Dedicated: Dean Jansson was a lay member of the Church of Ireland for 15 years before the call to priesthood struck. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
In 2010, the Vatican announced that those who ordain women as priests are guilty of a crime comparable to priests who sexually abuse children. The decision to categorise the ordination of women in the same way as paedophilia as a ‘delicta graviora’ – a most serious sin – shocked many around the world.
“One of the most insulting and misogynistic pronouncements that the Vatican has made for a very long time,” Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society in Britain fulminated. He asked why “any self-respecting woman would want to remain part of an organisation that regards their full and equal participation as a ‘grave sin’.”Many Catholic women were asking themselves the same question, but of course, most of them couldn’t voice their disgust, because to do so would contravene the late Pope St John Paul II’s prohibition on even discussing women’s ordination.
Those not employed directly by the Church don’t realise the verbal and intellectual gag Catholic workers operate under. As recently as October 2013, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith excommunicated American Fr Roy Bourgeois and dismissed him from the priesthood over his participation in the ‘invalid’ ordination of a woman. Challenging the Vatican on women priests is not a trifling matter.
In light of the shabby treatment meted out to former president Dr Mary McAleese by Cardinal Kevin Farrell – who refused to allow her to speak as a panellist at a Vatican conference for International Women’s Day, many Irish Catholics are once again revisiting this vexed question of women priests.
McAleese’s stinging rebuke to the Vatican over its misogyny ahead of the forthcoming papal visit to Ireland on August 25-26 has solidified the issue.
“I believe that women should be ordained,” she told reporters in recent weeks. “I believe the theology on which [the ban on women’s ordination]is based is pure codology. I’m not even going to be bothered arguing it. Sooner or later, it’ll fall apart, fall asunder under its own dead weight.”
On the same day as the Voices of Faith conference was being addressed in Rome by Mary McAleese, Dr Sharon Tighe-Mooney was launching her new book, What About Me? (Mercier Press) in Trim, Co Meath. In it, she asks how the institutional Catholic Church can be so certain that women priests were never to feature in Catholicism? She also asks why the Church is so determined not to discuss the issue of women priests.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that only men can receive holy orders because Jesus chose men as his apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. More recently, in 1974, Pope Paul VI produced Marialis Cultus which was seen as setting out a model in the Mother of God for modern women. In 1976, the Vatican document ‘Inter Insigniores: On the question of the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood’ said the Church is not authorised to admit women to priestly ordination.
Then in 1994, Pope St John Paul II produced Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which explicitly reserved priestly ordination to men alone and forbade everyone to even discuss the matter.
Enter Mary McAleese. When she lashed out at the misogyny in the Vatican on March 8 and described the theology on which the exclusion of women is based as “pure codology”, she spoke as a committed Catholic who has studied canon law to doctorate level.
She firmly rejects the notion that confining priesthood to celibate males is the will of Christ, believing it looks suspiciously like “dressed-up misogyny”. She knows her subject and that will have set alarm bells ringing in many clerical quarters.
In her address to the Voices of Faith conference in Rome, she highlighted the consequence of ruling out priestly ordination to women. The decision “has locked women out of any significant role in the Church’s leadership, doctrinal development and authority structure”. That is why she describes the Church as flying on one wing – everything that matters in the Church is being filtered through a male-only lens. “How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership, legal and doctrinal discernment and decision-making?” Dr McAleese asked.
No regrets
Co Cork-based theologian Dr Anne Francis recently conducted a study on women in ministry on the island of Ireland. A majority of Catholic women surveyed expressed the view that there is systemic sexism or overt misogyny in the Church. These Catholic women were involved in roles such as parish leader, spiritual accompaniment and school chaplaincy.
One of the key findings across all the Christian denominations was that all of the women felt happy to be in Christian ministry and none expressed any regret about ministry as their life choice.
They felt privileged to serve God and the people in their care. Two Catholic women observed that clergy nearly never openly supported and promoted women’s ministry because they believed it would affect their prospects. “They may offer their tacit or personal support but would never speak out,” the women said.
