As I begin this blog, my focus will be first on my Catholic identity and relationship with the Catholic Church itself. A complicated affair it has been right from the start. Born in 1960, I came to consciousness as the Church was implementing changes directed by Vatican II and its many documents; as a young adult in the 80’s & 90’s, I read numerous pastoral letters and encyclicals that addressed a variety of social justice issues, while also seeing the examples of notable “men of the cloth,” including, of course, Cardinal Bernadin. I will never forget his loving presence even when surrounded by cameras and journalists who repeatedly asked him questions regarding his vow to celibacy and the accusation of sexual abuse that he faced. Accompanying all that was also the work of many nuns/sisters and lay women who devoted their lives to the Church. How can I not be moved by the martyrdom of the four women in El Salvador? How can I ever overlook the wisdom I gained by such a wide range of scholars, including Elizabeth Johnson, Joyce Rupp, Joan Chittester…. and so many more? And then, of course, there is the rich tradition of Catholic mysticism and spirituality. Who would I be today if I had not read works written by St. John of the Cross, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton…. the list goes on. Yes, I am Catholic: formed and enlivened through a powerful tradition that extends back centuries.
In embracing that identity, I, with my husband, found it relatively easy to say, yes, we would raise our children as Catholics, educating them in Catholic schools, accompanying them to church each Sunday. The two of us also took active roles within our parish, and I, when needing to seek employment, was honored to accept the responsibility of teaching theology in a girls’ Catholic high school. Of course, we knew the institution was not perfect, but, no other institution is as well, so we did our best to remain loyal and committed, even as the sex abuse scandal began emerging. Our hearts ached as we heard the stories of so many, but still we hoped that, in time, church leaders would begin truly addressing not only the issue itself, but also the pain of so many people whose lives were so tragically wounded and permanently scarred at their hands. Unfortunately, such accountability has been slow in coming, too slow actually, and then it seemed, a shift occurred.
Increasingly, as the Church discussed “Catholic identity,” attention turned to who is and is not worthy of receiving the Eucharist. Of course, official teaching had always indicated such things, but, other than my childhood pastor, few of the priests I had come to know ever made such distinctions. Vatican II and its response to Pope John XXIII’s call to open the windows of the church have all but been forgotten. And who can overlook the Church’s official stance towards women. To even talk about women’s ordination brings the threat of excommunication. Even worse, however, is the public tone of the Catholic Church as communicated through many of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. Rather than acknowledging that all people have the right and ability to live according to their own conscience, the Catholic leadership today too often insists that their own right to religious freedom gives them the power to dictate whether or not other people, even non-Catholics, have access to both the materials and the rights they need to thrive in our world today. Oh how my heart has ached!
As that ache grew over the years, my first reaction was to walk away, and, to some extent I have. No longer do I teach in a Catholic school; neither am I a member of a Catholic parish. Initially, I embraced my freedom, thinking I need no longer concern myself with anything to do with that church. But, I overlooked one fact: I am Catholic – to my core. Baptized, confirmed, and so deeply formed, I can no more cast aside my Catholicity than I can my body. It is who I am. It is – through its sacraments, mysticism, and teachers – what has brought me peace, joy and solace at critical points of my life. Gratitude for those many gifts fills my heart, telling me that I cannot just walk away. But what to do?
Many of my friends who ache just as much as I do are active, loving members of their Catholic communities, hoping and believing that in remaining in their pews, their presence will enable the Holy Spirit to once again inspire and lead the Church to fulfill its own self-named role – to be Christ in the world. Some have left, a few even being baptized in Protestant denominations, convinced that the Church must be abandoned completely for it to see that change is needed. And still others are learning to live their Catholic identity in new ways, accepting their calls to Catholic ministry that do not depend on official approval and affiliation. The women’s ordination movement is doing just that. Catholic women who have been called to give their fullest selves in love and service to creation and all God’s people are accepting their rightful claim to ordained ministry. And, yes, I have taken the initial steps of that journey. In December, 2013, I was ordained a deacon. For several months I did play an active role in nurturing a small community in Louisville, along with a woman priest and a sister deacon. But then came my move to New York City, a place where, in having no connections, I have no community as well. In short, I feel as if I’m in limbo as an ordained Catholic woman.
Knowing no traditional parish would want me, I have joined The Riverside Church to stand in community with that diverse group so dedicated to promoting justice in all its varied forms. Yes, I have a role to play there, but yet, I am Catholic. How, without a Catholic community, do I embrace that identity, continue serving my Church? For now, it seems, given the time I have to ponder and reflect, free from both the joys and challenges of nurturing and serving communities, I am called to simply offer that…. my pondering and the reflections that emerge. As Catholics, we know that Jesus freely offered his life to us, teaching us, healing us, loving us so well. We, of course, are called to do the same. And so, with words from Ezekial in mind, I will not worry about what others might say, or be dismayed by the looks I may be given. I will simply offer what I can – a few words here and there given freely to be accepted or not. For now, it is enough. And so I will begin by addressing some of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family…..