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Why I won’t take off my (half) stole

Mary Ramerman is associate pastor at Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y. In mid-August, Bishop Matthew Clark decided to remove the pastor of Corpus Christi, Fr. Jim Callan (NCR, Aug. 28). One of the issues had been Callan’s decisions to permit Ramerman to preach and to wear a half-stole, symbolizing her role in the parish. This is an excerpted version of the homily Ramerman delivered in the wake of Callan’s removal.


Often when I preach, I tell the stories of children. I’ve always said that children are our greatest spiritual directors. I want to tell you some words from my 7-year-old son, John, in light of all that’s been happening here at Corpus Christi.

He was trying to make sense of all this, trying to understand what was going on. He kept asking me to explain it to him. He said, “Mom, I don’t understand why Father Jim is leaving. What did he do?”

I said, “Well, John, he’s done some things that are wonderful things, but not everybody agrees with them.”

He kept pressing. “Like what?”

I said, “Well, John, for example: You know how Mommy’s up on the altar. Some people don’t agree with that, and that’s one of the things. He’s let women be up on the altar.”

He got a very concerned look on his face and said, “But, Mom, women are beautiful. ... You have to stay up there because God would want all the women to know how beautiful they are.”

I said, “John, I am going to stay up there. But it will take a lot of courage.”

He said, “I know. But Mom, every morning I’m going to give you some courage to take with you.”

He does give me courage. And I think, like most of you, that this is a time when I could use an extra dose of courage. It’s a hard time. It’s a sad time. I cried a lot this weekend. It’s a time when we’re really called to make a lot of decisions about our faith.

One of the things that I have been told -- indirectly -- is that when the new priest comes I will be asked to take off this stole. If you’ve been here for a few years, you know that as a community, you gave me this stole five years ago to wear, not as a sign of ordination, but as a sign of leadership and ministry in the community. It is actually more of a banner, a half-stole, and its symbolism comes only from our community. People have told me, “Mary, when it comes time to take that off, don’t worry about it. We love you just how you are. You don’t need that. It’s just a piece of cloth. We love you without that stole.”

I don’t know if I will have another opportunity to preach after Fr. Jim goes, and I wanted a chance to tell you why I will not take it off.

If you look around the world, you will see that it is filled with discrimination against women. Certainly there is a lot of progress and a lot of things we can celebrate. But in many ways women are still disvalued: Women are still victims of abuse; women still receive unequal pay; women are still excluded from jobs and decisions; women have a lack of freedom in many places. And because of that, many women -- myself, when I was younger, and perhaps many of you -- suffer from low self-esteem. Many women always look somewhere outside themselves to find out if they’re OK.

If somebody else in their lives -- a husband or a boyfriend or a father or a teacher -- says, “Gee, you’re doing great!” well, then, we feel terrific. But if they say, “Oh, that was not good,” then we’re depressed.

So we go up and down, up and down, based on this external affirmation. How do you change that? How do you become a woman with self-esteem that comes from inside of you? How do you discover that you have a value all your own? That you have wonderful gifts and talents to offer? That people need you just for who you are created to be, not for what you can do for somebody else?

The best way that we discover ourselves is to discover God. We begin to understand that God created us in God’s image and likeness. That we are beautiful and talented and wonderfully created and loved unconditionally by God.

When we begin to internalize that love, you see, then it comes from within. It’s like what Jesus talked about: that spring of living water that wells up within you, that comes forth and gives you life. It comes from within. It’s the Spirit within you.

How do we get that message about God’s tremendous love for us and creation of us? We get it from the church. The church is the vehicle for God’s teaching. The church is the vehicle for Jesus’ words. The church is where we come to learn about God’s love.

But if the church stands up and preaches God’s love and at the same time disvalues women by not allowing them to be on the altar or to preach from the pulpit or to wear the appropriate liturgical garb or whatever the church might do to keep women away, then it makes a mockery of the gospel. You see, in order to be a light in the world, we have to first be a light in the church. We have to first look at our own discrimination within the church.

When I think of being stripped of this stole that you have given me, I feel the pain of women everywhere wondering if they are valued.

When I think of a male priest coming in and stripping off this stole, I feel the pain of older women trying to live off a lower Social Security check than the men in their lives.

When I think of this stole being stripped off I feel the pain of professional women being shut out of promotions and decisions.

I feel the pain of abused and humiliated women struggling to raise themselves out of the rejection of their loved ones.

I feel the pain of homemakers with small children wondering if their life’s work is valued by society.

I feel the pain of a teenage girl frantically trying to diet, to discover the beauty that already exists within her. I feel the pain of women in Haiti, wondering how they will feed their children every day.

When you strip the stole off women in ministry, you strip away the value that God places upon women.

Sometimes when we have discrimination in our world, it becomes such a normal occurrence that we get used to it. We forget that it is discrimination: It just begins to look like normal everyday living. And I want to help you with that.

I want you to think for a minute of placing a black man in my place.

Imagine that I were a black man. Imagine that I, as a black man, had gone to study theology and had received my degree in theology; that I had gone to work in the church for 24 years; that I had visited you when you were sick, been present at your baptisms, been there at your wakes and your children’s confirmations.

Imagine that this same black man asked for ordination and a stole from the church. And they said, “No, you cannot have it because you are black.”

Every one of you would rise up, and you would say, “That is discrimination. That is a sin.”

And that is exactly what the church is saying to women. “You cannot have it because you are a woman.”

One of the saddest things for me this week was, in talking to other Catholic women, they asked me not to speak out. They said, “Be patient.” They said, “It’s not time yet.” They said, “Things have gotten a little better. If you speak out, maybe we will lose that progress.”

But I want you to think back, if you are as old or older than me. You might remember a time in the South when we had bathrooms for black people and white people. The thinking at the time was, “What’s the matter with that? There’s a bathroom for everybody, isn’t there? Just ’cause we have a white one and a black one -- why are you complaining? You have what you need.”

But you see, every time a black person walks in there, they are reminded that they are a little bit less, that they are not quite as good, that they cannot have the same facilities as somebody else. It’s time to stop allowing the church to say that women are a little bit less.

Discrimination is a sin. Unity in the church cannot be achieved through sinfulness, only through love.

Jesus came to tell us that we are loved. That we are beautiful. That we are God’s light in the world. In Jesus’ scriptures, in his stories, in his life example, over and over again he reminded women that they are precious to him. ...

This is such a beautiful community, such a strong community, and our hearts are going to be broken when Fr. Jim goes. But no matter what happens, God is the pastor here. God will always be here. Our task as a community now is to look past any person on this altar, to look up and see God’s incredible love for each one of us.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998