Friday, September 11, 2015

"Rights vs. Realty: Reflection by a Roman Catholic Woman Priest" by Rev. Dr. Barbara Billey, Priest, ARCWP, "Woman Spirit Rising Windsor," Slideshow

The 2015 Distinguished Visitors in Women’s Studies University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada Rights vs. Realities: Reflections of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest Rev. Dr. Barbara Billey, Priest ARCWP, Sept 11, 2015 

 Thank you, Missy for your heartfelt introduction of me, Renee and the Friends of Women’s Studies and all of you gathered here for the invitation to speak at this important event for women and for our community. I imagine each of you could tell a story that would fit with this year’s theme “Rights vs. Realities.” This evening, I offer my reflections from the perspective of a Roman Catholic (RC) woman priest. Ten years ago, I dreamt I was at Blessed Sacrament Church in the west end of Windsor where I attended Mass weekly for most of my youth into my early adult years. A full-bodied, Black woman stands at the front of the church singing a solo, but no sound comes through her accomplished and powerful voice. In the RC tradition, communion is the time when we eat unleavened bread called a host. We believe this is the real presence of Jesus Christ, made sacred and served to us by a male priest. In my dream, I, not the priest, come with communion to my husband and father who are sitting in their pews. Instead of the dry, hard host, I offer them rich, dark chocolate, but they refuse to take it. I return to the pew behind them and, with great delight, ravish the chocolate. Five years later, I began my journey on the path to ordination. Many of you may have heard about the recent Porter airlines incident where an Orthodox Jewish man refuses to sit next to a woman on a plane; his religious freedoms and rights trump her human rights and freedoms. If the RC Church could be described as a plane, women are refused a seat at the table of worship as ordained persons. We can’t even get a boarding pass because we don’t have a penis. The reality is that women in the RC Church have no rights to be ordained as deacons, priests or bishops. Our right to fulfill our sacred calling to support the empowerment of people in their spiritual life is denied. This is not right! Why? Biological determinism. According to Church authorities, in the divine plan of creation “the woman” is an image of God’s creative powers and motherhood is her natural destiny. Furthermore, spousal imagery in scripture is used to justify subordination of women to the role of the “bride” of Christ and of the Church. Only the bridegroom as male can be a priest ‘in persona Christi’ or in the person of Christ. This convoluted logic and abuse of scripture has been the death knell for women’s ordination. Sadly, we, with many of our sisters in other faith traditions suffer gross discriminations and violations of our human rights, which harm our soul life and have devastating effects on our psychological well-being. They lead to abuses and oppressions of all kinds that extend to society as a whole. Such papal positions are also contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the United Nations in 1948. The much beloved Pope Francis recently encouraged European parishes to open their doors to receive refugees from Syria. He has also been a staunch advocate of the poor and with respect to gay priests says, “Who am I to judge?” These are hopeful developments for our RC Church and society. Unfortunately, many of his positions aren’t helpful for women. In this the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis recently invited women who have had abortions to seek forgiveness from their priests. What about men’s role, or lack thereof, for this decision? What about a woman searching her conscience and making an informed, albeit difficult decision? This perspective is completely unconsidered. Pope Francis asks us to respond compassionately to the poor. Largely women and children in developing countries, he could ameliorate their suffering by lifting the ban on contraception. Despite a significant body of knowledge with respect to women’s religious and spiritual experience, promulgated by prominent women theologians for well over 50 years, Pope Francis asks the Vatican to generate research on theology of “the woman,” as if we were objects to be studied like a bug under a microscope. Along with two popes who preceded him, Francis also maintains the tight seal of excluding women from ordination. God have mercy on us! Unfortunately, civil rights compete with religious rights leaving women and other marginalized groups without protection. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has no provision for discrimination that occurs in religious institutions or faith traditions. In the U.S., the recent Religious Freedom Act gives the right to discriminate against GLBTQ persons based on religious beliefs. For Christians, Jesus was a human being sent by God to model for us Divine wisdom, love and compassion. He was justice-seeking and suffered a brutal death because he spoke against the oppressive religious and political systems of his time. The RC Church’s position on women and ordination flies in the face of Jesus’ practice of equality and inclusivity as seen in the Gospels. He focused on the marginalized, who in 1st Century Palestine were usually women, immigrants, and disabled or poor persons. Based on Jesus’ behavior, we can conclude that for God, biology is not destiny. The institutional RC Church is embedded in patriarchal power structures that have existed since the second century. In 1st and 2nd century house churches, women broke bread, led prayers, and built community with followers of Jesus. For 1200 years thereafter, women were deacons, priests and bishops, evident in archives recently found by anthropologists. However, Church Fathers have been unrelenting in their 2,000 year oppression of women, have rendered us invisible in history and have imprisoned us by decrees and dogmas with no hope of fulfilling our God-given right to equality in the church, in ways that matter to us. According to the Vatican, the decision against women’s ordination remains definitive and “infallible,” despite a 2014 Pew survey that indicates 68% of Roman Catholics are in favor of women priests. The irony is that Jesus never ordained anyone. These unbending papal positions have had considerable negative consequences on the entire community of the faithful. Women are treated as subordinate, both in law and in fact, by the Church’s ordained representatives. In addition to the worldwide sexual abuse scandals by male clergy, many Roman Catholics, especially women, have left the church, never to return. On July 29, 2002 seven women were ordained Roman Catholic priests on a boat in the Danube River in Germany by bishops in good standing with the Vatican. Shortly thereafter, two of the Danube Seven, were secretly ordained by male bishops, also in good standing with the Vatican. These women ordained others and the RC women priest movement was birthed, expanding to our present day of over 200 women deacons, priests and bishops, internationally. We have with us today Michele Birch-Conery, the first woman in Canada to be ordained a RC priest, now living with us in Windsor. A retired English and women’s studies professor, she will be ordained a bishop next Thursday in Philadelphia, the day before Pope Francis arrives there. 

