National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

Walking with 'women called'

Genevieve Chavez, director of the Women's Ordination Conference, puts her faith in alternative spirituality


As a young mother and a Catholic, Genevieve Chavez often thought of how to share the face of God with her four boys. The only problem was, “The face of God was very male,” she said. Then one winter day, on vacation in Cloudcroft, N.M., she took a walk from her cabin to a chapel she thought was a Catholic church.

But when she opened the door, she saw a woman saying Mass. She stayed. “A woman’s hand gave me Communion,” she said, still amazed almost 13 years after stepping into that Episcopal church. “Everything’s the same, and everything’s different.”

Today, Chavez is the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC). She works for the 27-year old Fairfax, Va.-based organization from her home in Las Cruces, N.M. She does not personally feel called to the priesthood. But she knows she’s called to stand by those women who do.

In an interview in Las Cruces, Chavez spoke of the “unmitigated anguish” of women who know they are meant to be priests, but who can only hope -- and advocate -- for the day that the church fathers see the light. And that day will come, said Chavez. “God,” she said, “does not call us to divine frustration.”

Chavez, whose oldest boy is now 16, has been executive director of WOC since the fall of 2000. She came to the job with considerable knowledge of how institutions work, for better and worse.

She has a degree in social work and government from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She received her master’s degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. In addition to working as a hospital administrator and a university professor, she has worked for the Las Cruces diocese.

In 1992, a year after the life-changing experience in Cloudcroft, a nun told her about Women Church Convergence. Chavez ended up being local arrangements co-coordinator for the 1993 Dublin conference. Chavez was also a founding member of Call to Action New Mexico and has been involved nationally with the church reform movement.

“It’s not what ‘good’ Catholic girls do,” she said with a smile. “And not necessarily what Latina girls are raised to do. Hispanic culture and Catholicism are deeply intertwined. You’re not just bucking the church, but the whole system.”

She’s certainly not alone. “The Vatican’s definition of a good Catholic narrows every day,” said Chavez.

Yet despite this narrowing, or because of it, the momentum for change is growing as never before, she said. Of late, the priest pedophilia crisis has accelerated cries for change, she added.

Chavez praised the tireless efforts of the Catholic reform movement, especially Catholic Organizations for Renewal, a coalition of 25 groups of which the Women’s Ordination Conference is a member. “These are a lot of wonderful people,” she said, “and they’re there because spirituality matters.”

In 2005, the Women’s Ordination Conference marks its 30th anniversary. “We’re going to be celebrating big time,” Chavez said. She described three areas of “ministry” that WOC will embrace.

The “ministry of irritation” is about working with the hierarchy to make the church fathers “get it,” she said. The second ministry is “walking with women called” -- expanding support networks for women who want to be priests, said Chavez.

And the third ministry, she explained, is that of “ecclesial disobedience.” This will involve actions such as purchasing billboards in Rome to spread the message of reform. The Women’s Ordination Conference will be working closely with Call to Action and Future Church to map out strategies for ecclesial disobedience, Chavez said.

Chavez is concerned about putting to rest myths about the ordination issue, namely that it is a “middle-aged white women’s issue.”

“The future of the church is women of color and young women,” she said. “Our numbers are growing. The number of priests is shrinking.”

A practitioner of herbal medicine, Chavez says her study of alternative health practices has given her hope for the future. She sees more people looking for ways to coexist with one another and the earth outside of patriarchal models that are ultimately unhealthy -- or worse.

“Alternative health. Alternative spirituality. It’s all coming together,” she said. “Away from power as violence.”

Demetria Martinez is the author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Mother Tongue.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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