The Table

This Sunday marks the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of women’s ordination. Members and supporters of the Women’s Ordination Conference, the “Little Flowers of the Grassroots,” will honor Therese through prophetic actions around the world. Join us in celebrating St. Therese and all women called to priestly ordination.

Here are some “Little Ways” to take action this Sunday:

  • Tweet for Therese. Here are some sample tweets to share on her feast day:

Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, longed to be a priest. Stop denying women’s sacramental equality #OrdainWomen #StTherese

I honor St. Therese of Lisieux by celebrating her vocation to the priesthood & supporting @OrdainWomen #OrdainWomen

Celebrate Therese of Lisieux & all women called to priestly ordination #OrdainALady #OrdainWomen

“I sense in myself the vocation of PRIEST” – Therese of Lisieux #OrdainWomen

“The sacrifice of not being able to be a priest was something Thérèse always felt deeply.” #OrdainWomen #StTherese

Thank you for joining this unstoppable movement for equality. I will be witnessing in Rome this Sunday, and look forward to sharing your photos, tweets and messages of support.

Note: In honor of the upcoming Roman Catholic Women Priests episcopate ordinations on October 1st, the Table will run a feature post on both Suzanne Thiel and Jane Via this week. This is the second installment. WOC celebrates this milestone for the RCWP community. 

I’ve known Jane Via for 38 years. There was a group of women in San Diego who were meeting to address women’s ordination. I had asked Jane to moderate one of our gatherings focused on inclusive language. Jane was willing but asked me what the fee would be. We had no money and never imagined giving a stipend. Jane agreed that she would moderate this meeting but that it was important for women to learn to value women’s professional contribution as much as we would a man’s. Her words opened up an appreciation for women’s time and knowledge. Our group, WomenSpirit: Catholic Women of San Diego, was about to take a big leap forward in our awareness and consciousness!

Jane remained in WomanSpirit as we explored what it was like to create prayer and ritual together as most of us had never been asked to lead prayer. We grew alongside the wisdom of the Women’s Ordination Conference where we imagined a church with women priests that were ordained in a new priestly ministry. Jane’s knowledge of scripture, her friends in other woman-led congregations and her own hunger for ministry impacted the direction of our group and gave us hope to continue our work for justice in our institutional church.

Action for women’s ordination in September 2015 in Washington, DC (Jane Via, Left)

In her personal life, Jane continued to imagine this inclusive vision and allowed the desire for priesthood to grow in her heart. I remember the phone call when she told me about the Roman Catholic Women Priests organization. Jane was about to be ordained a deacon on the Danube River. It was an electric conversation! Jane then co-founded Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community (MMACC) and she brought into this inclusive group people from so many areas of her life – including some of the original WomanSpirit members who were amazed to see one of our own push through the barriers to actually proclaim her priesthood after all these years.

Jane’s ordination moved MMACC to the next level where we could worship weekly with a woman priest. Our community has evolved under Jane’s thoughtful, knowledgeable hand and encouraged our expansion in thought and deed. It is with unbounded joy that we celebrate Jane, our spiritual community, and RCWP as she takes this next step as ordained bishop, embodying women in priestly and pastoral ministry.

Note: In honor of the upcoming Roman Catholic Women Priests episcopate ordinations on October 1st, the Table will run a feature post on both Suzanne Thiel and Jane Via this week. This is the first installment. WOC celebrates this milestone for the RCWP community. 

You may think of Roman Catholic bishops as stern or stuffy; certainly you think of them as male. Not so, I say! October 1, 2017 at a synagogue in Aptos, California, Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) will be ordaining two new women bishops. They are Reverend Suzanne Thiel and Reverend Jane Via. As a sister priest, I have been asked to write about Suzanne.

Bishop-elect, Suzanne Thiel, RCWP

I first met Suzanne in 2006, sitting at a garden table of an Italian bakery in our home city of Portland, Oregon. She was already with another candidate, and I was invited because I was also pursuing priesthood. Suz and I eyed each other, and I silently thought she was at least okay. You must understand we were at the amorphous beginning of this movement of RCWP in the United States, and we were some of the early candidates feeling our way in this newly coalescing group.

We didn’t exactly know what we were developing, but Suzanne brought to us her organizational and ministerial talents and sense of adventure. Those traits have served RCWP, her ministries, and the Church through thick and thin. She now conducts Sunday services for under-served Catholics and Protestants in assisted living, volunteers in hospital chaplaincy, performs weddings and funerals, anointing, and does informal counseling. She is at the ready for anyone who needs a priest. In RCWP her range is from administration to finances all the way to printing banners, brochures and doing everything, I mean everything, in between. Life has been full in ways she could not have imagined while visiting with me on that bakery patio.

