Discovering my priesthood as a Catholic woman in Protestant seminary
“What are you, a deacon?” the man asks from his bed. We are about 20 minutes into a pastoral visit. His parish deacon has been visiting regularly since he got sick. Now I have entered this man’s life as a hospice chaplain, and he does not quite know what to make of me.
It is not the first time I have been asked the question. Sometimes they ask if I am a priest or a sister or if they should call me “Reverend.” Their questions bring a smile to my face, but they also take me back to a time when I did not know what I wanted the answer to be.
In those days, I was a lifelong Catholic studying at a Protestant seminary. My choice to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York was deliberate. I wanted my tuition dollars to support a school that prepared women for ordination. Plus, I am a daughter of a Lutheran mother and Catholic father who promised to raise their children Catholic. Studying at a Protestant seminary would give me a chance to step outside my Catholic comfort zone and learn about the other half of my spiritual heritage.
One after another began asking me: “How can you stay in a church that refuses to ordain women?”
My fellow students included a number of formerly Catholic women seeking ordination in other faith traditions. When they found out I was Catholic, one after another began asking me a rather pointed question: “How can you stay in a church that refuses to ordain women?”
Their question left me speechless. Like them, I entered seminary because I felt called to ministry. But I planned to live out my calling as a Catholic lay minister. Was it not enough that I chose a seminary where other women were preparing for ordination? Why were they challenging me to go further?
I plunged myself into seminary life, hoping these questions would resolve themselves.
I quickly came to love weekday worship services at the seminary chapel. I felt a special thrill each time women stepped into roles I had never seen them in before. One day two women took on the roles of Martha and Mary in a joint homily, offering a feminist interpretation of each woman’s posture before Christ. Another day African women swung colorful banners, beat drums, chanted in their native tongue and danced God’s delight into the hearts of all gathered.
There were moments that took my breath away, like the first time I witnessed an ordained female minister consecrating the bread and wine, and she happened to be visibly pregnant. Women preached, presided and prayed in a place that welcomed the fullness of their spiritual gifts and in ways that made my spirit soar.
Women preached, presided and prayed in a place that welcomed the fullness of their spiritual gifts and in ways that made my spirit soar.
On Sundays I set aside all this newness and stepped back into my Catholic world at the Jesuit parish where I was active. There lay leadership was vibrant, the community spirit was contagious and women’s gifts were honored. The prayers and rituals of this community, which had long been my spiritual sustenance, were growing more important to me.
At the same time, however, I was becoming more aware of the limited roles women could fill in the Catholic Church. I found I could no longer put off the question of ordination.
Was I really called to a life of lay ministry as a Catholic? Or was the true nature of my call to ordination? The door to ordination in a Protestant church was open, and a number of people were encouraging me to walk through it. They noticed spiritual gifts in me that were well suited to ordained ministry. What a shame it would be to let those gifts go to waste, they said.
Their voices were strong and compelling. I knew the ordination process for Protestant women was not easy. But I could not deny that God was molding the clay of my being into a shape I was not sure could fit within the confines of the Catholic tradition.
The door to ordination in a Protestant church was open, and a number of people were encouraging me to walk through it.
I stopped running from the ordination question and started wrestling with it.
Shortly after I did, a new question arose in me. Some of the formerly Catholic women called to ordination had not decided which Protestant denomination to pursue. Some were thinking about becoming Congregational, others Episcopal or Lutheran. This struck me as odd. Wouldn’t the call to ordination grow out of a faith that you knew and loved in a church where you felt at home? Would not the first step be to find your spiritual home and only then to pursue ordination within that tradition?
At that time in my studies I was researching the documents of the Second Vatican Council. One day I read something that caught me by surprise: “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 10).
Those words struck a chord in me. They kept washing over my heart, like a mantra. Perhaps God was trying to get my attention.
I stopped running from the ordination question and started wrestling with it.
I started contemplating the spiritual house I was baptized into and realized how much there was to love in it. There were religious communities whose charisms and witness were beacons illumining the path of the holy in my life. There were mystics and monastics, seekers and saints, peacemakers and prophets whose words of wisdom spoke to the depths of my soul. There were spiritual practices that connected me to God and communities of prayer. And there was the treasure of Catholic social teaching, a repository so rich that my Protestant professors turned to it again and again in class. Each time they did they noted (often with apology) that the Catholics had the deepest wells to draw from when it came to social justice teachings to transform the world in which we live.
I came to realize that the spiritual house I had lived in since my childhood had shaped my faith and become my stronghold. My Catholic faith housed a spirituality that enlivened me and drew me deep into the heart of Christ.
What I had not known until then is that I already belonged to a holy, hidden priesthood by nature of my baptism. If they taught that in my catechism classes, I had missed it.
What I had not known until then is that I already belonged to a holy, hidden priesthood by nature of my baptism.
Now that I knew about this holy priesthood, I began to see things in a new light. I shared this priesthood with all women and men baptized into the Catholic community, and there was power in that bond we shared. I belonged to a parish of people claiming their priesthood and living it out in ways that stretched people’s understanding of lay ministry. I was one of a growing number of Catholic women weaving the gifts of our priesthood into the fabric of the Catholic faith.
Discovering I was a priest by virtue of my baptism did not take away the challenge of living out my vocation in a church that does not ordain women. But it validated in me a call already consecrated and a priesthood already blessed that no one could deny. Would that be enough to support my life of lay ministry? Would it be enough to put the ordination question to rest?
I was one of a growing number of Catholic women weaving the gifts of our priesthood into the fabric of the Catholic faith.
After graduating from seminary I made a directed retreat. Late one night I went to the chapel alone, knelt down and offered a prayer promising myself to Jesus in ministry. As I did soft tears began to flow. I did not feel the laying on of hands that happens at ordinations. But I did feel the warmth of the Spirit wash over my heart. As I knelt there, I had a strong sense that the decision I made was the right one for me.
Many years later, I am still growing in my life of ministry. Sometimes people do not know what to make of me; I do not always fit into the mold of ministry they are accustomed to.
When that happens, I remember the covenant I made with Jesus, who lived his priesthood in unconventional ways. He did not fit the mold of messiah they were expecting. He stretched people’s understanding of what ministry looked like. As a disciple, I try to follow in his footsteps and learn from others who are doing the same. I am one of a multitude of Catholic women stretching conventional models of ministry with the spiritual gifts we bear.
We are all invited to be part of this stretching as each of us lives our baptismal priesthood in dynamic and differing ways. The stretching may feel uncomfortable at times. But in the stretching we grow. And we make room for the flourishing of one another’s gifts in the spiritual house I call home.