Discovering my priesthood as a Catholic woman in Protestant seminary

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“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.

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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.

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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.

America Special Topics: Women in the Church

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Bruce Snowden
3 months 2 weeks ago

Hi Miss. Nancy, Augustine asserts that “everything is Grace” so I’m pleased that through the Grace of an inquisitive but docile heart you allowed the Spirit to do what He always does uninhibited, “move as it Wills.” Washed in that gentle flow you discovered you already belonged to a holy and hidden priesthood through Baptism. As you pointed out in your insightful essay dealing with the possibility of women ordained as priests, according to the teaching of the Fathers of Vatican II, the Baptized by regeneration and anointing of the Holy Spirit are by that fact consecrated into a holy priesthood. This seems to verify St. Paul’s teaching, that “in Christ there is nether male, or female, all are one in Christ,” through Whom we “partake” or share, in the Divine nature. Isn’t that fabulous? I wonder if this is one reason why Jesus once referred to humankind as “little gods!”

This said, I personally accept the teaching of the Catholic Church, that women cannot be ordained as priests. Deacons perhaps (I hope so!) whose Holy Orders are not the same as priestly Holy Orders, related through the laying on of hands, but different. This according to Pope St. JP II who also once said, “The Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women.” The saintly Pope concluded saying he was speaking “definitively.” If that means, “ex cathedra” then he was speaking doctrinally, maybe exercising the Papal charisma of Infallibility. If so, does that mean, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed” no women priests ever in the Roman Catholic Church? Interestingly ordaining women as priests was attempted I think in the Fourth Century, Bishops in Southern Sicily having done so. The practice ended when St. Pope Gelasius I, put a stop to it.

There’ve been other attempts too. In the underground Church of Eastern Europe during WW II, no priest was available to offer Mass for the Faithful who yearned for Eucharist, so the underground Assembly called forward some men, women too stepped up and began functioning as priests, confecting Eucharist. After the War this case was brought to the Holy See for investigation and subsequently Pope Pius XII validated the men as priests and got some seminary education, but the women were not validated. One woman refused to accept the Papal decision and continued functioning as priest. Unfortunately I do not remember the source of the story but I suspect it was from some Catholic magazine, or newspaper. Some years ago a priest told me that Acts show a similar model in how men called forth from the Assembly by the Faithful, were accepted as what the Church today call “priests.”

Miss. Nancy I congratulate you in the exercise of the Priesthood of the Laity that you do have, along with all Baptized laity including me. Let’s be faithful and joyful priestly ministers, in service to Christ and the People of God, according to the Design of Christ. Quoting the recently Beatified American Capuchin Franciscan Priest, Solanus Casey, “May God be glorified in all His Designs!”

Nora Bolcon
3 months 1 week ago

Definitively is not ex cathedra and the teaching keeping women from priesthood is not a dogma. To make an ex cathedra statement the pope literally must declare the teaching ex cathedra. JP II did not do this because he was told there was no basis for this teaching to be declared ex cathedra. Therefor this law can and should change. Sexism is hate and this type of religious hatred and sexism has resulted in slavery, poverty, violence, war, child abuse and even terrorism on a global scale. Sexism within our church has never helped our church but only hurt it and all of its women and men throughout its history. There is no support of this rule in any Gospel of Christ and Christ tells us never to treat anyone differently than we want to be treated - this does not exclude the treatment of women by bishops.

Jay Zamberlin
3 months 1 week ago

You facts are just faulty here, respectfully. There is no basis for a female priesthood, period, this is what JPII said, it is not arbitrary, women are not priests - not because the Church "wishes not" or "chooses not" - no, rather, because she cannot. It is not in her power to do so. End of story. By your logic, the church, including all of the apostles, who absolutely would have conferred holy orders on women if instructed to by Christ (so then Christ Himself is at fault here) have practiced and preached hatred from the beginning. All the Councils of the Church have preached hatred, and all of her popes and perhaps all of her saints. So my question to you is, why are you Catholic?