Like so many women priests, Suzanne came from a background of trying to make the world a better place. She spent years at our local Roosevelt High School, using classrooms, home visits and especially caring to see that teen parents made it to their crucial graduations. She still runs into people grateful to “Mrs. Thiel.” She was involved in her parish, St Clare, where she and her husband (of 43 years) and three sons spent their worship and service time. She helped develop the parish council, was on the school board, trained the altar severs, took communion to shuts-ins and worked as a volunteer with women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, making sure the women had a chance to pray and simply share together. It was distressing to her when she was asked to leave those ministries — a consequence of the institutional Catholic Church finding out she was an ordained womenpriest. Needless to say, the empty space has now been filled many times over.

Preparation under Bishop Patricia Fresen’s guidance led to Suzanne’s ordination as a deacon July 28, 2007 at the welcoming Zion United Church of Christ. I remember it well, because I was lying right next to her on the brown carpet as we prostrated ourselves during the powerful Litany of Saints. The following year, Suzanne was ordained a priest in a ceremony in Germany. Once again, she leapt into the unknown.

There is so much history packed into a short time in RCWP. Back in 2006, Suzanne started meeting with another member and myself in what was the nucleus of the Pacific Northwest cluster group of RCWP. Then in 2007 at a meeting of less than a dozen of us who constituted the entire Western Region, Deacon Suzanne agreed to become our regional administrator. I remember our borrowed space in a typical church meeting room of a Methodist church. We went around the circle of our small group. Each person turned down the job, until we got to the person in the last chair. That would be our willing Suzanne. By acclamation we said okay, and from then on Suzanne moved us forward with our seat-of-the-pants development, which continues to this day. I have no idea what would have happened if Suzanne hadn’t been in that fateful last chair. Ah, the ways of the Holy Spirit…

Yes, we were feeling our way forward, trusting Suzanne Thiel to be our lovingly-called “Boss.” At least we were mostly loving toward our administrator. Think about it — we are, after all, a bunch of very strong opinionated women. God bless Suz for hanging in there with “trying to herd cats.” We trusted her to keep us on track with all the organizational nitty-gritty an emerging group needs. It’s her gift, and a grounding one in a collection of women (and a few men) focused on so many varied and heavenly ideals in this world.

(R-L) Donnieau Snyder, Suzanne Thiel, Juanita Cordero

Over these short eleven years, Suzanne has been a force in RCWP, holding a myriad of formal and informal positions. Much of her work has been behind the scenes and thankless (I’ll say thank you now: thank you, Suz!). Besides being the person who hands out RCWP bookmarks no matter where she travels, Suzanne has been essential on the leadership circle, significant on the Board, kept our finances in order, and been a trained eye on legal matters regarding our 501(c)3. She has attended ordinations worldwide, acquainted herself with just about every woman priest and contributed her management skills to our sometimes motley group. Suzanne’s caring involvement has ranged from organizing rides for us from the airport for retreat, to serving on the Board as president and the financial officer.

One thing Suzanne is known for is her wanting to get the word out: “Yes, women priests do exist!” People at progressive and conservative Catholic conferences, people on planes and at pubs and restaurants have seen Suzanne Thiel in her Roman collar and found out for the first time that hundreds of women, yes women, have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests.

Whew! What a legacy in a short eleven years.

When our dear Western Region bishop, Olivia Doko, decided it was time to retire, we began our process for electing two new bishops from among our priests. One night when Suzanne was meditating in her bathtub, the Holy Spirit mumbled something in Suzanne’s ear about “let your role evolve.” So Suz left her name in for the ballot. She was then elected by the members of the Western Region to be one of our bishops. Evolve. Serve. Jump in. Those are all holy messages and motivations for Suzanne Thiel.

On October 1, adding another chapter to our jam-packed history, Suzanne Thiel and Jane Via will join eleven US, Canadian and European bishops on the altar. Suzanne will again offer herself in a new step forward. Western Region bishops, priests, deacons and candidates will be sitting in our Jewish friends’ sacred space to celebrate this joyous ceremony. Together other clergy, and with family and friends, we will unite with the universal Church and follow centuries of Apostolic Succession. We will celebrate our Suz and Jane becoming bishops. They will be lovingly anointed, ordained and consecrated by women’s hands. And I might add, by their hearts and souls, too.

In the spirit of a vocation that will not be denied, Suzanne will once again lie prostrate and surrender her gifts and herself to God. I’m going out on a limb to say God will be pleased. Yes, I think She will be very very pleased.

I was in my late teens when I first read the life of Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a gift book from a devoted aunt who sought to encourage vocations in all her nephews and nieces. It is hard to explain my subsequent fascination with this French nun who died of consumption at age 24 without revealing my own emerging sensitivities to things spiritual at a crucial time in my adolescence. Thérèse offered an almost embarrassing intimacy to readers in her autobiography, which began as a personal memoir she wrote at the request of her older sister and never intended for publication. It was treasured by her community after her death. Like many readers, I found in her a spiritual friend, passionate, tragic and perfectly sublimated.