 In the Association for Roman Catholic Women Priests, a stream flowing from the originating Roman Catholic Women Priests, we have preserved the beauty of our faith tradition while responding to the spiritual needs of people in our times. We are not the “same old, same old”, add women and stir. Our contemporary model of priesthood is non-hierarchical, non-clerical and inclusive, faithful to Jesus’ message of equality and justice. Many of us are doing justice work, pastoral care, fostering faith communities, and engaging inter-spiritual dialogue. As an Association spread across three continents – United States, South America and Canada – we make decisions by consensus and all members, including bishops, have equal power. In our Windsor Heart of Compassion Faith Community, we follow the rites of the RC Church in our liturgies and other sacraments, but integrate inclusive language and contemporary theologies, including feminist, liberation and evolutionary consciousness. We are a discipleship of equals, companions of empowerment, everyone sharing in prayers, reflecting on the Gospel and blessing bread and wine. Although we are not welcome as priests in the institutional Church, we have not left the Church. We are creating, with others in our faith tradition, a renewed Roman Catholic Church and a just society. Our ordinations are illicit (illegal) but valid because we are ordained in apostolic succession, in a long line of priests going back centuries. Even so, many of us are excommunicated by the Vatican or said to have excommunicated ourselves for breaking a Canon Law (1024), which stipulates that “only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination.” For women priests, excommunication means we have no rights in the RC Church, to marry, receive communion or a funeral. This law contradicts another Canon Law (849) which states that “Baptism is the gateway to the sacraments.” Thus the precondition for a valid ordination is not being male; rather, baptism into faith in Jesus Christ. The personal consequences for prophetic obedience i.e. following one’s conscience are often dire – broken marriages, rejection by children, families and friends, and expulsion from jobs in RC institutions, to name a few. We are not paid for our ministry and work long and hard, locally and with our international movement. In the five years preparing to be a priest, I have had my own challenges, particularly with my husband and family, but thankfully they are gradually softening their positions. For me, the demands of ministry can sometimes be overwhelming when balanced with my need to make an income; however, the rewards have clearly exceeded the costs. I’m following a deep, inner instinct and this brings contentment and peace. Many people say, “Thank you for your courage. It’s about time this happened.”A few comments, written mostly by men, are unkind, to say the least. What is the vision I have for my priesthood? People often ask, “What do I call you?” Certainly not Father Barb. I think of myself as an urban priest and compassion activist, less a leader in the traditional sense of priest and more a facilitator of encounters with the Sacred. I’m deeply interested in healing, empowerment of women and recovering the Divine Feminine, often using all genres of the arts as a bridge to soul space. I engage my ministry on both sides of the border with Michele and Jeni Marcus, a deacon, transgendered person and lawyer from Michigan. A major focus in ministry and my doctorate has been the Wisdom Women Circles of Compassion Initiative, funded, in part, by a small donation from the Sisters of St. Joseph of London through OPIRG, our sponsoring organization. Thus far, there have been two parts to the project: Adoption of the Charter for Compassion by the City of Windsor, and Female Youth Circles of Compassion. In the Female Youth Circles of Compassion initiative, Michele and I prepared female youth, ages 16-24 years from five, faith traditions to share experience and to create art with young women within each of their traditions. They explored the presence of wisdom women in their faith traditions, in contemporary society and within their lives. Each person created art that symbolized their wisdom woman. The central contemplation revolved around the question: What would your wisdom woman say about how to cultivate compassion, in your faith tradition, at school, with family and friends and in our larger community? The facilitators returned to us with wisdom they had gathered and gained. The Women Spirit Rising in Windsor You Tube will give you a glimpse of the project and how it relates to our ministry. (You-Tube) In the WWCC initiative, when compassion was the centre of the conversation for the young women, there was unity within diversity. They discovered a connection through trust and vulnerability. Tears were shed about abuses suffered and desires unfulfilled as a result of being women in society and within faith traditions. In