Members of our Heart of Compassion Faith Community attended a two-part, three-hour presentation on the ‘Sacrament of Holy Orders’ and ‘The Reasoning Behind Why the Church Does Not Ordain Women’.This was a real life ordeal by fire.
The speaker was a young priest who had been ordained five years earlier and was offering a series of presentations on Church doctrine and theology in his parish hall. The talk about the Sacrament of Ordination was promoted in parish bulletins across the city and caught our attention. A handout was prepared with excerpts from his lecture including references to historical doctrine and St. Paul’s letter found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.After listening to Part I, we prayed for guidance and decided to attend Part II, which was held the following week. We prepared an invitation to hand out at the end of the lecture. Our message was a request to join us in a conversation on ’Our Faith, Our Future’ to be held on the same day and time the following week.
As we listened to the 1½ hour Part II lecture, it was apparent the organizers were not interested in a true open dialogue, nor were they willing to hear from supporters of the women priest movement. At the end of the presentation, our bishop Michele calmly and bravely turned to the audience, commending their willingness to explore the mysteries of our faith and for their steadfastness through all the changes in the Church since Vatican II.
As soon as Michele Birch-Conery introduced herself as a bishop with the Association of Roman Catholic Priests she was heckled by a group of women, some of whom shouted "No you're not. No you're not." One woman crossed her hands over her eyes in a scissoring motion as if to exorcise an evil from her sight. Michele persevered and encouraged all of us to stay open to the Holy Spirit as together we evolve in our faith and in our Church. Many in the audience got up and left and the young priest later apologized for their behaviour.
Not being disillusioned, we handed out our invitation to the sixty people in attendance. Some laughed as they read it before putting it down on a table, some shook their heads ‘no’ as if touching the paper would cause great misery and some politely tucked it in their hands and walked away. The senior pastor of the parish who was at the back of the hall, turned to me and said, “Well, I know who I am”. His intonation inferred his legitimacy of being an ordained priest. To his credit, I witnessed him posting theinvitation on the church bulletin board.
We also sent the invitation by e-mail to approximately 75 people who are known to be supporters of the Roman Catholic priest movement. In total, our outreach efforts were personally conveyed to more than 135 people, with hope that the message would be extended further.
Our event took place last Friday, in the chapel at a senior citizen residence called Cardinal Place where we hold our liturgies. At first, I was feeling disappointed as it was evident that all who were invited, did not come. While I was setting up a power-point that was prepared collaboratively by our bishop, Michele Birch-Conery, priest, Barbara Billey and myself, two senior residents of Cardinal Place, named Simon and Colleen, joined our little group. Simon is a baptized Anglican of Armenian descent. Colleen has Irish ancestry and is a baptized Roman Catholic, now divorced. Both regularly attend Sunday mass held at Cardinal Place by a retired priest who lives at the residence. The following is a brief summary of how the Holy Spirit continued to move among us in a way that will forever be a touchstone memory for me.
I worked the projector, not knowing what to expect but I was quickly put at ease as I watched our audience of two, Colleen and Simon, gaze at the first slide. They both commented on the beauty and unique design of the image that is also found on the first page of our liturgy guide. Difficult to capture in words, it is a cross that is intertwined in circles of various hues of yellow, green and blue. Simon remarked on the unique design and shared that the symbolic crucifix brings comfort to him. He is often drawn to stop by the chapel, knowing that his eyes will rest on the cross reminding him of Christ’s own suffering for our salvation.
His deep faith and flexibility to see a different representation from the traditional crucifix was inspiring. Slide 2 captures the ARCWP vision statement and logo. Simon, who is hard of hearing, read the words out loud and this started a conversation of what it meant to be women priests in a Roman Catholic tradition. Both our guests acknowledged the difficulties we face and saw our commitment as a calling.
When we had a chance to personally share our joys and sorrow in the women priest movement, Simon said, “You know who you are, just keep on going”.I laughed at the irony, recallingwhat the pastor had said to me the week before, “I know who I am”. Here we were as bishop, priest and deacon applicant, with two marginalized senior citizens who were so open, sensitive and forward thinking. What a contrasting and healing experience compared to the rejection and utter dismissal of our calling the previous week.A smile spread across my face as I remembered a promise Jesus made long ago, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.” (c.f. Matthew 18:20)
I moved on to Slide 3entitled, ‘Let us begin with prayer’. We used Karen Drucker’s Blessing to the World (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5FGZsulkSk). The words and images moved all five of us as both Simon and Colleen exclaimed, “Beautiful, just beautiful”. The gentle silence led us into Slide 4, which was the scripture of John 4:4-26 about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Simon, slowly read the words being projected and where we placed a pause (…)he turned to us with eyebrows raised. Micheleassumed the role of storyteller and began telling the rest of the story. All of us were captivated by Michele's voice and gestures as she animated the Gospel. When she was done, another door had opened and everyone added their own understanding including the significance of His acts of inclusion during that time in history and that it was a woman whom Jesus sent to spread the word thatHe, as Messiah, was in their town. I was mesmerized as I listened to the unfolding of the Living Word come alive.
