Reformation

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Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.

 

Perennial Hope

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I had the opportunity this past week to attend a lecture given by Dr. Phyllis Zagano. In fact, it was her last public appearance before leaving for Rome in November to serve on the papal commission convened to examine, yet again, the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. She will not speak publicly again until the commission’s work is concluded.

Dr. Zagano spoke in great detail about the history of women in the diaconate. This has been her passion and her life’s work and, as she quipped, every word is not only researched but footnoted. She spoke of rights, of justice, and of mercy. She stressed repeatedly that no one, male or female, has the right to be ordained. Thus, ordaining women to the diaconate is not about a woman’s right to be ordained. There is no such thing. Rather it is about the right of the community to be ministered to by women who have been called to serve.

In addition to preaching, baptizing and officiating at weddings, women ordained to the diaconate would be able to serve in offices reserved for those in the clerical state. It is the right of parishes, dioceses, and the entire Church to be ministered to by women in these ways, women who bring with them the unique gifts and perspectives of womanhood. This isn’t just about positions in the Curia, but also about looking much closer to home where it could mean women serving as an canonical judges. Under the new guidelines for annulments, a single judge may issue a decision without the need for a second trial. While women currently serve on tribunals as canon lawyers and judges, their work is overseen by ordained men and cases overseen by a single judge must be decided by clerics. Ordained women would be able to fill this role.

She spoke of justice in the Church and how that carries out into the world. One of the arguments that has long been championed as the central reason for the all-male clergy is the maleness of Jesus. This flawed line of reasoning holds that women don’t match Christ’s image. This carries an implication that women, simply based on their gender, cannot image Christ or do so in away that is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ. That is an injustice and one that radiates out into the world. Indeed, the long history of the subjugation of women is based entirely on the view of women as being less than a man. The Church has the opportunity and the responsibility to correct that worldview.

Finally, she spoke of mercy and the role of the Church to recognize and touch the suffering within the community. Women within their communities are often willing and able to be ministers of mercy but are limited by the roles they are currently permitted to hold. Whether that means a woman serving as a deacon in Latin America, traveling to the remote villages where the priest can rarely visit or a woman serving as a deacon in a suburban parish down the street, preaching the gospel and touching the lives of those around her in service and charity.

Ultimately, there is a wealth of historical evidence, including rites of ordination, that women served as deacons. The topic of reviving this role for women was raised at the Second Vatican Council and at the close of the council, it was slated as a topic that warranted further study but was largely neglected. In 1997, a commission studied all of the evidence and created a detailed report which concluded that yes, women could be ordained to the diaconate. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time served as President of the International Theological Commission, refused to sign it. In 2002, a new commission was convened to study the same question. It subsumed the entire 1997 report into its own 78-page report, which concluded that there was no conclusion. Dr. Zagano summed up the discussions of the last 50 years in one succinct statement: They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.

They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes. 

 

Now, Pope Francis has handpicked a new commission made up of twelve highly respected scholars. There are six men and six women. Dr. Zagano said she has no idea what the outcome will be. And she refused to entertain questions on women serving in the priesthood. She did, however, state that Benedict XVI defined the diaconate as a ministry entirely separate from the presbyteriate and the episcopacy.  In simple English, ordaining women to the diaconate poses no theological challenge to maintaining an all-male priesthood. There are some who argue that the diaconate, presbyteriate, and episcopacy are inextricably entwined.  If that were ever determined to be an inviolable theological truth, then women would have to be ordained to the priesthood based in the historical evidence of women serving in the diaconate for many centuries in the early Church. But that is not the role of the current commission to determine nor to consider. Their role is solely to determine whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. Dr. Zagano plainly stated that all of her work leads to a clear yes, they can. They were in the past and should be again.

