October 3, 2015
I stand behind him as a faithful Eucharistic Minister, waiting to receive the body and blood of Christ so that I can share it with others. I mouth the words along with him—I almost know them by heart— and raise my hands slightly when he does. It’s instinctive. My heart swells as we say together, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
At Wednesday mass at the house, I sit directly across from him in the long oval of students in the living room. We are both flanked by these students we minister to and love every day. Together, we minister to this community. Together we teach, heal, listen and sanctify all the ordinary details of their lives. But in this moment, I am silent. He receives their offerings, holds their brokenness, unites them to the love of Christ and gives them His very body and blood. He offers sustenance, bread for the journey, a living reminder of how much they are loved and of who they are called to be in this world—bread for others.
As a kid, I was a ready altar server. I LOVED being so close to the altar, to the priest. It was like I could almost touch God. I could certainly feel God’s presence more ‘strongly’, or so I thought. I rang the bells with vigor, hung on every word, did my best to do my duties to perfection. My brothers would tease me—‘try to look a little less happy, ok? You’re making us look bad!” I remember feeling surprised—was it really that obvious?
In high school I was always one of the ones chosen to lead retreats. Again, I loved it—those moments, seeing people come alive in God and experience God’s living presence, filled me with a deep and abiding joy.
In my junior English class we had to make a portfolio on any topic. I chose God. It was clearly NOT the cool choice—one of my friends raised an eyebrow when I told him my topic, bluntly asking, “Why?” To me it was obvious and I scoured secular works of fiction and poetry to find references to God. The result, I thought, was diverse and intriguing. God was everywhere!
Now, you’d think my pious ways would have been noticeably unusual and many adults did ask the obligatory question—“have you ever thought of being a nun?” For some reason I always knew the answer to that question was a solid “no.”
I pursued all my other interests—athletics, dance, literature, writing, even biology and the sciences. In college I made amazing friends from all over the world, studied anthropology, and was confronted with all kinds of ideas and perspectives vastly different from my own. My mind was blown wide open, and my heart too. My faith deepened as I fell in love with nature, the Church through the Catholic student center at my university, and people! I found I loved all kinds of people, and that I could be more unconditional and unlimited in my loving as I came to know God’s love in all things. I began to meditate, and after college, to practice yoga, uniting mind, heart and spirit in this amazing physical vessel of my body.
I taught elementary school and then began a career in ministry. I kept trying to tie the threads of my life together, taking to heart that one’s vocation in where “one’s deep joy meets the world’s great need.” I loved teaching, I loved ministry, I loved conversations where I had the opportunity to touch someone’s life, to be a vessel of God’s healing and forgiveness. I loved teaching how to integrate the spiritual life and everyday tasks. I loved creating a place where everyone was welcome—no exceptions. I would preach and get feedback like, “How do you know just what I’m feeling?” I loved designing prayer services and retreats and see my students’ hearts lifted to God, their awareness of the Holy Spirit everywhere in their daily, human experience. All this was deeply, deeply good, God kept telling me, so I kept saying yes. I kept letting my heart be drawn in.
It wasn’t until graduate school for theology and ministry that something finally clicked. I was reading a book about ministry, a section in the book about the sarcedotal (ordained) priesthood. It talked about how priests have the charism of leadership that
“…empowers ordained priests for the functions of instruction, liturgy, and service on behalf of the entire community…the call to ordination is radically rooted in the baptismal vocation common to all Christians. Every believer has a gift of ministry (a ‘charism’) to offer others, but not all possess the charism of leadership. Those who do may be called to serve the unique priesthood of Christ.” (Hahnenberg, “Ministries: A Relational Approach”, pgs. 73-73)
I began to cry. First I cried tears of realization, then astonishment, then frustration. This is EXACTLY what I am called to! My life IS this—teaching, healing, sanctifying, leading. And what’s more, I have been called to this over and over again by my community. All the ingredients of sarcedotal—ordained—priesthood, I have. I AM. Except for one detail—I am a woman.
At the time, that knowledge filled me with despair, frustration, and confusion. How can I be called to something by God and community that my Church refuses to acknowledge? Now I find a burning fire of anger commingled with grief that continues to grow.
Why did it take me so long to realize this deep call within? One of my women friends, who also has a call to priestly ministry, said it best. She said it’s because we’ve been told for so long that we can’t. We aren’t. Our imagining into priestly vocation has been stunted, shut down, simply because we are women. And the ironic thing is, priestly ministry IS WHAT WE WOMEN DO WITH OUR LIVES. We birth, saying with our bodies as we bring new life into the world: this is my body, this is my blood. We baptize in the waters of birth and in all the ways we cleanse and anoint those we love. We set the table, bake, break and share bread every day, multiple times a day. We hear confessions and forgive constantly. We confirm and sanctify, we love and unite, we heal with our words, our touch, our presence, our lives.
Maybe because it’s so obviously true, the powers that be in the Roman Catholic hierarchy systematically shut down conversations about the female priesthood. They need to turn our faith infantile and blindly obedient to keep us in check—issuing decrees alluding that the discussion around the female priesthood is “over”, that “infallible truth” has spoken, that God “made it this way”, that there’s “nothing” they can do to change it.
This Church I love so much, and have for so long, this Church I work, minister and worship in, has turned it’s back on my gifts and the gifts of so many of my sisters. It has refused to see my vocation that comes from God. In fact, it tempts me into disobedience to God in order to obey human structures. I will not. I will always be faithful to God, to my Lord Jesus Christ. But I mourn, I hurt, because this continued faithfulness to God leaves me with little choice. In fidelity to God, how can I remain part of an institution that continually fails to acknowledge who I am in God, much less allow me to exercise that reality? I am a priest. I have ALWAYS been a priest. How can I let that energy, that God-given life, lie dormant, especially in a world in such deep need of Her touch?