I outgrew the saccharine portrait that was presented in the touched-up photos of Thérèse as a cult grew up around her memory and led to her canonization in 1925. I was not surprised to learn that the earliest published editions of The Story of A Soul had been carefully edited to enhance the image of the “Little Flower.”

I was reintroduced to a more realistic portrait of the saint in Ida Friederike Görres’ 1959 biography The Hidden Face, and was again drawn to the real Thérèse, offered as a survivor, not an exemplar, of Jansenist piety. Her little way, in effect, was a rejection of the self-lacerating, hothouse spirituality typical of contemplative life in the late 19th century. Görres published an untouched photo of Thérèse taken shortly before her death, described by someone seeing it for the first time as “the face of the female Christ.” It was indeed the face of someone who knew she was dying, stripped of illusion, clearly in touch with some universal human intuition about the mystery of life and the reality of death.

Thérèse has again emerged in our time, offered by traditionalists as a poster child for young vocations and as representing spiritual submissiveness — a facile and dubious title, to my mind, for someone whose holiness emerges as more muscular than that. A 1986 French film captured the simple directness of this young woman’s fierce determination to pursue the face of God in a contemplative setting. “Thérèse,” produced by Maurice Bernart and now available on YouTube, is both stark and beautiful, depicting a life and death in vignettes based on Thérèse’s diary.

She exemplified a spiritual desire for God that transcended her culture in much the way that Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila escaped their ages to reveal a maturity only the Gospel can command and enable in human nature. Their pure will to keep the first commandment, to love God above all else, mind, heart, body and spirit, opened them to transfiguration, the glory God promises anyone who seeks the divine face. Though they arrived at this experience from different times and cultures, each of these women got it right. Be one with Christ, in love with Christ, and God will do the rest.

The idea that all of us benefit from such pioneers is tantalizing. The five-minute mile stood like a barrier for decades until the first runner broke it. Then a flood of contenders followed quickly. It was as though the real barrier was not physical but spiritual. What was thought to be impossible was impossible until someone actually broke through. Then the way was open for everyone. Achievement in another stuns us because it reveals to us our own potential.

Every person who offers pure praise advances human evolution, makes God more accessible to the collective imagination. The secret transformation of a single heart inspires the journey of the entire pilgrim community.

Thérèse of Lisieux, in her brief but intense contemplative life, brought the flame of divine love to earth in her own heart. It was the one offering she had, and she gave it back to God without reserve. It was her only accomplishment. We have all been blessed by her.

Pat Marrin is resident cartoonist at National Catholic Reporter and the former editor of Celebration Magazine, NCR’s liturgical resource. This reflection, written in 1999, is from Celebration’s archive and is reposted here with permission. 

The following are excerpts from an interview between WOC executive director, Kate McElwee (KM) and Cindi “Sam” Bowns (SB) first published in the Spring 2017 issue of New Women, New Church. Sam has discerned a vocation to the diaconate and advocates for the restoration of ordained women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. A PDF version of the full interview is available to current WOC members in the “Members'” section of this website. 

KM: Why the diaconate?  What about this vocation speaks to your gifts or heart?

SB: I was raised United Methodist because my grandparents had left the Catholic Church due to mistreatment by a parish priest.  They were poor immigrants from Italy and after my grandfather died and my grandmother could no longer make the stipends for memorial masses, the priest refused to do any more for my grandfather.  This threw the family into an uproar about Catholicism.  When I returned to the Catholic Church two generations later, there was quite an upheaval in the immediate and extended family.  No one in the family attended the baptism of our last child who is the first “cradle Catholic” in two generations.  (Let me add, everyone within our family has returned to the Catholic Church, but that’s another story…)

Diakonos, the Greek word for deacon, means “service” and I fell in love with the concept during my husband’s diaconal formation, an education and training on which I accompanied him. There was a “rightness” to the notion that mirrored something deep in my soul—something I had felt called to since I was a kid.  I was called to service in our Methodist Youth Ministry and did much as from eleven  years on up: teaching younger children in Bible Camp, volunteering in a Senior Center weekly, helping in art and environment as a young teen, singing in the choir, etc.  I loved altar calls—when you come forward to the altar and dedicate your life to Jesus—and I was one of the few pre-teens to ever come forward.

Ministering together with my husband has also been one of the high points of our marriage. Just this past weekend, my husband and I had been invited to a local parish to jointly preach a homily and I was once again affirmed by people’s comments that I was answering a call from God as deacon. Time and time again, this vocation has been affirmed by the people in our community, as well as my friends and family.  Circumstances constantly arise in my life giving me opportunity to serve and be affirmed as a deacon.  

