I am passionate about Jesus’ vision for women disciples in our church — so much so that on Oct. 20, I will be ordained a priest in Atlanta along with five women who will be ordained deacons. The recent third-century papyrus discovery announced by Dr. Karen L. King confirms what I have always known about my own calling, “She will be my disciple.”
In the 1960s, there were few options for women exploring their vocation. Catholicism was uniform and painted in either/or’s but my love for the God and early ministries with the people fed my desire to serve. I entered religious life expecting to leave in six months because I believed God was not limited the uniform vision presented by the church in that age. My experience of convent life far exceeded those stereotypes.
The day after I entered the convent, we began college courses. We studied, prayed, worked and laughed. The sisters immediately engaged us in renewing our constitution and ending pre-Vatican practices. Through baptism we were all called to serve.
We moved out of clerical notions that separated us from people into living the gospel mandate in homes, neighborhoods and wherever the marginalized lived. I was in my glory. For the first 12 years as a sister, I worked in systems operated by those “renewed Catholic women”. I was never denied access to any institution of higher learning. For me, Catholic was defined as raising each person to heights of excellence in a discipleship of equals.
However, during the last 10 years of religious life, I met up with a clerical culture that viewed religious women and laity as expendable, especially if they challenged current systematic practices. When we spoke about salary fairness, we were asked to leave. When we petitioned for Hispanics to use the church instead of a restaurant, we were evicted. The entire staff of the next parish I worked in was forced to resign when the new pastor took over. These events left me psychologically devastated and I decided to leave and move to Atlanta, the hope of the South.
For the next 14 years, I worked in a Catholic school as well as for the Archdiocese of Atlanta as director of children’s catechesis. What I felt, but did not have words to describe, was the growing politic of clericalism creeping throughout the South by the strategic appointment of bishops and priests. As soon as we had established vibrant systems making sound Catholic teaching accessible to a broad range of adults, our department was totally restructured. This recurring motif happened throughout the South. It was then I realized, after 37 years of service, I, as a woman religious and/or lay ecclesial minister, was expendable. It was my “ah-ha” moment.
I saw that from generation to generation clericalism’s all-male-elite hierarchy dominates Catholicism. It acts as a virus, spreading through healthy people and communities, dividing them, setting one person or group against another, working to make the group smaller and easier to control. It superimposes its self-made rules on the gospel confusing the people of God. Because it is male dominated, women and educated laity are a threat to the culture and their influence must be minimized. Once named, I realized one could not reason, collaborate, negotiate, challenge or control it.
When I discovered the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is intent on developing an inclusive, renewed priesthood in a community of equals, I found my true calling. Although I have suffered and endured all internal efforts to “get me to leave” and join the already 33 million displaced Catholics in the U.S., I refuse. I choose to become a “Catholic” priest because I am called to work with others who understand that “Catholic” is more about authentic gospel living than the false notions clericalism breeds.