The Table

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.