KM: In your personal discernment and with your community, did you ever consider or discern a call to the priesthood?

SB: Being a strong advocate for women’s restoration to the diaconate, I have thought about this question, because “women in ordained ministry” is a justice issue for me.  Women were part of the diaconate from the first moments of the fledgling Christian community. We have Scriptural evidence to support this and an abundance of archeological and written evidence outside of canon as well.  We have the same evidence that women were called to priesthood by their communities in the early Christian communities. The burying of our response to women’s ministry repeatedly throughout the centuries is personally bothersome, painful, and sinful, in my opinion.  In our world, in almost every endeavor, we see what women can bring to the table and to waste the gifts sent by the Spirit for the entire spiritual and religious community is poor stewardship, even if you left the justice issue out.  Jesus must weep over this. He was surrounded by women and called on them on many occasions to inform others of the Good News.

KM: What are your hopes for Pope Francis’ Commission on studying the diaconate?

SB: I hope they will acknowledge the historical fact that women were called forth by their various communities to act in diaconal ministry until the 12th century in the West and in some churches in the East, until this very day.  We have historians, church fathers and theologians throughout the centuries that affirm this, not to mention ordination rites still in existence, that confirm this as well.  I often laugh at the folks who say this wasn’t valid ordination, but the fact of the matter is that the bishops laid hands on the men in proximity of the altar and followed the very same action for the women called to the diaconate in the early years.  So if one was ordained (even though ordination has evolved through the ages to mean something else entirely different than the ancient understanding of ordo, “a calling” to now “a conferral upon”) then the other was ordained.  

I am particularly hopeful, since the last two commissions on this subject found no Scriptural or traditional prohibition against women’s return, that this commission will do the same but have enough publicity to perhaps gain meaningful traction for women’s restoration to this time honored ministry. The fact that Dr. Phyllis Zagano is on the commission is a hopeful sign to me.  She is renown for her historical and theological research on the matter and her appointment will provide wisdom and cogent arguments in favor of women in this ministry.  The Pope certainly knew who she was and what she has stood for before he appointed her, so I’m hopeful that that means he is willing to have an open mind on the situation.  Restoring women to the diaconate would be a practical way to include women in more prominent positions of authority and to promote ministerial collaboration between men and women to become better disciples of Christ.

My prayer is that the people in institutional power (the hierarchy) will listen to the Spirit of God and reflect on how women played such an important part in this ministry, historically. They also need to reflect on Jesus’ ministry and St. Paul’s, both who used women in significant missions of spreading the Good News, i.e., the Samaritan Woman was a perfect example. Not to mention Phoebe of Cenchrae and then Mary of Magdala who is first in all four Canonical Gospels to witness the Risen One.

WOC delivered dozens of “Valentines For Equality” to the CDF in Rome February 14, 2017.

KM: How do you see the role of deacons for the future?

SB: I see the need for deacons to be able to continue to serve the people sacramentally and that will not change in the near future. In fact I think the diaconate will continue to expand more quickly as priests become more scarce, but I wish their training focused more on the Greek interpretation of “diaconos” as “service” and less on altar duty.  All too frequently, in my experience, deacons love their altar work more than their service work. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderfully committed men devoted to good works but there are also a number of the men, who consider themselves “mini-priests” because they believe that gives them more authority and standing in the community.  I dislike that attitude and think it adds to the rampant clericalism out there. I also wish their training was more standardized—it varies so from diocese to diocese and having a Masters of Divinity myself, I see some big holes in their formation, theologically.  I’m not saying that they should have the same education as required for the priesthood, because these are two separate ministries, asking different charisms to shine forth, but there needs to be some kind of standardization in formation and perhaps a better understanding of the Church’s history and theology.

KM: What don’t most people know about the diaconate, or what would you want more people to know?

SB: I think it’s sad that the folks in the pew have been deprived of learning about the history of women in the diaconate throughout many centuries. When the diaconate died out, many of the service duties naturally fell to religious orders, primarily women’s religious orders and those services have been carried out by women all over the world up to the present time.

Most people don’t know that there have been two Vatican commissions on women in ministry already. Neither have found Biblical or traditional prohibitions against women in the diaconate. I hope that the current commission will not just be window-dressing but will be an instrument in the Spirit’s hands to change some of the things that need to be changed in our church. Many women have suggested over the years that if women stopped what they were doing for the church for even a month, that the consequences would be dramatic. Eighty percent of the church’s ministries are held by women. That would be very telling to the people in the pews.  