Slide 5 helped to continueour conversation with Teresa Avila’s reflection inDavid Ogden’s ‘Christ has no body now but yours’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoV6R6qk4vY. Again, the images and music inspired deep reflection and sharing as we turned to two simple questions:
What does faith mean to you?
What are your longings and desires for our Church?
The outpouring of emotions was very moving as we listened to the depth of Colleen'sand Simon’s faith through their personal stories. Colleen’s story remains respectfully private but she said, “Faith is everything and you realize this more as you get older”. Simon echoed her sentiments, adding that it is faith, not religion that gets him through each day. He was willing to share his personal story about the cruel devastation his family experienced during the Turkish-Armenian war. His grandfather, other family members and friends who lived in his village were cruelly slaughtered because they were Christians. Tears rolled down his face as he recounted his memories while lifting his eyes to the cross at the altar and said, “He didn’t deserve it … and here I come and find peace knowing what they did to him was not right, but He did it for us”.Simon said that it is his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ that helps him overcome physical pain and forgives the mistakes and regrets of his life.
Slide 6 invited a conversation on what ‘change’ they would like to see in the Church. Colleen was very detailed in her vision of being inclusive. She made circular gestures with her hands as an expression of what it could be as opposed to the hierarchical structure, which she motioned as up and down. I was fascinated to watch her crippled body expressing her passion and the distinctions between faith and the institutional Church. The injustice within the Roman Catholic tradition is deep, the wounds of betrayal are many but the faithful carry on. Tears rolled down her face as she described how reading the scriptures help her move through the physical pain she endures each day. And joy spread across her face, her smile radiating beautifully as she expressed gratitude for all the acts of kindness she is receiving at this stage of her life. Deep gratitude appeared as true happiness.
We closed with our own words of gratitude for their presence and for the powerful presence of the Spirit with us that evening. We asked them to pray for us so we may stay strong on our ordained path and Colleen offered a passionate appeal to God to help us on our journey. We sang ‘Prayer for Peace’ (David Haas) and the final image of our hands clasped one on top of the other still fills my heart. Simon repeated his invitation to return, “We need to hear from you … share your understanding of the Bible with us. I will spread the word you are coming”. We graciously accepted his willingness to ‘spread the word’ and two days later, we watched asfive more seniors joined our liturgy circle.
Later, as we reflected on our experience, I imagined St. Bonaventure’s description of God’s love flowing as a water wheel. As a deacon applicant I was able to understand what our Bishop Michele meant when she said that the Holy Spirit had laid a ‘justice walk’ before us. In a pastoral role, our steps may have appeared small but I now realize the quiet energy of our presence spoke volumes. Despite the agony we were feeling, we ‘showed up’ to listen respectfully to the current Church theology and hierarchical rationale on why women can't be priests. Especially difficult was the young priest’s reference to our biological capacitybeing purposely designed for motherhood as our highest vocation, not priesthood.We were non-confrontational and did not openly criticize the young priest’s position. As embodied symbols, we represented women priests who are here today, carrying forward the lineage of our ancestor women priests in the early Church.
The contrast was astounding for in the humble setting of a seniors’ residence, we entered a place of acceptance. Witnessing Simon’s and Colleen’s reception to our invitation was humbling and led us to deep inquiry, including questioning who we are intended to minister as ordained persons in the Roman Catholic Church.With the grace of Holy Spirit Sophia, I will continue to follow the wisdom I once heard, “Send out love; Send out love to all you meet.”
Confidentiality has been addressed by using pseudonyms for guests referred to as Colleen and Simon. We are grateful for the ongoing supportive generosity and approval by the owner of Cardinal Place for providing the location for our presentation and liturgy.
About the authors:
The writers are members of ARCWP, Heart of Compassion Faith Community, Windsor, ON
Suzanne DeFroy, Ed.D., Deacon Applicant and course participant in PCS 101; Principal author as the above version was inspired from the submitted assignment in Session 5, ‘Remembering the Holy Spirit: Love Poured Out’
Michele Birch-Conery, Ph.D., Bishop ARCWP; retired professor of English Literature and Women's Studies
Barbara Billey, D.Min., Priest ARCWP; counselor and art therapist