a turn of the Spirit
I went to Mass this past Sunday. In fact, I went to Mass the week before for Christmas as well. Since my ordination in October 2021, I have avoided going to Mass in the institutional Church. You might think it is because I am excommunicated, but that is not the reason. It is important to understand that excommunication does not mean I cannot enter Catholic spaces. I can. What I cannot do is participate: I cannot receive sacraments, volunteer, hold a paid position. I am, as my friend Rev. Shanon likes to say, in time-out: banished to the corner so that I can think about what I have done, feel remorse, and recant. For a person who wants only to participate in the Roman Catholic Church, this is not a fun place to be.
Still, the excommunication is not what has prevented me from going to Mass. What kept me away was the conundrum I faced each time I considered attending. If I go in clerics, I become a distraction to those who have gathered to focus on God. If I attend in plain clothes, it is a betrayal of self at the deepest level of my being. *Sigh.* What’s a girl to do? I prayed and prayed for weeks before ordination, and every day since. Each time I brought it to prayer, it was the third way that emerged: stay home. And so, I did.
Until recently. The last few weeks a new movement is surfacing in my prayer: return to Mass. Why now, I wonder? Perhaps it is because I deeply miss gong to Mass. I was a daily communicant for many years before getting on the path to ordination. Yup, I went to Mass every. single. day. The Eucharist sustained me in all aspects of my being. My relationship with the Eucharist is so deep that even in its absence it remains at the center of my life. I want to be near it, even if I am denied communion.
Or maybe it’s because I miss being part of a parish. The love and the prayer. The characters and craziness. The formation and the service. The pure fire for God. A parish is a place electric with the joy and challenge of walking with people who come from different backgrounds, political affiliations, positions on doctrine, yet are all deeply Catholic–tied together by a vibrant faith in God that beats at the heart of community life. I miss this. Though I am denied participation in a parish, I can at least witness it in some way, be near it, be reminded that it is an ongoing reality.
The truth is I do not like being outside the institutional Church. You might think it's because my gifts are largely wasted since I have little opportunity to minister as a priest. Or because I have to spend rivers of time on things male priests do not as I work for reform. Or because I struggle with a lack of resources, like adequate health and dental care. Yes, these things get me down sometimes, but they are to be expected along such a path.
What has troubled me over the months is that I find myself too often in spaces that are anti-establishment. Where loving critique is traded for bitterness, even hatred. Where ritual and theology have drifted so far from the current teaching, they are no longer Roman Catholic. I truly understand such responses to the monstrosities that the Church has committed, and I acknowledge they have an important prophetic function that the Church must receive. But for a person who wants only to participate in the Roman Catholic Church, even with all its failures, this is not a fun place to be. It can cause me to feel depressed at times.
This does not mean I am not overflowing with gratitude. What I am denied in belonging, I am gifted in freedom. Like presiding over the Catholic rite of marriage of two lesbians, or officiating the wedding ceremony of two atheists—two experiences that are simply not possible within the institutional Church. And though I am starving for opportunity, I do get to do some priestly ministry. Ministry like anointing a friend, saying Mass, hearing a confession or two, presiding over adoration. I am acutely aware that this has not been possible for generations of women before me, and for many who walk alongside me right now, women who eagerly wait for the Church to right this terrible wrong. I do get to live out my call, however limited, and I do so with every single one of these women—past and present—in my heart.
A year into full-time ministry, though, I realize that these gifts are not enough to sustain me. I need the presence of the institutional Church in my life: it is who I am. And God has prepared me to re-engage. Last year, I entered multiple Roman Catholic institutions to argue for women’s ordination. I braved a room of Jesuit priests to attend the wake of a friend. I went to Mass once at a local parish in Albuquerque just to see how it felt. These experiences have formed me to better handle the stress that comes with simply attending Mass: with not knowing how I will be treated when I enter the building; with receiving the confusion or discomfort of the priest who offers a blessing instead of communion; with enduring the long walk back to my pew as everyone straight up stares at me. This kind of thing is hard on me. But what these last two weeks have revealed is that while the experience does not get easier exactly, it does become more familiar, and that familiarity better equips me to navigate institutional spaces.
And this is good news. Because when it comes to the work of opening people’s hearts and minds to the truth that women are called to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most compelling images that Catholics can see is the female Roman Catholic priest standing before the male priest being denied communion over and over again. This is what the movement in my prayer is really about. While I may receive some sort of nourishment by going to Mass, the call to return is at its heart the desire of the Holy Spirit to teach.
So, with great love and respect, I comply.
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