucharistic meal, and the sacred bread and wine were offered equally by each person in the circle to the person beside them, Ruthie receiving last of all in true servant-leadership. For me, the liturgy was a revelation, a celebration of the sacrament in the way early Christians did -- according to historical records, they had male and female presiders, and there were no "spectators" because of the priesthood of all believers. Everyone in the room contributed to the celebration.

The experimental drugs gave Ruthie more time, but there is still no cure for her cancer. At the community's last liturgy at the end of January, she told us that she was having rather serious memory issues and was going through some more tests. February and March brought many appointments, decreasing balance, and time in and out of hospital. On Friday morning, I spent several hours at Ruthie's bedside in Hospice. The cancer has metastasized to her brain, she is weakening, and her words are now confused, reminding me of what it's like to have a conversation with someone who is talking in their sleep. While I was there, she dozed on and off, but whenever she opened her eyes and saw me sitting beside her, she smiled.

Sitting in silence with Ruthie, I had a lot of time to think about the gift she has been in my life. She is a warm and loving person with a wonderful sense of humour and a deep yearning for justice. She has strong opinions about what is right, and though I have barely glimpsed it myself, I can imagine that others might see her as stubborn at times. Her liturgies often focused on care for creation, right relationship with our Indigenous communities, local and international social justice issues, inclusion of the marginalized, and the needs of various members of the Emmaus Inclusive Catholic Community. She gave excellent homilies, and always invited the community members to share, too, which helped us all to learn from each other. Her friendship and love these last four years have meant so much to the faithful people she has gathered around her, and to me. We had deep theological discussions, and plenty of laughs. Her heart is open to everyone, and she offered encouragement and hope to everyone whose path she crossed, even as she faced her own decline and death. And now she is showing us the way to Paradise. Her gratitude for and gentle appreciation of those around her in Hospice is both moving and humbling.

After a bed bath and lunch, she was a little more awake and asked for her rosary. I gave it to her and asked if she wanted me to pray. "Not just now," she said. But a few moments later, watching her try to untangle the beads, I reached to help her and she said, "We could pray it together." So we did, she holding onto the cross, and me working my fingers around the five decades with tears trickling down my cheeks. Even though my Lenten practice this year is to pray a daily rosary, for some strange reason, I couldn't recall Friday's First Sorrowful Mystery for the life of me (the Agony in the Garden! Ruthie's sister reminded me later) -- so I took that as the Holy Spirit's suggestion to start instead with the First Glorious Mystery, the Resurrection, since that's what Ruthie's working toward anyway. Her eyes closed, and her lips moved intermittently to the prayers. She smiled frequently, especially every time I started a new decade.

Though her words are no longer clear and she fades in and out, the words to one of her favourite devotions haven't left her, and never will. I suspect that, as she wends her way home to God, the rosary plays like a gentle pastoral symphony in the background of her mind. We prayed and Ruthie smiled, and I couldn't shake the feeling that Mary and Jesus are walking along the path to Paradise with my friend, and they are smiling, too.

Thank you, my dear Ruthie, for your conviction and courage, your love and compassion, your ministry and your openness to all, and for being my friend. God saw your heart and loves you deeply. I miss you already.

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