Several friends and readers have been asking for my thoughts about the recent media coverage on Jane Kryzanowski, a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) movement and soon to be ordained a bishop in that movement (July 21, 2018).
I share with Jane the long and painful, passionate and intimate journey into embracing a priestly call within a church that does not recognize or bless such a call. While Jane has chosen to follow a route that places her outside of a traditional ecclesial structure, I have moved to another one, i.e. the Anglican Church. How are such decisions made, and is one better than another? How do we even know that our priestly calling originates in God when the Church denies that possibility? How do we engage the spiritual challenges that come with each path? How do we honour those who choose different trajectories, especially ones we might disagree with? Where is God in paths that make others shake their heads in disbelief?
Our response to such questions varies widely according to personality and temperament, background and opportunities, life experience, spirituality and passions. And so I can only speak from my own history and understanding. In the 26-year dance with my priestly vocation I have run the gamut of responses: from outright denial to trying to run away from God (yeah, I met Jonah on the way), from bargaining with God and minimizing the serious nature of the call, from doubt to fear to finally a deep, all encompassing yes.
One of the paths I indeed explored several years ago was the RCWP movement. I engaged extensive conversations with a member of that movement and entered serious discernment for a short time before turning away from that path. Why? First of all, I am not a political activist by nature. This has been true in all areas of social justice, contentious issues and difficult ethical topics. It doesn’t mean that I am unengaged or disinterested, quite the contrary. My mode of engagement is different, more direct and invisible. My engagement has not often taken the shape of standing on ramparts, disrupting public gatherings, joining protests or lobbying church officials. My primary call and inclination has been to serve direct needs on the ground, to honour the earth through simple living off the land, and to engage pastoral opportunities in unassuming ways; I tend to leave the heavy political lifting in both church and society to others. Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls.
While outsiders may see the RCWP movement primarily about public protest, I am aware that this is not its self-understanding. Its call to witness to injustice within the church is expressed through fostering a renewed model for priestly ministry and through serving direct needs on the ground, especially with those who feel alienated from the institutional church. Regardless of this noble purpose, priesthood with the RCWP movement would have felt to me like adding a political dimension to what I saw in essence as a call to serve the faith community. My priestly call felt too precious and too intimate to be tossed to and fro, potentially subjecting it to unpredictable seas of ecclesial confrontation. My desire for parish-based pastoral ministry was far greater than engagement in political activism.
I also struggled with what seemed a rather weak structure of discernment and accountability in RCWP. This aspect has surely evolved and matured since I last engaged its counsel. Discernment and accountability is both a communal and personal matter. I wondered about how to sustain a genuine priestly spirituality, and how to work for reform when the official ties with the existing church are forcibly severed.
I became acutely aware that the pastoral trust and opportunities I was enjoying in parish, diocesan and ecumenical ministry were quite unique; not every RC woman so called had access to these open ministerial spaces. Maybe these open spaces were there for good reason. Joining RCWP would incur automatic excommunication, resulting in closing the open spaces within every ecclesial structure, Roman Catholic and otherwise. Ironically, moving to the Anglican ecclesial community does not come with the same stigma. Despite what’s on the books about invalidity of orders, Rome’s 50+ year commitment to formal dialogue and close relations with Anglicans, including clergy, bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury leave little doubt about its practical recognition of Anglican Orders and its appreciation for the Anglican Gospel witness.
Paradoxically, the realizations arising from my RCWP exploration clarified my pastoral call and priestly heart with that uncanny peace the world cannot give. I gratefully acknowledged that I had ample opportunities to serve God’s people, while my spirit was guided and nourished from the priestly vocation in my soul. God affirmed the call inside, as well as how I was to continue living that call on the outside.
I discovered that, despite the prohibition on ordination, my ministry career could be surprisingly fruitful. This was possible in part thanks to a deepened understanding of sacraments, encompassing every occasion in which I could facilitate an embodied encounter between God and a person in need. I learnt that priestly ministry need not be limited to the institutionally ordained, that it could be deeply life-giving and love-giving even in the most restrictive circumstances. To increase the probability of such fruitfulness I chose daily to surrender to God, chose not be victimized by the pain but let it teach and hone my spirit, to keep my ego out of the driver’s seat, and to ground my experience in Christ Jesus. While I share the vision and the vocation with RCWP women, and while I certainly gained a greater understanding of what leads one to choose this ordination route, my path was clearly a different one.
But, you may ask, was this response not a capitulation to an oppressive ecclesial system? Was this not a cop out on my part, a cowardly supporting of the status quo? For some, this would have been so. For me, not so. Instead, guided by Scripture and prayer, good mentoring and challenging self-reflection, this response lead me to develop a robust spiritual resilience in the midst of an unjust ecclesial situation. I grounded my priestly identity in God, and only secondarily in the church. I developed skills to avoid feeling victimized by an unjust ecclesial practice and to help me rise above ecclesial limitations, skills that continue to serve me well even now as an Anglican priest.
Undoubtedly there is an ecclesial tension within Roman Catholicism when it comes to the ordination question for women. Our own Scriptures and tradition, our own Pope Francis, continuously remind us of the God of surprises, the God who doesn’t fit into our limited boxes of understanding and interpretation. We embrace God in a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed the radical nature of God’s grace and mercy for all people. Jesus, God’s grace in the flesh, engaged people in need, touched clean and unclean people alike, to the scandal of the religious establishment. He was in many ways a breaker of those human rules that did not serve God’s reign, and thus still continuously calls us to a higher standard of justice, wholeness and integrity.
Every time Pope Francis emphasizes that God keeps doing new things among us, I think of the priesthood for women. In his homily at the closing of the 2014 Synod on the family, Pope Francis said: “God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.” Well, God may not be afraid of new things, but church leaders seem to be. However, time is a necessary discernment tool in both personal and ecclesial development. Time will test the new thing God is doing in women such as Jane and myself who experience a divine call to priestly ministry. All we are asked to do is to be a faithful steward of the tiny part entrusted to us in this larger ecclesial drama, and leave the rest to God.
In order to live this tension creatively, freely and faithfully we need a long view, one that extends beyond our own few years on this planet. But I see a uncanny irony in Rome’s certainty that women cannot possibly be ordained when considering the following words from Pope Francis: If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.
There is no denying that each of us can be called onto different paths to fulfill a similar purpose, even if we find ourselves shaking our heads at one another’s choices. Whether inside or outside traditional ecclesial structures, we are all in this together. There is that of God in everyone and in every choice motivated by love. As long as the primary driving energy is love and humility, grace and mercy, with anger, bitterness and resentment surrendering to these four, each person’s journey is deserving of trust and respect despite our own misgivings.
We need to learn to think and say with Pope Francis, who in turn of course echoed Jesus, when he said: Who am I to judge? I share Pope Francis’ dogmatic certainty: God is truly in every person’s life. Taking this reality seriously, my own discomfort or disagreement with paths and choices others take can then become God’s invitation to deeper self-reflection and ongoing grounding into God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who am I to say that God does not use everyone to further God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy? Would that we can afford one another this mutual trust and respect even when finding ourselves on different routes of life.
- Here is a personal account by Christine Haider Winnet who joined the RCWP movement.
Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”