As You Draw Nearer to Us - Ordination Anniversary Celebration Michele Birch-Conery, bishop arcwp (July 25, 2005) and Barbara Billey, priest arcwp (July 25, 2015)
Barbara Billey and Michele Birch-Conery, mixed media
"Where the mind is, there is the treasure (Gospel of Mary Magdalene 7:4)," recounts Mary Magdalene to her companions about what has been hidden from them. This is what Jesus tells
her in a visionary encounter.
My call to priesthood was birthed in silence of my heart. This sacred invitation came ten years ago in the summer of 2010 following a worship service at an Episcopal Benedictine Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. I was at the end of a ten-day silent retreat at nearby GilChrist, a contemplative retreat centre where I had gone for many retreats over the previous five years. I was getting into my car for the drive home to Windsor, Canada when a kindly man approached me with a question? Are you a priest? Without hesitation, I said, "No." In my heart, I heard ‘But I want to be.’ I felt a deep stillness and calm. Once I arrived home and began to share this new vision with family and friends the joyous madness began and has continued ever since.
For me and for people who know and love me, the call to priesthood was inconceivable from its conception. My childhood play did not include enacting the role of a priest with my friends in the backyard, distributing cookie wafers for hosts or juice for wine. Although, I was educated in Roman Catholic (RC) schools, went to Mass every Sunday, and briefly, in my late teens, contemplated a consecrated life as a woman religious, I never dreamed of becoming a priest. How could I have? I am a woman.
I wasn't interested in parish council, liturgical music or any other ministries of the Church; however, I sporadically was a minister of the Word and Eucharist. I was not an avid Bible reader who was drawn toward theology. I certainly was not a justice worker or activist. I was a psychotherapist with a passion for the soul life of persons and all forms of art, especially dance. I identified, as did many of my generation and younger, as "spiritual not religious." I went about my life being the best person I could be based on the values of love and care that my family and the Church had taught me.
In my youth and early adulthood, I enjoyed Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church where I was baptized and where I received all the Sacraments. The liturgy, especially the music and prayers, sometimes the homilies, inspired me. Probably like most RCs, my mind would wander. I was fulfilling my weekly obligation, because to not attend was considered a sin, even in the late 60s and early 70s of our post-Vatican Church.
My parents would drive my younger siblings and me from our middle-class, white neighborhood to where the Church was located in one of the poorer sections of the city. I really liked the priests, especially Fr. Joe who would rant about the latest bishop edict that didn't fit his notion of living Gospel values. My friend, Joanna was a music leader there. Fr. Joe was open to her subversive and frequent attempts to thread the Feminine Sacred through the music and liturgical movement. He rarely wore a chausable, most often baggy, cobalt blue sweat pants underneath an alb.
Many good friends have been and currently are women religious and male priests. My passionate interest in the life of the soul and Buddhist practices held my attention more than my involvement in the Church. I was binary: Buddhist/Roman Catholic. In fact, there was a period of time in my 40s when I was so angry that women weren't included in positions of leadership that, in a radical act of defiance, I spent my Sundays walking in the cathedral of the forest near my home. At that time, I left corporate life as an Executive Director and for ten years, Pat St. Louis, a Sister of St. Joseph and I created a business called WellnessWorks where we designed experiences, whether retreats, programs or workshop, which integrated spirituality, creativity and psychology.
You can imagine how a call to priesthood in the RC Church would have been a dramatic turn that upset the status quo of my comfortable life and those who loved me. The vigor of push back from family and friends was unexpected. Although he did not object to me being a priest, my husband, Ken, who followed his own truth, could not in good conscience attend my ordination. He thought I should work for reform from the inside of the Church. My mother told me I should not go ahead with ordination if my husband was not supportive. They were accustomed to my various changes, but this one was way too far out for them, and deemed by some in my spiritual circles as a regression in my spirituality. All they could see was the confinement of my free spirit by a roman collar around my neck. This was a very hard time. But, like my badass mother, I did what I needed to do: I was ordained Sat, July 25th, five years ago in Cardinal Place Chapel, a former chapel of the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary (SNJM).
"Where the mind is, there is the treasure (7:4)." In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the mind was considered in the Greek philosophy and culture of the times to mean the heart. Now in my early fifties follow my heart I did and daringly tread the path to ordination and beyond. It's wild!
If becoming ordained an RC woman priest isn't enough, the living out of this calling is another animal, an elephant, really. There are many mountains to climb and as far as I know elephants don't climb mountains.
One of the hardest surrenders of ordination: Loss of friends who could not participate in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church because of the patriarchal structures and the abuses of women, children and persons who are LBGTQIS. Even though we our faith community offered a refreshing new interpretation of our tradition, sadly, they were already lost to us. My hopes were also dashed when only a handful of the 130 people who attended my ordination chose to continue on as a faith community.