The sheer volume of historical evidence she traced out for us was nearly overwhelming. And for me, just being in that space, surrounded mostly by women of a certain age, women who really know how far we have come, was an amazing experience in and of itself. There was an air of excitement and hope, not optimism or wishful thinking but a true, deeply held, rarely displayed, soul level hope. It was the kind of perennial hope only progressives, and maybe lifelong Cubs fans, would truly understand. Maybe this is our time. The Cubs finally had their year. Will we?

Find Your Voice

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. ELCA’s presiding bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, released a video calling on people find their voice and to use their voice to make a difference. She pointed congregants and pastors alike to the ELCA Social Message on Gender Based Violence, an open, honest and pragmatic seventeen page document intended to shape the way communities address these situations. I wish I could say the same about the Catholic bishops but here we are mid-month and I have yet to see any sort of statement from them. Although I did notice there was plenty to say about who was in and who was out when Pope Francis named the new cardinals. Now, don’t get me wrong. The US bishops do have a statement about domestic violence. It dates back to 2002 and it’s on their website, if you go looking for it.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” and his bragging about forcing himself on women just because he can. There’s been a lot of talk that Bill Clinton’s behavior was no better. There was Michelle Obama’s speech in New Hampshire where she talked about what it’s like to be woman in a world when some men feel like this behavior is acceptable. So clearly, everybody is talking about respecting women, demeaning women, what constitutes sexual assault, why consent matters and defining rape culture. And I have to wonder, with this topic of violence against women so high on the national radar, why is it that the my Catholic bishop is silent, despite having an active and engaging social media account and an existing church document to point to? And why is it that my Lutheran bishop has not only pointed to an existing church document but also taken the time to create a short video for social media specifically to highlight it? Is it simply because 49% of those ordained in the ELCA are women? And perhaps having women’s voices at all levels changes the way a church approaches ministry? Could it be that having an all-male clergy colors the way violence against women is perceived and dealt with in the Catholic Church? I want to say no. I really, really want to say no. But my experiences say otherwise.

So I throw out a question to my ordained Catholic brothers: when was the last time you preached about domestic violence? Really preached about it, not just some passing comment in a ten minute homily on the sanctity of marriage? When was the last time you preached about the dignity of women as human beings in their own right, married or not, and not just used a woman’s dignity as a launching point into a homily about abortion? When was the last time you held Jesus up as an example of treating women with decency and respect regardless of her social status? When was the last time you told the women in your congregation that they deserved a man who would treat them as Jesus would, with respect, kindness, gentleness and compassion? When was the last time you used the authority given to you by the Church to hold the men in your congregations accountable, calling for an end to off-color comments and boys-will-be-boys attitudes?

What are you waiting for? God knows we all need to hear it.

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Feast of Questions

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Pope Francis has decreed that Mary Magdalene will now have feast day on the same liturgical level of importance as the other apostles. For nearly 1500 years, she has been described as the apostle to the apostles. She has had a memorial day on the liturgical calendar for centuries, sharing the date with fifteen other memorials. Now that the day is a feast, the Gloria will be sung and prayers dedicated to Mary Magdalene will be offered. The celebration carries more weight. This is beautiful thing.

But… I have questions. Lots of them.

Why announce the change in the liturgical calendar now? This announcement follows hot on the heels of the statements Pope Francis made about convening a committee to study (yet again) the possibility of ordaining women to serve as deacons. It also was timed during a three-day Jubilee Celebration of Women Priests which included participants from the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and Women’s Ordination Worldwide, and was widely also publicized by A Church For Our Daughters and Call to Action. On the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Pope Francis made an announcement recognizing Mary Magdalene’s equal importance to her brother apostles while in the Piazza Pia activists from WOW held a purple stole witness for the ordination of women priests followed by a procession to Saint Peter’s carrying a petition titled Open The Door to Dialogue. So either this was a very lucky coincidence for the supporters of women’s ordination or a very shrewd marketing maneuver by Pope Francis to reiterate his message that the Church needs to create a greater (still undefined) role for women.