There are so many women in the Catholic Church who possess phenomenal gifts that are just waiting in the wings to flower in diaconal ministry.  While I may never be ordained in my lifetime, I am hopeful that young women of spiritual beauty and passion will be given the opportunity to serve the community from incredible gifts and love.  Everyone has a piece of the wisdom and a gift to give —it is time for the church to become a better steward of the great gifts that are not being shared among the people of god.  Paraphrasing from Lumen Gentium, it is time for the church to judge the affairs of the day in the light of the Gospel.

In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches the disciples how to seek reconciliation. This is clearly something the disciples needed, and something that our world, and each of us gathered here need today. Many of us here are seeking reconciliation, because our brother has sinned against us. Our Mother Church has sinned against us. Jesus says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” So who am I to go to. Who is this brother or mother who has wronged me?

As I sat with this question I was in the midst of my first week of class as I enter my last year of my m.div program. I did not expect it but the class I am most excited about is Canon Law. I have a great professor and it is one of those classes that makes me feel like “one of the guys.” A class that makes me feel like I get to be in the room where it happens, where those preparing for ordination are learning how to be part of the Church. This week I learned that the Pope is the legislator of Canon Law, of our Church’s law. So I guess in a sense my brother who has sinned against me, the one who holds the power to change our law is the Pope. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pope Francis is great for the most part, but he never responded to the letter I wrote him when he first became pope. The local diocese where my parents live held a campaign to have young woman write letters to Pope Francis about what it is like to be young Catholic women. In my letter to Pope Francis I told him how I had felt a call to the priesthood from a young age, I told him my vocation story. I wrote about my calling and my woundedness. I wrote:

It is hard to answer my call to pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church, because I don’t want to perpetuate the patriarchy of the church but know that I can’t abandon the Church either. I believe that I have a genuine call to the Catholic priesthood. I want women to be able to be priests and I want to be one of them.”

Now, If I listen to the model of reconciliation laid out by Jesus in our gospel – Since I told the Pope about the wrong doing of the Church and got no response – Now I get to take one or two or twenty along with me and to take with me their testimony, their witness. That is part of what we are doing this weekend. We are listening to the testimonies of our sisters, bearing witness to one another so that we can take their stories with us. It is in today’s Gospel from Matthew’s that we first see the term “ekklesia” found in the gospels. “Ekklesia” – a feminine word meaning gathering of people, a community of worship. We have gathered here over this weekend as ekklesia.

As a Church we have a long history, and in our first reading God says, “You, son (or daughter) of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel.” Ezekiel 33 is about generational responsibility. It is a call to be vigilant to stand against those who would bring wickedness to our community. To our ekklesia. Wickedness could come in the form of discrimination, sexism, and fear…. So many of us have already shared this weekend how we have heard the call of the lord to be watchful, to see that we have been called by God.

We have certainly lived out the response to our psalm today as we have not hardened our hearts – rather we have responded to the often painful and heavy message we have received from God that we are indeed called to ordained ministry.

What does this call mean? It means that we are called to love. For me it means I am called to love the Church despite the pain. When I concluded my letter to Pope Francis I signed it “Love Elaina Jo” because I do love Pope Francis and I love the Church. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Here love is not a feeling but a concrete action and an ability. How can my call to ordained ministry stand in opposition to the Church when it is rooted in love? The very identity of the vocations of deacon and priest are rooted in an unconditional love for the People of God.

So, going back to todays Gospel we’ve done step one and two – I’ve told my brother, I’ve gathered witnesses – and now Jesus says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” My first inclination is to say, “great, now I don’t have to deal with the Church, or the Pope, or anyone who perpetuates the patriarchal ways that continually wound our ekklesia. But then I remembered that Jesus ate with tax collectors, we drank water with Gentiles. Jesus made Matthew, the tax collectors on of his disciples. There is incredible hope in this. Jesus engaged the people that so others would treated with anger or hate. If those who have sinned against us must be treated as Jesus treated the tax collectors and Gentiles then we must say to those who sinned against us “come and follow me.” We have to invite the Church to talk to us, to eat with us, drink with us, and walk with us as we discern more deeply our unique calls to love.

As the gospel concludes Jesus says,“Amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” Jesus gives authority to interpret his teachings to the community. He calls us to be a responsible and watchful generation like the early Israelites in the Book of Ezekiel. It is the responsibility of the whole community, our ekklesia to focus on reconciliation and love as the fulfillment of the law. This is a message of hope and empowerment. This group of women gives me hope that one day our Pope and every member of our Church will let love be the fulfillment of the law rather than historical norms from first century Palestine.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” If God grants the prayers of two or three who are gathered then I can’t wait to see what he will do for a room full of the most powerful spiritual women I know. We are gathered to do the work of God, we are called to do the work of God, and God is in our midst.

