Viewpoint -- On women as priests
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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

Only the pope can resolve widening chasm on ministry


It was a steaming July day in the province of Quebec. In a Benedictine abbey near where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers converge, a sister sat across from me in a white wimple, heavy shapeless habit, lace-up shoes and a long veil that fell in impeccable folds. She was perhaps in her late 30s, but it was hard to tell. As I mopped the sweat from my face and shook my long summer skirt to get some airflow, she remained serene, her plump face perspiration-free in spite of its tight casing. She looked, in fact, radiant as she offered me a glass of cold water. I arrived unannounced, and so I must have interrupted her at some activity, but she sat before me as if I were the only person in the world who mattered. Later, at vespers, after the 30-odd nuns filed into the chapel in twos, genuflecting in perfect formation behind the cloister grille, she leaned across to help me as my sticky hands fumbled with the pages.

She admires Pope Benedict XVI, she told me. For him, she said, it is a matter of “le droit” -- the right way -- and her hand sliced through the air like a chainsaw cutting along a straight line.

Often, however, the line refuses to remain straight; it wants to bend, to turn in another direction. Call it creativity, enlightenment, progress. Call it the movement of the Holy Spirit if you want -- who knows? Whatever the prompting, a few days later I found myself a couple of hours’ drive down the highway, joining a small crowd as nine women were ordained, so they said, as Roman Catholic deacons and priests.

The ceremony took place on a boat on the St. Lawrence River, with three women bishops from Europe dressed in flowing red vestments officiating. The nine ordinands (four priests and five deacons ranging in age from 40s to 60s) wore white albs and multicolored stoles. Friends in lightweight finery pressed onto the boat, jostling together around TV equipment, and squeezed into the benches of the makeshift church. As the boat left the shore, the ritual unfolded, remaining scrupulously close to the Roman liturgy, albeit with the expansiveness of inclusive language. Each candidate was presented to the assembly by someone close to her: a husband presented his wife of 38 years, a young woman presented her beloved older sister. All spoke with heartfelt simplicity, and I felt my eyes tearing up. I was also moved by the sight of the nine as they prostrated themselves facedown on the floor while we chanted the litany of the saints.

The official church line is that this was a nonevent, yet the three presiding bishops seemed to respect the new pope. The husband of one of them studied with Joseph Ratzinger at the University of Munich and regularly listened to the music of Schubert with him. She does not take seriously the decree of excommunication she received after her ordination to the priesthood in 2002 and in fact describes with a kind of delight the sensuousness of the rich vellum on which the decree was written. She remains hopeful that the pope will eventually accept her undertaking as an act of wisdom.

“You gotta start somewhere,” said a Catholic woman watching the scene from the river’s edge. But where? Is a female hierarchy the place to start? I wonder if it is wise to move ordinations outside the authority of Rome, thus giving the official church good reason to dismiss them. Are these ordinations based on an outmoded theology of priesthood? What about new models of ministry? Why does priesthood continue to hold overwhelming primacy? Perhaps it is time to break open a new understanding of the sacrament of orders.

Some of the newly ordained say they are subverting the system by entering into it, and who knows? This may be an effective strategy. You gotta start somewhere.

An ever-wider chasm exists, however, between the church of these women and the church of women like my Benedictine acquaintance. I hate to admit it, but I think bridging the two is beyond us as Catholic women. The task of unifying the church lies at the heart of the papacy, and for this reason I must place a measure of hope in Pope Benedict XVI. The only alternative is to start accepting a splintered church.

Mary Frances Coady is a writer living in Toronto. Her latest book is With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany.

For other viewpoints on this subject:
Viewpoint -- On women as priests: An African and an American disagree on ordaining women
By Peg Helminski
Viewpoint -- On women as priests: A challenge to Benedict to create an inclusive church
By Bridget Mary Meehan

National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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