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How do I answer critics of my vocation

How do I answer critics?

by Colette Joyce

Very often a woman first comes to realise her vocation to ordination when somebody else tells her that she would make a good priest. Priests are and should be called forth from the community in which they serve. The community itself should recognise and affirm those who have been gifted and graced to minister in it. The Catholic Church has mechanisms for testing and discerning the genuineness of a vocation. Having usually been affirmed by one or two individuals in her local community a woman then has the more daunting task of approaching the wider Church, often in the person of its authority figures, priests or bishops. Admitting to someone that you want to be ordained can lead to some very daunting questions. When some of them were first put to me I was easily put down and reduced to silence, but I have gradually come to recognise a familiar pattern to the questions and to realise that there are answers. The issue of women called to priesthood in the Catholic Church can become a dialogue and not be reduced to an assertion of authority by the one party or an experience of oppression by the other.

The difficulty with a lot of the questions is that they reveal the prejudices of the questioner and are not meant to be answered but to point out to the addressee that she is clearly in the wrong.

All of these questions have been addressed to me or to other women I know. The answers are intended to be helpful specifically to women who themselves are working with a calling to ordination but they could be of help to anyone, man or woman, who finds themselves in the position of defending them.

Q1. Why don’t you become a nun?

For centuries, the accepted vocation for a woman wishing to give service in Christ’s Church was to enter the religious life, whether as an enclosed contemplative nun or as an active religious sister. There are upwards of 800,000 Catholic women in religious life around the world today and, despite a serious decline in numbers choosing this vocation in the western world, it remains the most predominant role for women in the Catholic Church.

Religious life, however, has always to be distinguished carefully from priesthood. It is a mistake to treat priests and nuns as direct male-female equivalents. Religious life is a vocation in its own right and has both male and female forms. The male equivalent of a nun is either an enclosed contemplative monk or an active religious brother. What is different for men is that they can be priests in addition to being monks or members of religious orders.

When women can finally be ordained as priests some will probably come from religious orders as men do already. Other women will choose to become religious sisters without ordination as is the case for the many men who opt to become religous brothers. There is no reason to accept the either/or of this question.

Q2. There are plenty of other things for women to do in the Church. Why do you want to become a priest?

There are, of course, plenty of other ministries in the Church for women to get involved in and many of the women who want to become priests are already doing them! Cathechist, teacher, chaplain, youth worker, missionary, social worker, theologian, executive on diocesan bodies - women are to be found carrying out all of these roles ably and well. Priesthood brings with it a different kind of responsibility in the Church, primarily in its sacramental life. It is a role to which we believe people are called by God and sanctioned by their communities. If this is something that is happening to you, then it is hard not to speak up about it.

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Q3. What’s wrong with having an active lay role?

Nothing. What’s wrong with having an active priestly role?

Q4. Isn’t it more important to be a saint than a priest?

Indeed it is, but since about 65% of the canonised saints have been ordained men, if the Catholic Church were to ordain women, women might have a better chance at getting their sanctity recognised! More seriously, the pursuit of holiness is the first obligation of every Christian and if even priesthood were to get in the way of that then one should give it up. However, the statistic cited above shows that sanctity and priesthood are not incompatible.

Q5. Priesthood should be about service. Why do women want power?

If priesthood is about service then there is every reason for women to seek it. The question about power usually belies the questioner’s experience of priests as men who are in possession of a certain type of power.

Q6. Catholic women do not want to become priests. You can’t really be a Catholic.

There are many women born and brought up in the Catholic Church as well as those called into it by the grace of God, who hesitantly, and often reluctantly have come to recognise their calling for what it really is. Some of these stories are testified to elsewhere on this website. There is a clear capacity here for drawing on the Catholic heritage to envision a priesthood appropriate for the Catholic Church.

Q7. Wouldn’t you be better off joining another Church where you can exercise your ministry?

Sadly, many women have indeed come to this conclusion and taken the often difficult and painful decision to walk another path and exercise ministry in a Church which welcomes their gifts. Remaining in hope, while one’s options for ministry are severely limited, is sometimes to choose only the cross of humiliation and rejection. To love the Catholic Church and desire to serve within her ranks, yet be denied, can make the decision to stay a real sacrifice. It can equally be a sacrifice to leave behind a tradition one has loved and valued. As one woman said to me, however, there is here also an ecumenical opportunity." If women keep going back and forward across the lines often enough then one day we will rub them out!" Catholics are learning from the experience of women in ministry in other Christian denominations, and are supporting them in their struggles to attain recognition and transform structures more used to responding to male-only models of authority. Correspondingly, many women (and men) from other Christian denominations are taking a keen interest in developments in favour of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church and are actively supportive of those who are staying within our tradition and taking a stand.

Q8. Isn’t wanting to be a Catholic priest going to make you too angry and frustrated?

It is inevitably going to be frustrating for a woman to live with a vocation that she can’t fulfill. Where a woman has realised that she is in an oppressive situation, or has had an experience of being pushed aside, maybe even forbidden to have a role she was previously allowed to hold, because she has spoken out about her calling, there is, yes, going to be some anger. But as with any difficult situation in life that anger, if present, has to be channelled in beneficial ways. There are always calls within a call. Any woman who is going to cling to this dream must find a way to fulfill some part of her vocation that makes her happy. Nobody is going to want an angry, frustrated and miserable priest!

Q9. The Pope has spoken definitively and it isn’t going to change. Why don’t you just accept Church teaching?

It can be one of the hardest and most painful journeys of all to realise that one is out of step with the teaching of a Church one loves and has found a path to God through. Some go and the Church loses something. Some do stay and accept in silence, even though their hearts say something else. And some stay to be prophetic. Ecclesia semper reformanda. As salvation history unfolds we learn ever more about the kingdom God wants us to create and that can include leading the way with changes in the Church.

Q10. Would you be a celibate priest?

This is really two questions in one which should be separated out. It is on the one hand, a question about the Church’s discipline and which groups of people should be considered for ordination, and, on the other, a personal question about one’s choice of a state of life. The decision about which state of life she is called to has to be made by each woman individually. Celibacy is a powerful calling in its own right, with its emphasis on an eschatological witness, and not to be undertaken lightly. The link between callings to celibacy and prieshood has only been co-terminous in the Catholic Church since the twelfth century. The choice of only celibates for priesthood at the current time is recognised as belonging to Church discipline rather than the deposit of faith. There are women, as there are men, who feel called to priesthood who are married, single, celibate, divorced, gay and straight. As I see it, most of the questions about gender, sexuality and the priesthood are related to questions about gender and sexuality in Church teaching in general and a thorough-going review of all these areas is going to become necessary in the Church of the coming millennium.

Q11. Surely there are a lot more important things to life than becoming a priest?

Yes. There are. But that wasn’t a reason to stop those who already serve in the ordained ministry. More than one young man I’ve spoken to who is in training for priesthood has said that he feels he can do more good in the world as a priest. Many women feel the same. At the end of the day the calling to priesthood is one which is given by God. If something is of God, then it cannot be withstood!

Q12. Shouldn’t the priesthood be open to anyone who wants to be a priest?

No. Some form of discernment process is always going to be necessary for people working with the spiritual aspirations of a community. The damage which could be caused by someone unsuitable, a child abuser, for example, or someone who is delusional, is great. Those who come forward to offer themselves, men or women, need to demonstrate some aptitude for the tasks asigned to priests in their community and have some instinct for the divine aspect of their calling. I was always taught that the main quality a priest needs to have is to be a person a prayer. Read about the signs of a genuine vocation.

Colette Joyce

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story
Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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