It should be duly noted that all Roman Catholic Women Priests have been excommunicated lata sententia for heresy, as have most of their public supporters. Attending a liturgy held by a Roman Catholic Woman Priest is an act of heresy. Members of the other three organizations are also considered out of bounds on many issues but since their actions are more indirect, they have not yet faced the same harsh penalties.

It’s true that Mary Magdalene had a memorial centuries before the ordination of the Danube Seven but it has taken the Church two millennia to not simply acknowledge, but to actually celebrate with a feast day the fact that, as Fr. James Martin put it, “Between the time she encountered Christ at the tomb and when she proclaimed his Resurrection to them, Mary Magdalene was the Church on earth because only she understood the full meaning of Jesus’s ministry.”

Why did it take so long? What was the Church so afraid of? The long held argument against the ordination of women centers around the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ followers. In the simplest of terms, the Church asserts that because Jesus chose to enter the world as a man and chose only men to be apostles, then clearly Jesus intended only men to serve as priests. No matter what position one takes on the ordination of women, one cannot avoid the obvious question: If Jesus intended for only men to serve as priests, why did he choose to first appear in his risen form to a woman? Furthermore, why did he then choose to send a woman to announce his resurrection? Keeping in mind his divinity, did Jesus not foresee the way these choices would influence the Church? Did the apostles, who were so entrenched in their patriarchal society, miss the message, as they so often did? Is it at all possible that by choosing to send a woman to announce the Resurrection, that Jesus was also sending the message that women had an equal, if not superior, role in proclaiming the Gospel? After all this is Jesus we’re talking about here. He could just as easily have appeared to the disciples in the locked room and foregone the encounter with Mary Magdalene. So why didn’t he do that? If we aren’t looking for that reason, we’re missing something.

The Deaconess Reality Check

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Earlier this week, Pope Francis answered questions at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, a gathering of 900 women religious leaders. He was asked about the ordination of women as deacons. His response was that he would call for a commission to study of the historical role of deaconesses and whether women could be ordained to this role today. This is a far cry from the usual resounding NO GIRLS ALLOWED response that is the stock answer whenever the words ordain and women appear in the same sentence and that fact alone was enough to send the internet into a frenzy. Supporters of women’s ordination cheered the idea as a baby step forward. I was tagged in multiple posts and comments on social media. Did you see this? This is awesome! Finally!

But I’m not super excited about the statement for a number of reasons. First of all, this was one of the pope’s infamous off-the-cuff remarks, which is Vatican slang for doesn’t mean a darn thing.  Secondly, if one read below the fold, the pope was also asked about a woman delivering the homily at Mass. The response was the customary NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Finally, the Church has been committed to ‘studying’ the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate since the Second Vatican Council, a.k.a before I was born. Leading Church historians and theologians have used the exact same evidence to argue completely opposite positions.

Historically speaking, yes women served as deaconesses in the early Church. There is not only reference to this in scripture but also in records of early Church councils where there is discussion about the rite of the ordination of women deaconesses, specifically the Council of Chalcedon in 451. What has been refined and passed down to us is that deaconesses assisted with the baptisms of other women during a time when full immersion baptism would have required baptismal candidates to be naked. Scriptural references, however, speak of women preaching in the synagogues alongside the men. So what happened? The question centers around whether these women were merely given a blessing or whether there was an imposition of hands as there is in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was eventually ‘clarified’ and the role of women was eliminated altogether. That clarification came at a later Church council, later being defined as 1000 years later so hardly eyewitness apostolic kind of stuff. Be that as it may, the silt of centuries of Church teaching builds upon earlier layers of deposit and, right or wrong, it becomes solidified as tradition.

