e-mail us


For women -- and men


I remember the day, indeed the exact moment, I realized that my church was sexist. For years I denied the obvious. A convert, I didn’t 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 parish’s 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 couldn’t get past it.

I had a dreadful thought: What if it’s 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t be altar servers. Women visited the sick, but couldn’t anoint. Heard confidences, but not confessions. Served the poor, but weren’t 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! I’ve 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 year’s 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 doesn’t always understand the issues of women in the church, but he’s fair and he’s 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 people’s lives their collar allows them. It is a rare week when I don’t 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 I’ve been given to see. The gospel of revelation to the least ones is true, and in this one respect, I am among the least.

I’ve learned a few ways to cope, but they aren’t 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:

  • Adjust your focus. So many good churchwomen avoid the gatherings of community because they find the presider annoying. I understand, but that is equally clericalist. I’ve disciplined myself to look away from center stage. The church isn’t only in the robes on the special chair. The church is all around, offstage and in the wings, and if you focus there, you’ll never lack for inspiration.
  • Develop all your voices. While the ceiling is low and likely to remain so for a long time, there are many rooms in this old house. Women called to ministry must enter as many of these rooms as we can. Denied the presider chair, I learned to preside over the sung prayer of the Mass and created other moments of common prayer. Denied the pulpit, I write a weekly column for my parish bulletin that parishioners openly refer to as “homilies.” I’m called on for counseling and spiritual direction, to facilitate meetings and to lead Bible study groups. I teach in the catechumenate and offer an occasional course for our local continuing education program.
  • Remember the greatest commandment. As difficult as it is, I try to love. It’s not that I’m not angry anymore. Mostly my anger is on behalf of the people who look for bread and sometimes are given stones by well-meaning men who just don’t bake. Sometimes the anger is petty -- like the time the church calendars arrived and the names of the clergy were listed, including our part-time deacons, while mine was omitted. I don’t bury my anger, but I channel it carefully now, trying not to punish individual men for the sexism that also victimizes them; I try to love them.
  • Embrace the cross. To leave might be more comfortable and safer, but may also render us homeless. To stay and stay quiet may turn our home into an alien land. But if you stay and share the vision, you will become part of a community where Jesus is surely present, the community of prophets whose reward is the same as his. This is the cross we’re invited to take up. And the pattern seems to be that religious leaders only embrace the true message of the prophet after a crucifixion.
  • Do not fear to hope. While I don’t expect much in my lifetime, I think the church is a’changin’. It’s hard to tell what the Holy Spirit is up to, but the seminaries are almost empty. Whether the Spirit is calling women to the priesthood or to fundamentally change the institution of Holy Orders, the fact is most ordinary folks don’t have a problem with women leaders. In fact, given the chance, they welcome them.

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 couldn’t imagine serving a church that wouldn’t let his mother speak. To this day, I remember that conversation with tears welling up. I pray that tomorrow’s young women and men won’t 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 don’t have “jubilees” and our institutions don’t 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 pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001