Elaina Jo Polovick works at the Ignatian Spiritual Life in San Francisco and as a Resident Minister for the University of San Francisco. She is currently finishing her last year of a Masters of Divinity degree and dreams of Church that will accept her call to ordained ministry. Elaina Jo is a 2017 awardee of the Women’s Ordination Conference Lucile Murray Durkin Scholarship for Women Discerning Priestly Ministry. 

As Pope Francis begins his trip to Colombia (6-11 September 2017), we share this 2013 article from our journal, New Women, New Church, by Colombian woman priest Olga Lucia Álvarez Benjumea, ARCWP.

I’ve been discovering that ever since I was a very young girl, without much awareness back then, that the Divine has always guided me with kindness and a gentle hand, letting me know that I am Her beloved daughter. I’ve been guided for a mission within the Church and I am a part of Her through my baptism.

As a child, we didn’t have a television, PlayStation, cellphones, or computers.  In the afternoons, after doing our homework and chores, we found ourselves out with fellow neighborhood children.  We had an improvised altar that Mom had made, with the adorning items made from old newspapers.  We also played house, of course, taking our dolls to church for baptism.  In that environment, among my brothers (who are, coincidentally now priests) and my friends, I was never excluded from the priestly role.  Rather, I was invited to participate in the liturgy, even delivering homilies.

With time I discovered that women are discriminated against within the Church’s hierarchy and that supposedly there was nothing that could be done about it.  There remained one option: “save the world, and if you help save one person, you are saved, this is what matters.”  I heard this in homilies, in spiritual retreats, in conferences, and the like.

The model for the life of Jesus and his gospel was not what was uppermost in the teaching I received. Rather, it was more important to imitate the saints. Fear and panic were the dominant agents guiding me (fear of the unknown, of the mysterious, and panic that came from that fear).  One does not manage to understand the difference between doing the good work to feel good, harvest the glory and become a martyr or a to be a hero unless it is “for God.” There was no focus on the common good; only in saving one’s self.

Wanting to save the world, searching for souls to turn toward heaven, I was guided by the Spirit to work as a Seglar missionary in the so-called Missionary Territories with the “infidels,” as they called them, my indigenous and afro-Latino brothers and sisters.  I didn’t convert a single person! Rather, I learned their sufferings, persecutions, and questionings of the institutional church.  I saw these people as defenseless and yet in the end they taught me how to liberate myself from the fear by the way they lived.  Their God was my God; their Spirit my Spirit.

What I learned from them burned within me and I had to share it.  I had to shout it, teach it, say it and live it.  It was as though I discovered the seeds of the Word of God that manifested themselves in the people I met.  It was the dawning of the Second Vatican Council and the Latin American Episcopal Conference’s (CELAM) Medellín Conference in Colombia, 1968.

Working in the rural communities and in the low income sector in cities is where we shared, discussed and reflected upon these experiences through shared readings of the Bible (e.g., a reflection on readings from the Bible applying different hermeneutics: earth, the African, the Woman, exploitation, poverty, etc.).  This is when I began to experience the call to the ministry, later called the ministry of prophetic obedience.  The call was a search for Jesus’ footprints in his Word—to cure, heal, and liberate in the equity of the Gospel.

The call to prophetic obedience was to discover that people thirst for God and that I help calm that thirst.  The communities I have ministered to are searching for a God of love and tenderness, who will defend and protect them.  When they asked me to tend to them, or that we celebrate, or participate in the sacraments, I realized that I could not, because “I was not ordained…”

But it was the spirit of the community that carried me and pushed me to seek and apply for the sacrament of ordination.  I sought it, I knocked on doors … and I found in this search some answers from the institutional arm of the church: “The Holy Spirit is not calling you.  You are calling yourself to the priesthood.”  Another member of the hierarchy told me, “I will never ordain a woman in my Church, because those who have been ordained have not produced results [in growing the following].”

But I insisted. As a woman, as a baptized Catholic and as a member of the Church, I kept searching.

That was how on December 11, 2010 in Sarasota, Fl, I received the sacramental ordination sought for by my community by the hands of Bishop Bridget Mary who approved and confirmed the petition of the people of God.

Nothing and no one would make me take a step backwards.  I believe the hour has come to “Make good with God” as Mother Laura Montoya, the first Colombian woman to be canonized, said.  For me, I was able to help rescue the image of God as it had been taught and practiced.

My ministry in prophetic obedience is to the Spirit, to Ruah and to Sophia.  We all have to rescue the message of the Gospel from the cruelty which over centuries has deteriorated God’s Word, hijacking it for the hierarchy’s convenience.

With every celebration it is the community that celebrates; the young surround the altar, the homilies are not monologues, everyone participates and the Eucharistic Prayer comes from the assembled group.  This makes each one of us responsible and committed to giving ourselves to the building of the Kingdom of the children of God.  It has been the grandmothers and grandfathers who’ve given communion, remembering that in their houses, and with their families, they have kept the faith and spiritual life, vibrating their sense of Church.  It has been the high school teachers who have shared the Eucharist—it has been their challenge, responsibility and promise to their students, keeping the faith and guiding the spiritual lives of their students.  Each celebration is different, depending on the occasion.