Speaking to Review, Dr Francis said she believes the Catholic Church “would benefit from the ordained ministry of women in addition to their current ministries. Gender should not be the primary criterion of selection for ministry and I believe it is unacceptable to most Irish Catholics that this is still the case.” If women are equally valued in the Church, then they should be fully and equally active in leadership positions and positions of theological and pastoral influence. Instead they are “barely present”.
“We hear Catholic Church leaders talking about a shortage of priests or a crisis in vocations but this is rarely discussed in the context of their refusal to change the profile and training of those they ordain to priesthood. It is telling that they would rather leave communities without a celebration of Sunday Eucharist and/or overload existing priests than ask the Church, including female members, to conduct a rigorous review of theology and practice around ordained ministry. The theology and experience of our sister churches could help us in this regard.”
The women ministers reported that they were well received and that those who began as objectors came around once they met them and benefited from their ministry. One of the practical challenges they highlighted concerned training and juggling this with family commitment, while after ordination, many women noted that they were still expected to do the bulk of domestic work and child rearing.
On the findings of the ‘Women in Ministry in Ireland’ report is that women from all traditions expressed the wish that eventually the Catholic Church would ordain women. The Methodist Church has been ordaining women since 1978.
Rev Fiona McCrea, a Methodist minister from Lisburn, Co Antrim, was ordained in 2012. While she has come across the odd person who remarks, ‘Oh I’ve never met a female minister before’ or ‘I don’t really agree with female ministers’, generally she has found people supportive.
In 2013, the Methodist Church elected Rev Heather Morris as its first female President. “Having a president who is a woman is a real sign that we are not seen differently, that we are all equal; it is a privilege to be a part of a church that sees it that way,” says the 42-year-old mother-of-three.
“Jesus discipled women in the Bible, there were women involved in ministry with him. As I see it, if it was okay with Jesus, then it is certainly okay with me. I think we all have gifts and talents and we are all called by God to use those, no matter what our gender. I’ve thought it through and I am very at peace with women in ministry; I’m living it and I definitely wouldn’t be in it if I hadn’t felt the call from God. If he had a problem with women in ministry, he wouldn’t have done that.”
According to Church of Ireland priest Rev Anne-Marie O’Farrell, there are currently 149 women compared to 756 men among the church’s ordained clergy. The 51-year-old tells Review that she doesn’t see gender as an issue in the Church of Ireland. “I don’t do something because I am a woman, I do it because I have been compelled by my vocation to seek out the possibility of ministry in the Church and I can only do that because women before me pushed that door open.” She believes the Church benefits from the gifts of men and women. “Women don’t have a monopoly on care.”
Dean Maria Jansson of Waterford Cathedral is the second highest-ranking female member of the Church of Ireland’s leadership. The 62-year-old was ordained in 2001. She too believes “men and women need each other” and that any organisation that is all male or all female “is not healthy. I work with men all the time – my vestry is half men and half women. In that collegiality you get better decisions and you get better leadership.”
But lest anyone get the impression that the Church of Ireland is a bastion of equality, Dean Jansson highlights that out of 12 dioceses, there is currently just one woman bishop and one woman dean. “We have been ordaining women with the capacity for bishops since 1990. In 28 years, you have two women in the hierarchy. What you have got now is a situation where either women have internalised misogyny and deselect themselves from senior posts or some dioceses are so male dominated that they never think of women in a leadership role.” So, while Catholicism has its own issues, key committees in the Church of Ireland are not representative of the commitment of women in the Church both as laity and ordained and that has to be addressed.
“If I look to the future, I get worried because I don’t see a lot of women rising through the ranks,” she says. “The challenges are not as huge as the complete blanket ban on women. But in the Church of Sweden, which has been ordaining women since 1950, you have got this backlash now against women, with terribly conservative parishes that won’t have women at all. Religion is becoming more conservative, and as it is seen as an opt-out from society, then the issues of misogyny and homophobia and bigotry and racism rear their ugly heads.”
