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Sign of the times in the old neighborhood


Last fall, there was a sign of the times in downtown Milwaukee.

You could drive toward the lake on I-794 during November and early December and look up to your right for the following billboard: Beneath a priestly Roman collar, it reads: “You’re waiting for a sign from God? This is it! Ordain Women.”

For the past 25 years, members of the Women’s Ordination Conference have been praying and working for women to be ordained. They have been conducting prayer vigils outside cathedrals as male candidates for the priesthood are ordained inside. They have been writing scholarly position papers from every angle to prove that denying the priesthood to women is not only a gravely unjust act, but a foolish one as well, given the severe priest shortage. They have been meeting and talking with bishops about women’s call from God to ordination.

As the millennium begins, however, Roman Catholic women are becoming more visible in their quest for justice for women in the church. The Milwaukee billboard is one such example.

The billboard is also a sign for me, a nice Polish, Catholic Milwaukee-raised woman who has wanted to celebrate Mass and the sacraments for as long as she can remember. In the 1950s and early ’60s, not so far from the sign that said, “Ordain Women,” I grew up in the house of my immigrant Polish busia (grandmother) on South 15th Street between Cleveland and Harrison avenues. It’s just down the hill from Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic School, where the School Sisters of Notre Dame taught me. At Pulaski Park I played baseball and football with the neighborhood boys, ice-skated with them at Cleveland Park and swam with them at Kosciuszko Park. Howevever, every Saturday morning I cleaned the church sacristy, while they served as altar boys.

This image has stayed with me all these years. The altar boys are gathering in line in front of the priest, who gives the signal that they are ready to leave the sacristy. The first of the four altar boys rings the bells for Mass. They promenade into the sanctuary to help the priest celebrate and renew Christ’s presence among us. I stand there at the edge of the doorway between the sacristy and the sanctuary, my female presence not allowed on the altar -- except as a bride.

When I was alone cleaning, however, I would go into the sanctuary. There I’d pretend to be a priest. I’d make believe I was holding up the Eucharist. I’d read the gospel and preach from the pulpit and bless the congregation.

Today, there are altar girls and women eucharistic ministers and readers. However, women preachers are rarer than married women saints. Our women’s voices and, therefore, our stories and perceptions of scripture are not heard. Nor do girls and women have their feminine presence reaffirmed in the role of priest at the altar. Male-only priests and male-only images of God do not make a balanced world community.

During my 50 years of living, Catholic parents have learned from the “secular” culture that their male children are not the center of the universe. They have begun to recognize the worth of their daughters and to value their choices in life -- including vocations. Their daughters have become police officers, carpenters, plumbers, doctors, lawyers, writers, producers and theologians. However, in Holy Mother Church, male children still make the world go round.

The “Ordain Women” billboard moved to Lexington, Ky., where I now live, in December and was on display near the Woodhill Shopping Center until early February. It may move on to at least two other cities.

Perhaps the billboard will be a sign for the church like the one Paul had on the road to Damascus. It seems that nothing less is required for conversion.

Janice Sevre-Duszynska was one of the women who brought the billboard to Milwaukee and Lexington. Her e-mail address is rhythmsofthedance@msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001