I have dared to share my human experience of faith because I believe that another society and Church are possible, living honestly with the evangelical promise of Jesus and being capable of changing the world (Phil. 3:17).  This is my commitment in my ministry of prophetic obedience, to help bring about this change.

Olga Lucia Alvarez is a member of three distinct spiritual communities and is primarily located in Medellin, Colombia, where she lives with her family. This article first appeared in the Women’s Ordination Conference journal, New Women, New Church in 2013 in English and Spanish. 

Without question, the subject of this amazing book, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, is the most influential woman of the 20th century, whom we know the least about!

Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray was a lawyer who worked on the most powerful civil rights legislation of her day, was affiliated with the ACLU, the EEOC, National Organization for Women (as a founder), the UN Commission on the Status of Women, was deeply involved in discussions about the ERA vs. expansion of the 14th amendment.

Names of Pauli Murray’s colleagues in these endeavors include Eleanor Holmes Norton, Betty Friedan, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Dorothy Height, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson – and the list goes on.

But what brought me to her was that she was the first African American woman priest, ordained in the Episcopal church.  (I should confess that this first ordination was so key to me; one of the women in the group visited a church in Chicago.  I drove a long way to be part of her congregation the Sunday she visited, and was completely overwhelmed at the sight of a woman’s form in vestments.  And what a thing to hear a woman preach!  And some time later, my sister joined the Episcopal church in Massachusetts, and was welcomed by Barbara Harris, the first black woman bishop in the Episcopal church.)

Here are a couple of articles which cover the career of Pauli Murray totally worth the read.

What both of them miss are two points:

1. As a black woman in the 40’s through the ’60’s, she was making HUGE contributions to several fields, including civil rights and rights for women, but struggled to get and keep income-producing jobs, and was always paid less than white, male colleagues.  A reflection of her peripatetic existence is that the application for the NY bar had to list every place she’d ever lived, and every job she had, with contact information for each.  Her application was 230 pages long!

2. From early adulthood, she firmly felt that she was not, biologically, a typical woman.  She tried for most of her life to find medical folks who would help her understand and live the way she thought she should be living.

Despite these huge impediments, her contributions are enormous.  I can think of no better example of persistence and grit. Finally, let me offer the words of Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, recently installed as the first black woman in the Episcopal church to lead a diocese:

Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

“She was such an important sign for black women in a number of fields – but especially the church – about what is possible.  She was a quiet warrior in many ways – breaking barriers and seeking equality and parity.  I know that I stand on her shoulders.”


For the fourth time, the women of Voices of Faith gathered at the Vatican on International Women’s Day (March 8) for a storytelling and conversation series highlighting women’s resilience and courage. This year’s theme focused on peace-building and women’s unique role as first responders and negotiators in crisis, conflict regions and communities in need.

Expectations for this year’s conversation were high for Church reform advocates. I wrote clearly about my disappointment in last year’s event here, especially the disconnect between global oppression of women and the oppression of women in Catholic institutions, as well as the shortcomings of the panel discussion, “What women want,” which was a heavily coded conversation, underscored by Dr. Carolyn Woo’s comments which painfully dismissed women’s ordination efforts.

In that light, I greatly appreciated Voices of Faith Managing Director Chantal Gotz’s opening comments about her anger and the need for more people to be angry.  Claiming anger and broadcasting it from the Vatican is a powerful thing.

Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, Superior General of the Society of Jesus followed Chantal with frank comments about women in the Church:

But if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which will bring the gift of resilience and collaboration even more deeply in the church, remains stymied in many forms… No one is more resilient than women building and supporting the church in the poorest parts of our world…. The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized sons and daughters of God.

I took the liberty of contextualizing some of his comments to call to mind the many women working in priestly and spiritual ministry when Fr. Sosa said:

St. Francis of Assisi himself said, ‘Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’ … We have more than started. We will not stop.

I encourage you to listen to the stories from Part I of the event on the livestream. The women are extraordinary and captivating. Nothing new — women are incredible — but hearing their stories and being able to express gratitude and support firsthand was a great privilege.

Just before the panel discussion, “Building Effective Leadership for Peace”

Kerry Robinson, Global Ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable, moderated the panel discussion to follow, featuring Scilla Elsworthy from Peace Direct and Rising Women, Rising World; Flavia Agnes, a human rights lawyer from India; and Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS executive director of Catholic Lobby organization, NETWORK. These women have incredible life experiences and wisdom when it comes to leadership, and their backgrounds in direct service steered the conversation. Each offered their branded template for, as Simone Campbell said, “bringing the Gospel to where it wouldn’t be otherwise,” and shared success stories from their work.