Source of deep grief
Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church, Dr Anne Francis knows several women who feel called as priests. Although these women are faithful disciples and Catholics involved in ministry, “their exclusion from priesthood is a source of constant and deep grief and leads them to see their life’s purpose as unfulfilled. As a member of the Church, I see the real loss of their ministry both to the life of the Church and the wider community which the Church claims to serve”.
Looking back over her 17 years in ministry, Dean Maria Jansson describes it as “a privilege”.
“You do not have a right to be trusted, you do not have a right to be welcomed into peoples’ lives or homes or to hear the stories of their lives,” she says. “If somebody opens their heart or their home or their suffering or their joy to you, that is holy ground. And you walk increasingly on it as lightly as you can. I am deeply honoured to be called into this ministry and to be entrusted with the service of the people with whom I live and work. I’ve come to love them deeply – I enjoy them, worry about them – for the most part, they are people that when I go in on Sunday morning, I am just thrilled to see them.”

‘I didn’t feel at home  culturally or as a woman in  the Roman Catholic Church’

CASE STUDY: Dean Maria Jansson
Ordained by the Church of Ireland in 2001, 62-year-old Dean Maria Jansson of Waterford Cathedral celebrates 17 years as a priest this year. With a Catholic mother from Donegal and a Swedish Lutheran socialist father, she started “thinking and questioning very early on”.
The second highest-ranking female in the Church of Ireland trained as a religion teacher at the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin in the early 70s. She taught in Cork and Dublin and lived and worked in France and Israel. “I was a teacher of religion for a long time and was heading towards an academic life,” she says.
She was doing a doctorate in Trinity College Dublin, specialising in 20th French philosophy and lecturing part-time. Even when she was teaching religion in a Catholic school, she was worshipping in the Church of Ireland’s Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. “I didn’t feel at home culturally or as a woman in the Roman Catholic Church. So, it was a coming home, a gradual realisation that I was at home and that I had felt suffocated elsewhere.”
She was a lay member of the Church of Ireland for 15 years before the call to priesthood struck. It was unexpected because she doesn’t think she was “churchy”. But she lost a friend who was like a foster sister to her in December 1996, a month prior to that she had been diagnosed – incorrectly it turned out – with a tumour or MS, and then in May 1997, her brother died.
“When you lose people you love, or you think that you are going to die, you think very hard. On medication, I got well and I thought I’ve got another shot – go girl! What do you really want to do with your life?”
A brave and challenging sermon by Dean John Patterson of Christ Church Cathedral given in response to the murder of three young Catholic brothers during the Drumcree crisis in 1998 prompted her to approach the dean, and the path was set for her to be mentored in priesthood by Canon Cecil Hyland, who told her “be yourself and dedicate yourself”.
Being single, she feels this enabled her to do ministry without impacting on the lives of others, but it has impacted because her wider family has seen less of her.
Both of her parents lived to see her ordained. Sadly, her father died of cancer “six weeks after I was priested. I was his chaplain in his dying – the last act of love”.
She looks after four parishes: Waterford Cathedral, St John the Baptist Annestown, Christ Church Tramore and St Andrew’s Dunmore East. “About 30pc of the cathedral parish are not cradle Anglicans – they are Lutherans, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Africa Pentecostalists and Slav Orthodox,” she says. “We have people from Hungary, Poland, Spain, France, USA, Germany, Ukraine, England, India and Nigeria and Biafra – it is a bit like the United Nations.”
In the hierarchy of the church, the dean comes next in rank to the bishop but Rev Jansson stresses: “Primarily you are a priest that orders worship and pastor to your people. I visit parishioners every single day, visit the hospitals, the nursing home and the sick and dying, the grieving, I am a chaplain to a school. You try to be consistently there for people in times of crisis and need but you are also there in times of great joy when they are getting married or when the baby is born. Sometimes you party with them and sometimes you just hold them in their arms as they cry.”
International message
Last year, Dean Jansson organised a bell peeling at her cathedral against racism and his initiative was taken up in 70 countries around the world. This year, she is organising for “quite an extraordinary Muslim woman” to deliver an international message in Waterford. The event will take place on the weekend of June 17. See