Over a year ago now I left my work in campus ministry, for reasons lengthy enough not to go into here. At the heart of it though, was integrity—a faithfulness to the Living God that led me away from an organized structure (the Roman Catholic hierarchy) that in more ways than one told me I was ‘prohibited’ from stepping into my gifts fully. The reason? It’s pretty simple, however sad—I am a woman.
I remember sitting in our staff office room, in the Newman House I had grown to love deeply and for three and a half years nurtured into being. It reminded me so much of another time and place, almost seven years earlier, that I again had to leave for reasons of integrity and faithfulness. Another call to ministry, another falling in love with the people of God, much movement of the Spirit towards life and service, cut off by an institution stunted in its perception of the way the Spirit is moving, and dysfunctional as a result. This time, in this place, I overflowed with emotion and truth, speaking out loud what was real for me. I told the priest there, new to the job—“since I was little, I’ve been called into leadership in our faith. Since I was little, I’ve known what I am made for—to love and serve the people of God. You’ve told me I cannot be a priest, even though that is what God has made me to be. Instead of leaving in disgust and anger, I have stayed. To serve, to love. And now you tell me I cannot keep giving my gifts to their natural fullness as a leader of this place. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”
Then, like before, it’s as if this structure that has held me and nourished my faith from childhood no longer knows what to do with me. It’s like then, as before, I am left with two choices—pretend I’m less than I am and settle for ‘assistant’ type jobs, holding up a ‘director’ (always a priest) who because of a very real shortage of priests cannot give the time required by the job, or I leave, seeking leadership positions elsewhere. Yet I am called to leadership IN the Church. I am called to serve the people of God. This hasn’t changed, just because a hierarchical structure cannot find and move into the creativity that is required for the ever-expanding love and justice of the kin-dom of God.
The saddest part of it all is that I fear I am not alone. I fear (and I know, from conversation with my sisters nationwide) that this is happening to all of us—women gifted, educated and called into service of the people of God, left with ways of exercising our gifts that do not match our call, that are shadows of the fullness of who God created us to be. Either we settle for these positions, cutting off a major source of Divine Life within us, or we say stubbornly– NO, I will remain faithful to the Living God within me, I will be who God made me to be fully! This latter path, I am discovering, leads to no-man’s land, the unknown, the creation of something new and a true clinging to the Spirit.
It is scary. I am so tempted, often, to take one of those lesser jobs, just because I will have a job and a paycheck and a regular affirmation of who I am as a minister. Some days I wander about and it feels like I am in an endless sea and will never get across. But then I imagine Jesus, walking along the sea of Galilee, and he takes my hand and calls me darling and says my dear one, Follow Me. And what can I do? I must follow Him into the fullness of Life, into who He, the author of Love, created me to be. And that fullness is simply not held anymore by the religion of my birth, by the Roman Catholic Church.
And here I come to a disclaimer, a clarification. You see, I do believe my call—into service, into love, into priesthood, IS held by the Catholic Church. Because the Church is you and me. The Church, as so clearly defined in the Second Vatican Council, is the PEOPLE OF GOD. The Church is all of us who love the Christ and desire to walk in the love of His Way. And I would say that most of the Church (the people of God) are ready. We are ready for the leadership of women. Moreover, it is already happening. God is calling forth the true, full leadership of women. It is the obstruction of a powerful few (why oh why is this such a familiar story?) that keep this ever-renewing, ever-flowing Spirit of the Living God from coming to fruition. A powerful few stuck in the old way are BLOCKING the movement of the Spirit. This is so important to name. Many members of the hierarchy have forgotten one of the central truths of the Christ, that the Sabbath was made for PEOPLE, not the other way around. (see Mark 2:27) Tradition is something that lives and moves and is constantly being brought to being in real time, with real people, in Real Love. It is NOT something old and stagnant that no longer works. And we see it no longer working everywhere—the all-male priesthood is dying. Parishes are closing. People are being denied the sacraments, refused the Eucharist. And still, still, those in power cannot see what God is doing right in front of us—calling strong, talented, intelligent, embodied women to leadership, to healing, to renew the Church.
Those in power will say that of course women are important, integral even to the functioning of the Church. And this we know, is true. I don’t know exactly how many women bolster up traditional Church structures, running the place without access to the full inhabitation of her call as a spiritual, sacramental leader. But just take a look at any parish near you—how many women are making things work as opposed to the number of men in the official leadership role? Women ARE integral to the Church. But to this I would say of all women, as I wrote in my letter of resignation from my last official position in the Roman Catholic Church: I am being asked for my labor but not my true leadership, my time but not the full range of my talents, my effort and energy but not my vision, a vision that springs from a deep listening to the people of God and faithfulness to the Life of the Spirit. This simply does not correspond to where I am being called in the full light and love of God.
It is not enough to say women are important and powerful without opening positions of true importance and power to them. We are asking the Church to function with half its heart, half its body, half its mind, and half its soul. God, as God does, always shows up, to renew, to love, to create. Yet if doors are not open to Her movements, if hearts remain closed, She will, and she is, finding other places to reside, places where Her fullness is honored, where Her truth is named, where Real Life and Love reign.
*This image is of a painting by Mark Missman. You can check out more of his beautiful work HERE.
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