describing the process of creating a clay pot, Missy who represented the Christian tradition said, “How symbolic. How relevant. We’re beat up, molded, cut up, ripped up, pieces of us taken away, but they never break us down. As women we embody infinite possibility.” Out of pain, the young women generated ideas about how to bring more compassion into their lives and into our Windsor community. Our time together was revelatory and empowering. As in the RC tradition, we heard that women in the history of other traditions had been hidden. The discussions provided fuel to fire on-going compassionate, justice work, whatever our individual realities. Each woman embodied the voice of wisdom and, in our way of being together. Much more went on in these groups than time allows for me to share. On Mon, March 23, 2015 Compassion in Action Windsor, represented by Michele, Lina Chaker, a communications student at the University, and me, appealed to Windsor City Council to join hundreds of cities across the world to adopt the Charter for Compassion and to proclaim Windsor a Compassionate Community. The essence of the Charter is to treat others as we would like to be treated, a statement rooted in centuries old wisdom that encourages good will among people across diverse religious, ethical, cultural and spiritual traditions. The Charter was conceived through theologian, Karen Armstrong’s vision for a compassionate world. In 2009, she gathered notable religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu to form the Council of Conscience. They received input from thousands of people around the world to craft the Charter, which has been embraced by individuals, cities, regions and nations, as well as people in business, the arts, education, and health care. In May 2011, the City of London, Ontario was the first city in Canada and the second in the world to adopt the Charter and to proclaim London a Compassionate Community. They now use the principles of the Charter to inform their City’s strategic direction, leading to innovative, compassion initiatives that are sensitive to the needs of their citizens, especially the most marginalized. After vigorous debate by Windsor City Council, Mayor Drew Dilkens broke a tie vote to defeat the motion. Unfortunately, the only female member on Council had the most opposition to the Charter’s adoption. However, we are not defeated and plan to gain more community support before returning to Windsor City Council. You’ll find more information on the Charter and how you can get involved in our brochures. I ask you to consider signing our paper petition or on-line petition, and to join us when we approach Council again later this fall. We’ve also run out of funds, thus any financial support would be gratefully received. By way of closing, I want to return briefly to the dream I shared with you at the beginning. Now as a RC priest, I realize this dream reflected the state of my psyche as a woman in the RC Church: I had no position of authority; I was subordinate to the male priest, my husband and my father; and I had no voice. On the exterior, I was accomplished in my profession, economically secure and had satisfying relationships, but like many women whom I encounter, for years I suffered an unexplainable malaise and anxiety. Jungian psychologist, Marion Woodman writes about the Black Madonna appearing in the dreams of men and women as symbolic of the lost Divine Feminine. I believed the Black woman in my dream was singing but there was no sound coming through her voice. I realize now that she was indeed singing with all the power of a woman who has overcome oppression and is one within herself. I simply didn’t have ears to hear her. None of us did: my father, my husband, the priest or the RC Church. We were fogged in by our socialization, with no awareness of the subtle and overt levels of oppression we were engaging. The prophetic aspect of my dream was that I dared to serve communion, not the traditional, bland host; rather, that which awakens and satisfies the palate, and can rarely be refused by most women – chocolate. RC women priests, and some of the men who join us, are recovering our heritage as wisdom women and keepers of the Feminine Sacred, making the RC tradition more palatable, especially for women. Far from aligning with the male patriarchy, we are creating a new reality that is contemporary and inter-spiritual, where all are welcome regardless of marital status, race, religion, or sexual orientation. We are taking back our rights because it’s the right thing to do, not for ourselves alone, but for and with all spiritual seekers, within the Church and our wider, local and global communities. I dare to say this is what Jesus wants us to do. As a psychotherapist, I spend most of my day listening to peoples’ stories. Thank you for hearing mine and I hope that it has affirmed yours. May Wisdom be our source and guide.

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