Deb Rose-Milavec, Sr. Simone Campbell & Kate McElwee

For me, the panel was interesting if not a bit disparate, and simply not focused enough on the fact that it took place at the Vatican. Sr. Simone’s organization NETWORK was named in the censure against the U.S. sisters in 2012 and yet the panel never got there. 

To her credit, Kerry Robinson offered general disclaimers about women at every level of decision-making and leadership in organizations and the Church and the importance of mentoring young women to follow their vocation, but it almost felt out of place in the fast (and too short) conversation. In closing, Scilla Elsworthy said, “by not including women, the Catholic Church is being left behind.” Finally. Someday soon the elephant is going to be too big for this little room at the Vatican.

Knowing the talents on the panel, especially when it comes to the institutional Church and “grace under pressure,” I was left still hungry for more at its end.  

Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International did a beautiful job weaving these threads together in her closing remarks, calling for women to be at the center of Church and Gospel led efforts for peace and nonviolence, from the beginning. To me, her voice made the most sense out of the day, clearly centering women and calling for more. 

This is my third time attending the Voices of Faith events at the Vatican and as a guest, I’ve been able to witness the “waters stirring” and various currents finding different strength each year. As an ambitious project that amplifies women’s voices, it is always impressive.

My own hope is that in years to come the platform of the Vatican ceases to be just a backdrop. It is a missed opportunity not to dialogue about the institutional Church as an actor in oppressing women and the structural and theological efforts that could truly make all voices count.

I am not sure how it started – curiosity, maybe. But I got it in my mind to visit women clergy in my town. I guess I have wanted to see what it would be like to see a woman pastor in action. After all, in my path to this moment, the ordination of Episcopal women played an important part. After their first extra-ordinary ordination, one of the new women priests came to Chicago, and I traveled across town to the little church where she was to preach and celebrate mass. Seeing vestments on a woman’s form, and hearing her preach, changed my life forever. That day gave me permission to own my own call.

As it turns out, my town, Evanston, Illinois, is rich with women pastors, straight and gay, from several denominations. The rector of a big and old Episcopalian congregation, is married and has an open life with her wife, including service work and vacations. She preached at a service at the beach on Lake Michigan last summer, and was so comfortable and effective a preacher.

A straight woman is the Lutheran pastor of another older congregation. She has been a leader in the interfaith community here, whose main mission is to feed the hungry, and house the homeless during our coldest nights. She persuaded several congregations, all of whom are near each other and are near public transport, to share the burden, and each are now offering successive weeks of shelter. She also persuaded her congregation to make this shelter space – their church basement – accessible, mostly for the benefit of their homeless guests. Pretty impressive!

I attended a Shabbat service of a woman rabbi I met doing anti-racism work. A very musical and joyous service – her talk was accessible and rich, and reached the young and old in the congregation. She, like most rabbis today, did not grow up with the model of women rabbis, but has walked the path and followed her own call.

I met a different woman rabbi another weekend. In the past year, she was appointed to lead a congregation that had lost a gifted rabbi, over his support of the Palestinian people. She grew up in our town, but studied out of state, and for several years led a prominent gay congregation in New York City. The Shabbat service was small and simple, but her insights and encouragement knocked my socks off!

There are more folks to visit. On my list is a Methodist pastor of a church I only know because of their focus on feeding the poor. But the most poignant moment in this pilgrimage so far, came, for me, at Second Baptist Church.

Second Baptist is a large, African American congregation, which traces its roots to having split off from a white church in the 19th century. I know a magnificent woman preacher who was the assistant pastor for a while, but did not get the lead spot when it was available a year ago. I had not visited in a while, but the pastor advertised that he had invited a couple of young people to preach their first sermons on a particular Sunday – and that got my attention.

As it turns out, one of them was the pastor’s daughter, a 20-year old college freshman, and the other was an 18-year old high school senior who has grown up in the congregation. Each of them preached from scriptures they chose…and they were magnificent! Each of them took my breath away!

But I did walk away with a little sadness. The young people in my own parish will never see anything so inspirational as the young people of Second Baptist did that morning. I know I should be saying that it inspired me to keep up our intense work for Catholic women’s ordination – and it did – but I have to also own that the experience underscored for me what truth and energy and inspiration slips away from us, with every generation. From the mouths of these young women, to God’s ears!

Marion Flynn, WOC Board Secretary, studied theology in the 1970’s – and was certain there would be a path to the priesthood, having been called at a very early age.  She has worked as a banker and fundraiser, is active in her parish, and is honored, beyond words, to serve the cause of women’s ordination.  Marion lives in the Chicago area, but was born in Massachusetts.  She holds a BA from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.