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Priest question simmers in the family soup


It would be nice if kids came with a recipe for success. Mine would read something like this: Sprinkle with kisses once in a while, speak to the child gently every day, engage in periodic outdoor exercise, add siblings (optional), educate for 12 to 16 years, and voilá, a reasonably well-adjusted adult with a purpose in life.

In reality, raising a family is more like a mulligan stew, where you throw in what is available and there’s no such thing as the same dinner twice.

The secret ingredient comes from the kids themselves. They have a way of spicing things up by thinking out loud. It’s funny how the really piquant topics -- the coriander and cumin equivalent -- tend to come up in the car. Among them, The Sex Question: “So, how does the sperm from the dad get together with the egg from the mom, anyway?” When I told them, they laughed. I guess it could have been worse.

The latest episode of Stump the Cook was The Priest Question.

“Mom, I want to be a priest when I grow up,” I heard from the back seat of the car one day. The only problem, it was my 6-year-old daughter making the statement.

Her brother quickly countered, “Women can’t be priests, right, Mom?” This was way harder than The Sex Question. It seemed inconceivable that I should have to tell my daughter she cannot dream of becoming a priest in her own church, as ludicrous as telling her she cannot be a doctor, a cook, a zookeeper -- all occupations in which she has claimed interest.

“Weellll ... not now, not in the Catholic church,” I was forced to reply. “But there are other churches with women priests.”

At age 6, she is bound to vacillate at least a thousand times in her formative years before she really begins to focus on her larger purpose in life. But how many kids’ vocations -- and I use the term in its broadest sense -- are indeed spawned in early childhood? My daughter has grown up watching her parents and other adults she knows speak from the pulpit and offer the eucharistic elements. She already exhibits a great appreciation for the theatrical elements of ritual; she can be keenly compassionate, and she is energized by being around people -- all prerequisites, I would hope, for study of priesthood.

Could my daughter one day be forced to choose between leaving her church and relinquishing her dream?

A few years ago I attended the ordination of a woman to the Episcopal diaconate. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to witness her being welcomed by the rite of induction into official leadership and service of her church. It left me feeling oddly hollow about my own church and the knowledge that I and millions like me are excluded from the inside ranks. Oh, sure, we can volunteer all we want, serve on the parish council, get degrees in theology, send our kids to Catholic school, give til it hurts to the Annual Catholic Appeal and to every charity and capital campaign the church can come up with. These are all worthy and valued contributions to our communal faith life.

But my daughters and I just don’t have what it takes to be leaders. It’s another version of barefoot and pregnant.

I can’t help but feel that we (my daughters and I and “our kind”) are still perceived -- despite endless elocutions and epistolary reams assuring us our place in the sun -- as being gifted, but not quite gifted enough to be considered equal to the responsibilities of ordained leadership. Are the powers that be so afraid of how our varied collective feminine experience as mothers, birthers, servants, wives, helpers, sisters and daughters would inform our leadership style?

Church teaching on public and personal matters provides a framework for decision-making about our own behavior. Now, as throughout the ages, it helps to have some guidelines -- a recipe, if you will -- for life. But even the best recipes can be enhanced by expanding on the traditional way of doing things.

For example, my father’s wife, a wonderful cook with a proud Italian background, taught me once to make a frittata, a kind of super-omelet made of eggs and vegetables. It’s not difficult, but it requires time and attention -- and the proper tools help a lot. She advised me to use that most modern of conveniences, a nonstick pan. Not owning a nonstick pan but having a keen yearning to eat a fritatta when I returned home, I impatiently tried it with a regular pan. My hope of replicating her mouth-watering dish stuck to the bottom of the pan with the burned eggs.

My point: If we always refused to incorporate new ideas in the kitchen, many of us would probably still be roasting our food on sticks in front of fires.

Given that in selected arenas related to sex and gender the church remains closed to the school of human experience, is it any wonder that it is hard, these days, to convince others -- and myself -- that one can be a thinking person and a Catholic?

The Priest Question is by no means the last difficult discussion I’ll have with my kids. They have adolescence ahead of them, after all. In the meantime, I throw this topic into the pot of our family intellectual soup and let it simmer. And as I am asked by my church to pray for vocations, I’ll respond, stirring frequently.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999