For women -- and men
By PAIGE BYRNE SHORTAL
I remember the day, indeed the exact moment, I realized that my church was sexist. For years I denied the obvious. A convert, I didnt want to risk losing the comfort of my new home in the Catholic church.
I left home too young and, after drifting a while, I wandered into the Catholic church. I loved it. I was just 21, idealistic and ready to give my life to something. The church provided roots, the meaning I was seeking, a worldview that made sense, purposeful work and beauty.
Within a few years I was working full-time for the church and I made a bit of a name for myself as a choir director and liturgist. I was one of the youngest members of the Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission and ridiculously proud of a number of firsts: the first lay woman on our parish staff; the first woman to sing from the sanctuary of our cathedral; the first woman to sing a solo on a St. Louis Jesuit recording; my parishs first lay choir director. I was a real go-getter.
The fateful moment came while reciting the Creed: I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ For us men and for our salvation he came down For us men and for our For us men.
I couldnt get past it.
I had a dreadful thought: What if its true? What if we mean exactly what we say? This is, after all, the Profession of Faith. Surely, we would want to be as accurate, as truthful as possible. Maybe this home I had found wasnt so comfortable after all. Maybe I had fooled myself into believing I was in the living room when all along I was out in the servants quarters -- or worse.
I began a list, evidence of the obvious that I had somehow overlooked: that the church was all about men. The scriptures were written by men, interpreted by men and about men. The popes were men, as were bishops, priests and all the spiritual directors I knew. The laws were written by men, interpreted by men, enforced by men. The prayers were prayed by men.
In those days, girls couldnt be altar servers. Women visited the sick, but couldnt anoint. Heard confidences, but not confessions. Served the poor, but werent deacons.
And, of course, God was a he and he sent his son. At that time, to me the Spirit was an it. Two men and a bird.
Thus began the angry years. Though I managed to keep a relatively sanguine public persona, I was seething inside. A young priest was assigned to my parish. He was talented and charismatic -- and younger than I. How I resented him! Ive since apologized to him for making him so much the target of my frustration, but the first time I got my paycheck signed by him, I realized that every priest that walked into the room would outrank me. The stained-glass ceiling loomed over me. My poor head was constantly bruised.
Five years ago came a time of self-assessment. After almost 20 years in one place, it was hard to imagine doing anything else, yet it was time to move on.
I took a years sabbatical during which I shopped for other churches and considered a degree in counseling or not-for-profit administration. Then one evening my husband announced, I miss your ministry. And I did, too. The language of liturgy had become my first language; this strange church, my home.
And so for four years now I have served as the pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. My pastor doesnt always understand the issues of women in the church, but hes fair and hes passionate about his vision of the church -- a vision I mostly share with him. He loves the liturgy and he appreciates my gifts, respects my passion and gives me access to all the rooms to which he holds the key.
I envy priests sometimes, especially the entrance into peoples lives their collar allows them. It is a rare week when I dont long to preach, especially here where our overworked priests admit how tired they are of preaching three, four, five Masses a weekend. But it is also almost weekly that I pray, Thank you, God, for not making me one of them. For then I might not see what Ive been given to see. The gospel of revelation to the least ones is true, and in this one respect, I am among the least.
Ive learned a few ways to cope, but they arent quick fixes. Discrimination is humiliating, a pain that will bring you to tears or rage or despair. With that, I offer what has helped me survive and even thrive in this church:
To keep my balance it helps if I meet regularly with a support group of a few good women, read publications with worldviews similar to mine, and spend a lot of time with my husband who respects and assists me in my ministry and keeps a bountiful garden and peaceful home. Our sons are proud of my work, read my column with appreciation and prefer the Masses I sing. The oldest, who would make a fine priest, once told me that he has considered the vocation, but couldnt imagine serving a church that wouldnt let his mother speak. To this day, I remember that conversation with tears welling up. I pray that tomorrows young women and men wont have to make such a difficult compromise between the truth they know and the church they love.
Meanwhile, this year I will observe 25 years in ministry. While we lay types dont have jubilees and our institutions dont throw us parties, I think I just might find a way to celebrate.
Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001