Dawn Reel
3 months 1 week ago

Beautiful article, Nancy. I don't think it is so simple that "the Catholic Church teaches women cannot be ordained" and am grateful to read your story which is more complex than that. Blessed to hear your insight about being part of the "priesthood with all women and men baptized into the Catholic community," and especially about your lifelong relationship with God-Jesus-Holy Spirit and your ministry. Praise God!

Luis Gutierrez
3 months 1 week ago

The exclusively male priesthood is not a dogma of the Catholic faith. The patriarchal era of human history is passing away. The Catholic Church should recognize that religious patriarchy is cultural rather than dogmatic and start ordaining women to the sacramental priesthood. For your consideration:

Religious Patriarchy in the Judeo-Christian Tradition
http://pelicanweb.org/CCC.TOB.html#CHRONOLOGY

Note: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is not a dogmatic definition. It is entirely written in past and present tense, and it is "definitive" about the past and the present, but says absolutely nothing about what the Church can or cannot do in the future. We shall have women priests in due time.

I hope there will be celibate female priests before married male priests. Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is a sign that we need in today's world. Why should we have married male priests first, when there are so many celibate women who would be wonderful priests?

Nora Bolcon
3 months 1 week ago

You Luis are a rare and true brother to your sisters in Christ indeed. Thank you. Men like you give me hope. Ordaining married men to priesthood before we ordain women would create gender segregation which no one likes to talk about but no other result could occur even if women were ordained permanent deacons. This is because Perm Deacons have no authority or vote in our church or right to promote to priest, bishop, cardinal or Pope. So women gain nothing from such ordination. While if married men only are allowed priestly ordination then all men in our church have rule over all women. Thank you again for being truthful, Christian and Real. Blessing upon you Luis.

Sajeev Jose
3 months 1 week ago

Dear Nancy, I was so touched reading your article. As a Catholic priest, I have often felt that it is an injustice that our church doesn't ordain women who feel called to ordained ministry. During my study in the US, I came across some great women priests who belonged to RCWP, and attended some of their services and was really touched by the grace they communicated. I can understand how great a dilemma it is for someone to leave or stay in a community that spiritually nourished them for many years just because of the question of the ordination of women. I respect and appreciate the choice you made, just as I respect and appreciate the choices these other women made too. I think the greatest injustice here is that we men don't have to face such a dilemma while the women have to. I hope and pray (and campaing) that our church would correct this injustice.

Jay Zamberlin
3 months 1 week ago

You are a ?? Catholic priest??? Blow me over with a feather. There is no 'injustice' = God has called who He has called. Are you calling God unjust? Would not at least some of the saints received visions, or warnings, or other messages about a female priesthood? Would Christ Himself not spoken of it? He cannot be accused of simply following social norms of His time, He broke those all the time. Where is the basis for your "logical" dissection here? I believe this is exactly why our Church has such a crisis in faith, her priests are not clear on their own Church, who she is, what she teaches, and why. Very disappointing.

James MacGregor
3 months 1 week ago

That is a beautiful story. There are denominations that are not Catholic that also refuse ordination to women. Their reasoning mirrors that of the Catholic Church. I have a view of the Scripture references and the tradition that my denomination rejects. However, I remain silent to hold tenaciously to our other beliefs that have clear roots in God’s holy Word.

Michael Burke
3 months 1 week ago

a nice story of personal spiritual growth
i do always puzzle at thise who do not see the Catholic church is sacramental,
protestant are not. and personal feelings should not be a guide, rather the structure
of Catholic theology, like Jacobs ladder, is the foundation structure of our spiritual
search, thus it is impossible but the protestants are in the wrong - the error is to think
another church , one made by man, would be sufficient.
Barth, Bonhoffer etc are great figures of course, but a Catholic should looks always
at the church, and have ones errors washed in the light of reason and grace.

Genevieve Burns
3 months 1 week ago

Protestantism and/or heresy should not be promoted in a Catholic publication. Jesuits need to get a grip on logic, reason, and reality.

James MacGregor
3 months ago

Gee! I was almost hoping for an Opus Dei input. ;-)

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