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.