When our current pope accepted his election, many Catholics took especial heart when we heard his chosen name for the first time: Francis. In spite of it being the name of the most revered saint of all, no other pope had ever taken it. Why not? Possibly because that name invokes dangerous implications. Two details from the saint’s life reveals them. First, one day while visiting the ruins of an old church, Francis received a direct message from God: “Go rebuild my house….” Second, Francis attributed a deepening of his conversion when, upon meeting a leper, he chose to kiss the leper, rather than run away from what had once repulsed him. At this time of our pope’s tenure, many are hoping that Francis is, indeed, attempting to rebuild the Church. Both his pastoral style and his recent encyclical, Laudato Si, are changing the course established by his two predecessors, while other reports have indicated that he is focused on internal change as well. Truly, the praise afforded him to this point is warranted. However, Francis has yet to embrace the contemporary leper of the Catholic Church: women called to ordination.
Why do I describe today’s leper as being women called to ordination? The reason should be obvious. Once a woman seeks and accepts ordination, she is automatically excommunicated, banished from the Church. Not only that, anyone who supports the woman’s priest movement - even if only to talk about its potential merits - is also banished. Just this week, Jack McClure of Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco, received notice that he may no longer celebrate mass at his parish since he had participated in a panel supporting the movement. Clearly, the Church views us women as not only being unworthy of participating in Church life, but toxic enough to threaten its very existence. Why else would they be so harsh in their condemnation? As reports in The National Catholic Reporter this week, even though many Catholics dissent from several other issues, the punishments for advocating for women’s ordination are uniquely swift and severe.
The Church, however, sees the punishment as being just. If you listen to the words of Pope Francis, you can see why. In a recent this was reported: “While he has advocated a “deeper theology” about the place of women in the church and a “greater role” for women in its decision making, he has also said he believes such women suffer from a “machismo” that negates the real differences, and contributions, between men and women.” In his eyes, we women are fighting against the ontological reality that should be ours as women, as defined by God. And that’s that. About women’s ordination, he said in July 2013, “The church has spoken and says no.”
We must wonder, though, is the punishment serving the Church? The consequences show us it does not. For one, in excommunicating key supporters such as Roy Bourgeois, Tony Flannery and Paul Collins, the Church has lost gifted priests who lovingly served their communities well. For another, they lose us, we women who in serving our Church faithfully and competently for decades, have been called to deepen our service through ordination. Furthermore, those punishments, and the threat of them, create division, not unity, among its very members. For those of us who have accepted ordination, we’ve seen close friends and even family members pull away. We also face much criticism and fear. Just last month while attending a gathering of some of the most loving people I know, when I tried to express my pain in not being able to offer my fullest self in service to my beloved Church, some present immediately thought that I wanted key people there to publicly support ordination, an action that would threaten our group’s very survival. The wound that suspicion created took several days to heal; hopefully its scar will recede soon as well.
Is such loss of talent, loving service and unity truly what the Church wants? I would have to believe not, but yet, the chasm separating our points of view seems to be impossible to cross. After all, volumes have been written by both sides, each pointing to Scripture, Tradition and history, to prove its points. If all those words can’t resolve the matter what can? I believe there is only one possibility:
Pope Francis must embrace the leper! He must invite an ordained woman into his house, his very life, to fulfill, to model the words he spoke to the just a few days ago. Yes, he was speaking about immigrants, but, I challenge all who read this, hear the truth in them now:
“we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.”
If Pope Francis would embrace what seems to repel him and the Church the most, he may experience the conversion our beloved saint did, in that what had been bitter to him “was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” He may see that we women are neither dangerous nor toxic to our Church. If he sees our faces and listens to our stories, he will know this: we are merely trying to be our best selves in this world. He will see we are not the lepers the Church has declared us and our supporters to be; we are merely women and men longing to love and serve all…..