Years ago Albert Nolan wrote about the three great temptations Jesus faced in the desert: power, prestige and exclusivity. In short I think these are at the root of the ills that come out of the clerical culture. In Victoria on April 17 2010 I attended the ordination of two women to the Roman Catholic priesthood. During this ceremony I had an experience of “inclusivity” – going beyond the “gender” divide and in one swoop tackling the “ecumenical” divide. This is a reflection I wrote for the online New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) for April 26, 2010.
Throughout this blog I find myself looking back with gratitude at some of the pilgrims who have crossed my path and blessed me with their presence and insights. Such a person is Bishop Patricia Fresen. She was jailed in South Africa for integrating the school for which she was director. Human rights and equality are her great concerns, and as a Dr. of Theology she was invited to help break the stained-glass ceiling in the RC church.
All about Inclusivity
Years ago in a previous lifetime I participated in a Peruvian priest’s movement. We gathered in our local groups to share news, to seek an analysis of current political and religious situations, and to deepen our commitment to Vatican II and the Latin American experiences of Medellin and Puebla. Through this movement I was provided with an essential support that educated and nourished me, helping to situate my own position as a “foreign” gringo priest working among the very poorest. This movement sort of disappeared in the 1980’s, but was not forced out by authorities in the church or the state who feared its influence. In its own analysis within the context of encouraging and supporting base Christian communities, the group decided that it should “decrease” so that the “community” and its leadership could “increase”. As priests of the old order, but still good faithful priests, they saw that their ministry came from and within the people of God. Clergy dominance, even when progressive, was a problem and a liability in the development of real Christian communities.
I see myself as “a priest of the old order”, not chosen by a Christian community and somewhat dubious of any real “calling” other than coming out of the altar boy farm system and with a somewhat general feeling that as a priest I could do something positive for others. Much of the crisis of the church today I would attribute to this institutional apparatus that fashions priests of the old order who simply are obsolete in the church that is needed today. Old wine skins for new wine – and the precious nectar is wasted or ruined.
Through our local CORPUS group on Vancouver Island we had contact with the first woman candidate for the priesthood – Michele Birch-Conery,
Ph.D. -through the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) movement. Michele began to attend our monthly ecumenical gatherings. Michele is a most accomplished woman, a professor of English literature, and prior to that she has a medical background as a “flying nurse” serving remote areas. Michele was near retirement. Why would she want to be a priest? Is this just not a feminist face to the “priest of the old order” paradigm? I was sceptical – and not too sure.
I was a human rights advocate in my work as a union representative and I understood the fundamental inequality that women in the church have faced over the centuries. The misogynist theology and policies of a patriarchal church contributed to the suffering, exclusion and oppression of women – well to be honest it still does. I understood that the RCWP movement was a logical next step for Catholic women. Groups like CNWE (Catholic Network for Women’s Equality) can only talk about the issues for so long, but eventually advocating for change leads to action.
As happens sometimes the spark for change comes from a place least expected. A group of three bishops approached Dr.Patricia Fresen (a professor of theology in Rome) and asked her to consider ordination. Patricia is another of those women who has led a full life as an educator and as a member of a religious order could have chosen to retire gracefully in comfort. She had been jailed in South Africa for defying the laws of apartheid by allowing black children to attend the school where she was the director. She knew of the struggle for equality and she stood with the oppressed and paid the price. Reluctantly Patricia listened to the arguments of these bishops and she accepted ordination to the priesthood and then later as bishop so that she could make an effort in the struggle against inequality in the community that was her church. Again she paid a hefty price as she was expelled from her religious community at the insistence of the Vatican. This meant that all financial support and the security of religious life for a faithful member were abruptly ended. That was not the “vow” of poverty – rather it is real poverty.
I met Patricia Fresen a few years ago when she was visiting Vancouver Island and she asked to come and see our new home in Saltair. We asked her to bless our new home even before we had moved in and she consented graciously. There is a gentleness and depth of wisdom that comes from Patricia and I wish we could have more time with her.
On April 17, 2010 Patricia was again back on Vancouver Island for the ordination of two women to the priesthood. One of them I know as she had joined our mid-island community gatherings with her husband Robert.
Kim Sylvester is another accomplished woman, professor of music with a full career behind her as well as her life as mother and grandmother. Kim felt the “call” to the priesthood and began the journey and preparation. How could you not support such a good woman? Yet still – the same question – another priest of the old order but with a woman’s face?
I had a minor role in the ordination ceremony as videographer, something for which I am minimally qualified. Michele Birch-Conery drafted me and gave me her camera which is about 100 times better than my mini-Canon camera. The ordination was celebrated in the Centennial United Church in Victoria with the gracious support of its minister, Rev. Alana Menu. I recognized Rev. Rosalind Westaway, an Anglican priest, who recently retired and lives nearby in Ladysmith. Rosalind gave the welcome to the congregation. There were other women Anglican priests present. I noticed that like myself there were other married RC priests present – a former OMI and a former Jesuit among them. The church “felt” particularly warm and comfortable – this coming from one who is not known to be attentive to “feelings”.
