A diocese bans girls from serving at the altar. The United States Conference of Catholics Bishops investigates the Girl Scouts of the USA. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigates American nuns and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Madness, isn’t it? Little girls and nuns? At first, I thought so, too, but the more time I’ve had to reflect on it, the more it begins to make sense to me. You see, I was an altar server, a Girl Scout who earned her Silver Award (Girl Scouting’s second highest honor), and was educated and mentored by women religious – and now, I serve on Women’s Ordination Conference’s board of directors. Maybe they’re onto something.
My earliest memories of church were at our small parish, St. Anthony’s in Pine Plains, NY. My mother was a Eucharistic minister, and my grandmother was a lector. “Jama,” as I called her when I was small, would often let me walk up and down the aisle with her. I knew that as soon as I made my first communion, my place was on the altar with them. After all, it was the early nineties, and even Barbie said, ”We girls can do anything!” I loved the solemnity of my role, washing the priest’s hands and ringing the bells as the host was lifted. It was the small way that I, as a little girl, could contribute to the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist.
I started my love affair with the Girl Scouts as a Brownie in first grade, proudly displaying my “Try-It” badges on my sash. My years in the Girl Scouts taught me what you would expect: sewing, camping skills, and entrepreneurship (yes, selling cookies, setting goals, and managing money). But my years in the Girl Scouts also introduced me to concepts like leadership within my troops, women’s history, and global citizenship through our membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. I became a community organizer when my Junior troop organized a food collection for our local pantry as an alternative to trick-or-treating. I learned about service collecting baby items and assembling gift baskets for families in need as part of my Silver Award project. And through it all, I learned that even though I was “just a girl,” I had the power to make positive change in the world.
When I moved to St. Joseph, MN to attend the College of Saint Benedict, it was the first time that women religious became a part of my daily life. Sisters were residence directors, professors, and campus ministers. They shared their chapel with us for our student mass, and this was where I first saw women leading prayers and Eucharistic services. As I struggled with my Catholic identity, the sisters were always there with me, welcoming, challenging, and sharing my journey. They taught me through their examples about faithfulness to the Gospel while honoring one’s conscience. Their history taught me about the fearlessness and faithfulness of women throughout the history of the Church, serving the needs of their communities without waiting for permission from the hierarchy.
These three experiences left their mark on me as I grew, influencing the person I am today. I am a Catholic, but I am equally a feminist. I can point to moments as an altar server, as a Girl Scout, and with women religious that pointed me to the beauty of the divine and my worth as a girl. This knowledge, of the dignity of women before the divine, is subversive knowledge – it is the knowledge that calls me and many others to demand equality in both the church and the world. It is this knowledge that informs my conscience as I work for women’s ordination in an inclusive Roman Catholic Church.
Johanna Hatch currently serves as Co-President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board of Directors. She lives in Verona, WI with her family.