As I plod the mountain trails, I discovered many limits and learning curves. Some of the requirements of my vocation:
· To be current on global and Vatican politics and to bear the heart-breaking inherent injustices of God's beloved creation;
· To recreate liturgy and Word to be a contemporary expression of Divine Mystery in a model of priesthood that embraces Jesus' values for equality, justice and empowerment in our feminist, liberation, and evolutionary theologies;
To To acquire a third graduate degree, a doctorate in ministry, in addition to completing the arcwp program of preparation;
· To examine in myself and to let go of communication patterns that reek of patriarchy and domination in order to be a model and to not repeat the harm that has been done due to these practices by our patriarchal Church and sociopolitical institutions;
· To live out a model of priesthood where we flatten out the hierarchy by sharing power and responsibility;
· To be a computer geek who sometimes feels hermetically sealed to electronic devices; to balance work and family relationships; to listen to people who know a lot more than I do and, who with ease explicate three to four syllable words (I'm referring to Jeni and Michele);
· To shift plans in order to be responsive in the moment to emerging pastoral needs;
· To embrace and enact with others psyche-altering, untried models of collaboration and consensus ;
· To endure my and others limits of aging and resources (human and financial) and to take care of ourselves and each other;
· To love and to accept persons who are very different from me, and to collaborate with them in creating innovation in our praying and being;
· To bear the hurt of family members who show no interest in this huge part of me that is a priest;
· To wash and iron my vestments and table of worship cloths; with my husband to cook meals and to care for our home (unlike the priests who have their myriad assistants, paid and unpaid);
· To be publicly identified by a Church official in the diocese of London administration as "excommunicating myself" because Jesus did not ordain women (Jesus ordained no one);
· To do all this for free; and
· And, most importantly, to pull away from the 24/7ness of this vocation to pray, to rest and to play, and to be with the Holy One who sustains us all in our dreaming and doing.
Had I known what I was getting into would I have said yes?
Yes, I would have. Why? Because the vistas and views of this elephant-climbing-up-the mountain ordination are stunning. At every turn and around each bend is LOVE. Holy Presence draws nearer to me, sends me mountain-climbers to guide the way that have a lot more climbing experience than me. First, there are Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and then centuries of Christians who were persecuted because of their faith. Then there are, our foremothers in the women priest movement, some with us today like Christine Mayr-Lumentzberger, bishop rcwp from Germany, one of the first women to be ordained a RC priest who with humility says, “I started the thing.” When she became a bishop she ordained our Michele Birch-Conery, now bishop with arcwp from Canada. They with others placed their feet on the path to ordination, making it clearer for those of us who follow. They continue to mentor and encourage us along.
There are friends and family who stick with me, especially Ken who is helping where and how he is able to give space for the fuller realization of my vocation as a priest. There is the Sacrament of Holy Orders that holds all in a spiral of grace.
And, finally I recognize a few members of the Heart of Compassion Faith Community who are at the heart and soul of our holy machinations and mischievous re-claimations of our rightful place at the table of worship and in the wider world. Please raise your hand as I mention you.
Sr. Sue, a SNJM who somewhere in the year she studied creation spirituality with Matthew Fox proclaimed herself to him as the Goddess of Shit (the divine and the human). She is the co-foundress with me of the HOC starting seven years ago. A retired teacher, minister of touch and spiritual director, she has dealt with a lot of shit in our growing pains in community and thrown a bit of her own around.
Kathy Wortony, a former SNJM and retired teacher who several years ago suffered a severe car accident and brain injury, advocates for persons with brain injury with the Brain Injury Association.
Sharon Beneteau, a former Sister of St. Joseph, a retired school teacher, member of the Catholic Women’s League and member of Women Making a Difference raises funds for clean water projects in Africa.
While being spiritual leaders and support persons with us, Sharon and Kathy advocate for our women priest movement on the inside of the institutional Church.
Rhea Lalonde is a retired psychiatric nurse and mother of six children. In pre-covid times, she shared her apartment in radical hospitality for house church and other gatherings. I recently told her my pain about the neglect of Michele's emotional well-being and her agony in social isolation within a long-term care facility. With support from HOC and local health care providers, I asked if Michele could live with her. Rhea immediately said yes. We will be moving Michele this coming Fri, July 31.
Along with my sister priests, Jeni and Karen, our HOC faith community, bishop Michele, my companions in the women priest movement and my husband, Ken, You, Sacred Presence raise me up so I can climb mountains. You raise me up to be more than I can be.
And now as You, Sacred Presence draw nearer to us, a new vision of faith community is coming toward us, where we are compelled to creatively embody Jesus' vision of open-heartedness, equality and justice through encounters that empower us in praying and contemplation, in sharing power and responsibility, in welcoming the unwelcomed, and in extending compassionate care to those among us in need.
As You, Sacred Presence draw nearer to us, You dance and sing us into more mad joy. Women are birthing the kin-dom of God into being. In our covenant with You, Divine Mystery we feel ourselves as Your garland of beauty and we are Your delight (cf. 61:5).