Francois Brassard was the master of ceremonies and managed to keep everything flowing smoothly. There was a choir, led by Gordon Miller, which had obviously put much effort into preparing for this ordination. Bishop Patricia came in the procession with the two women candidates and a number of other co-celebrants. There was a presentation of the candidates and witnesses to their calling came forth and spoke on their behalf.
The Liturgy of the Word was most powerful. Perhaps it was the texts chosen (Proverbs 8:32-25, 9:1-6, Acts 16:11-15, John 8:1-8) but also the readers – an Anglican priest, a laywoman and the gospel read by Rev. Alana Menu. The Rev. Ellen Willinham, an Anglican priest, then spoke about the calling of women to leadership roles in the church. She was followed by Bishop Patricia Fresen who spoke on the unusual ordination text from John citing the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery. Bishop Patricia highlighted that Jesus was an orthodox Jew who took his religion seriously but he did not hesitate to critique the law or even break the law when it was applied unjustly or for evil purposes. Jesus did not come to condemn but to offer new life. This ordination was conducted according to the traditional ritual of the Church, except for the contravention of Canon 1024 which states that only a “male” can be validly ordained. Patricia outlined how this canon stands in contrast to centuries of tradition and the very example of inclusivity as witnessed in the life of Jesus as found in the gospels.
After the liturgy of the word the choir led the congregation in the singing of the Taize version of the “Veni Sancte Spiritu”. This was not an ordinary church type hymn – there was almost a mystical breath of harmony as the entire congregation became one with the choir in this simple but profound prayer. Again the Myers-Briggs test says I am not a “feeling type” of guy, but there was something different happening. No dove fluttered down from the rafters, but there was a strong sense of communal unison in purpose.
As the candidates prostrated themselves before the altar, as is tradition, the community prayed in song the Litany of the Saints. This litany highlighted many of the great women of our religious tradition but also included modern saints like Bishop Romero. “All you holy men and women, pray for us” was the response and it was an invocation that made them present in this moment of deep religious renewal. Then Bishop
Patricia explained the ritual of the “laying on hands” – a gesture without words that was itself the prayer. Bishop Patricia then invited the co-celebrants to follow her and then others in the congregation to then join in this prayer of the “laying on hands”. All of the women priests and ministers, including those of other Christian communions, joined in this prayer of ordination as well as many of the congregation including family members of the candidates. I maintained my position as videographer but found myself profoundly affected when Rev. Alana Menu approached the candidates and joined in this ritual. I know Alana and her husband through another instance and rejoiced in her own ordination as a United Church minister only a few years ago.
Deep within me I recognized that something more profound was happening before my eyes. This was not just the ordination of two women, but it was the tearing down of walls of separation. Patricia Fresen had gone to jail in South Africa to include young black students in the school run by her religious order. This was not just equality but it was “inclusivity” – refusing to exclude and refusing to be excluded. Pope Benedict would have us believe that the other Christian communions are not real churches, and that their salvation depends on them joining us. Here I was witness to a different dimension of ecumenism – not a formal week of prayer for Christian unity as governed by the old order – but a demonstration that ecumenism is unity when it is made to happen. Women ministers united to pray for these two RC candidates in a gesture of solidarity and ecclesial love.
The communion table was again a moment that highlighted “inclusivity”. Patricia Fresen highlighted two aspects that perhaps are symbolic but very powerful in the R.C.W.P. movement. The “program of service” had printed in bold “Please note that our tradition is that the Presider and ministers receive communion last, not first”. At the beginning of the communion service it was also announced that at the Lord’s Table “all are invited”.
Religious movements and organizations pass through different stages beginning with “inspiration” and sometimes ending with “rigid institutionalization”. There are powerful signs that the R.C.W.P. movement desires to move priesthood into a new paradigm. Will the inspiration provided by leaders such as Bishop Patricia Fresen sustain the group as it grows and matures? Is it possible that this new paradigm of priestly leadership will prove “contagious” and maybe even begin to influence the old order priests? Pope Benedict XVI has shown that he can go to extraordinary limits to rehabilitate renegade bishops of the Pius X movement, even when they turn out to be anti-Semitic holocaust deniers.
Perhaps with some time and growth, a successor pope might realize that for the good of the universal church, it would be opportune to offer full communion to these women who are ordained. In the meanwhile, there is some excitement, akin to the refreshing spirit in the air in the first years after Vatican II. Maybe some of the priests of the old order, those still in ministry and those who are retired and married, need to accept that it would be a “kairos” type moment to accept an option to “decrease” so that something new and potentially very alive can “increase”.