Could the Vatican reinstate the order of deaconess?  Yes, absolutely. The foundation is there both in scripture and in tradition. More and more highly placed archbishops and cardinals are starting to raise that possibility. While this generates a lot of excitement for supporters of women’s ordination, the reality is that a women’s diaconate would likely look nothing at all like the men’s diaconate we have now. Our deacons can proclaim the gospel and preach the homily at Mass. Pope Francis clearly restated the Church’s position that while a woman may offer a reflection at a prayer gathering, at Mass the priest or deacon delivers the homily in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and thus must be a man. Sadly, this means that any hope that reinstating the order of deaconess will lead to us hearing a woman preach at Mass is decidedly misplaced. The only way that will happen is if, and only if, the Church revises its definition of what it means to operate in persona Christi and, since such a revision would also open the way for women to be ordained not only to the diaconate (as we now know it) but also to the priesthood, it is highly unlikely to occur in my lifetime.

Do I hope the Church might take a step, any step, even a tiny one, toward ordaining women? Yes, very much so. But hope has to be tempered with reality. The reality is that the Church would have to reexamine more than a millenia and a half of teaching before a woman could ever be allowed to preach at Mass. While the world looks at progressive changes in terms of years, the Catholic Church looks at progressive changes in terms of centuries. Change may come, but at 43, how long am I willing to wait for it? I’ve been told that younger women in the Catholic Church need women like me, women with passion, education, and most importantly a big mouth, to stay in the Catholic Church and push for change. But sometimes the only way to effectively create a change is to create a vacuum.

Reading The Synod

Reading The Synod

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I will not tweet. I will not tweet. I will not tweet…

Yesterday was a long day. I did everything to stay off of Twitter and out of the debates that flared up as soon as the text of the Pope’s closing remarks to the Synod on the Family were released. Okay so I did maybe fire off a single tweet that the “great Catholic leaders” described as “shaping Church teachings” by one conservative Catholic Twitter user actually translated to “men, ordained or not” and pointing out that, ‘Faithful women religious were not given a vote.”

And then I went off and baked a batch of cookies. And then I did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. And then I made a big corned beef dinner which would’ve fed half the neighbors. And then I did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen again. And then I updated my laptop to Windows 10 so I couldn’t use it until the update finished hours later.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. I read the Pope’s closing statement. He spoke of those who would indoctrinate dead stones to be hurled at others and of those who would hide behind Church teaching in order to judge with superiority. Even as far removed as I am from the Church, I love Pope Francis. I love that he calls out the superiority, superficiality, pomposity, and arrogance of the same men who elected him.

FullSizeRenderI’m still waiting for the English translation of the full 94 paragraphs of the final document from the Synod. But I have read the paragraphs that have been made available thus far. The language on divorce, remarriage and the internal forum will garner most of the attention from the press, followed closely by the language on LGBT persons and their families. None of the above are really a big change. Although the internal forum has long been a close-kept Church secret, it really shouldn’t be quite so hush-hush. I think it’s about time to publicly answer the question of whether the Church trusts her priests to form consciences and guide individual discernment or if it does not. And if it does not, why not?

The paragraph that broke my heart was Paragraph 27, the paragraph that dealt with women. Once again the men at the top have reiterated that, above all, the value of woman lies in her role as a mother. The language which could have focused on the violence against women as a violation of their inherent dignity as beloved daughters of God was instead focused on threats to motherhood particularly through forced sterilization or forced abortions. The Church fathers irresponsibly squandered a tremendous public opportunity to speak out against the physical, emotional, and verbal abuse millions of women face every single day. Many women suffer at the hands of the very men who have sworn to love, honor and cherish them. Until death do us part for many is a not a promise of a long and fruitful marriage but rather a sincere hope that the death will come quickly and thereby end their suffering. But there are also many woman and girls who will suffer violence and abuse outside of marriage. These millions of women deserved more than a single line buried in a paragraph focused mainly on violence as a threat to the role of motherhood.

I supposed it could be said that I can’t blame the Church fathers for their lack of insight. They are, after all, men surrounded only by men, taking advice almost exclusively from men. But I can, and soundly do, blame them for choosing to remain ignorant. Non-ordained religious brothers had voting rights at the Synod. Their status within the Church is that of layman. Or a laywoman. Or a religious sister. But no woman was allowed to cast a vote. Not one. The refusal to allow women to fully participate in these discussions and the drafting of these documents is also a refusal to admit to the pastoral realities that exist in the lives of women in the Church.

The Church refuses to ordain women. While I may vehemently disagree with their scriptural interpretations, they have their traditions and doctrines that reinforce their reasons for this refusal. But what, exactly, are the reasons why the Church refuses to hear from women at all? How does one legitimately claim the title of Father but ignore the cries of their daughters?

The Sheep At The Fence

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I originally heard the story of the sheep at the fence from an American man who had been to Ireland on business. While he was there, Sean, one of the local men, invited the American to spend Saturday with Sean’s family and enjoy a home-cooked supper. Shortly after the American arrived, Sean’s daughter came into the room saying, “Papa, I saw a sheep with its head poking through the fence. It was looking at me very strangely.”

“Ah. He likely found some tasty grass to nibble on just this side of the fence. Don’t mind him. He’ll find his way home.” he replied and sent her off to play.

A little while later, his daughter came back into the room. Again she said to her father, “Papa, that sheep is still looking at me from the fence.”

“Not to worry. It’s just one of our neighbor’s flock and is a likely just very curious fellow.” He sent her off to help her mother in the kitchen.

They all sat down to supper and after they had finished eating, the children cleared the table and started the dishes. The daughter returned a third time, insistent that the same sheep was still looking at her through the fence. Intrigued, Sean finally decided that perhaps he needed to take a closer look at this nosy sheep. Looking out the window, he saw nothing odd about the sheep. He figured maybe he should take a walk and as he drew closer he realized something was wrong. The sheep didn’t make a sound or even try to run away. When he got right up to it, he could see what they hadn’t been able to see from afar: the sheep was stuck in the fence. Worse, the poor thing had been completely devoured where it stood and only the head and front leg remained intact.

This story came back to me as we headed into Lent. Lately, I’ve found myself speaking far more openly about women’s ordination and my inability to reconcile my experiences of God with the teaching of the Catholic Church. That struggle isn’t a new one.  It dates back to the days before my First Communion.  I can still show you the spot on which I was standing when the nuns explained to my shocked and horrified little self that girls would never be priests. But such things are not spoken of good Catholic circles. As I’ve finally given up any pretense of acceptance, I’ve heard privately from other Catholic women faced with the same struggle. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all of them. “Have you ever been able to have an honest conversation about this with any priest in the Church? Because I tried and they shut me down immediately. I was told is these are the rules. Follow them.”

OUCH!

Seriously guys, can’t we do better than that?

I know these are the rules. I get it. But please realize that if the best answer the shepherds can come up with is, These are the rules. there are a lot of sheep who are going to stay stuck in the fence. They’re going to stare back at pulpit with empty eyes, looking for all the world like they’re part of the flock when in reality they’ve been eaten alive by a myriad of doubts and emotions until they end up spiritually dead. If the Catholic priests are to be the shepherds Pope Francis is asking them to be, if they are really going to smell like their sheep – all of their sheep – they need to take a little walk along the fence line and figure out how to help the ones who find themselves caught in the fence. Either find a way to guide them safely and fully into your pasture or find a way to turn them loose so they are free to find safety in another one.

Why do I keep writing about what I see in the Catholic Church? Because I hear things that some priests never will simply because I’m a woman and I’m more out than in now. That makes me a safe sounding board. I hope by bouncing back what I’m hearing, maybe, just maybe, it will open up the floor for a more honest conversation about women’s ordination. No, the rules won’t change but maybe given an honest conversation, some of those women who find themselves caught in the fence will either find their way back in or gracefully find their way out. A true shepherd would rather see his sheep safe in another pasture than dead in the fence. After all, a good shepherd can always recover a lost sheep.