About 12 years ago, I experienced a conversion to Catholicism. One day I woke up and felt this undeniable sensation: Something was staring at me. I was not religious at the time, nor did I know anyone religious—or so I thought. At first, I was puzzled by the experience. Next, I tried to ignore it. After a few weeks, I decided to try to engage it--though I really didn't know how. I quietly attempted different spiritual practices. I sat with Buddhists. I read new age spirituality books. I went to non-denominational churches. I attended a Catholic Mass or two. Nothing worked: I wasn’t any closer to connecting with whatever it was that was staring at me. Finally, after months of seeking I became deeply annoyed and shouted aloud at it, “I give up! If you want me to connect with you, then you do it!” And with that, I quit seeking, and learned to deal with the unwavering stare.
Some time later, a girlfriend from graduate school wrote me to catch me up on things. Life was good, husband was good, cats were good, and--by the way--she had joined the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. The instant my eyes fell on those words I knew I had found what I was seeking. Without hesitation, I hightailed it down to my local Catholic parish and enrolled. The rest, as they say, is history. (Years later my girlfriend told me that when she was inquiring she asked God for a sign: if God wanted her to join the Catholic Church God would convert one of her friends to Catholicism. Suffice it to say, she is now a Catholic.)
Now, I know you would say the Spirit was present all along in my life, and, of course, you would be right. Yet for me, this experience I describe above felt like a beginning, for it was: the beginning of a conscious relationship with God. I began to get to know God, to spend time with God, to learn God's ways. We became friends. Lovers. The entirety of my life changed then, and changed rapidly. I began making very different decisions: I left my job, spent multiple hours a day in prayer, and immersed myself in parish ministry. I placed God at the very center of my life. I suppose you might say it was a choice, and I suppose in some way it was. But at the deepest level, it was not a choice—it was the only possible way things could have turned out. It was... ordained, if you will.
Fast forward some years. It had become quite clear that a life devoted to God and the Catholic Church was what both what I desired and what God desired for me. God continuously whispered sweet nothings into my heart and cooed, "You are my priest." Every minute of every day for years I have been hearing the same thing. At first, I was puzzled. Next, I tried to ignore it. After a few months, or maybe it was years, I decided to try to engage it--though I didn't know how. After all, the Catholic Church teaches that women cannot be called to priesthood: the ordination of women simply is not possible. For a very long time I accepted this teaching and tried to live joyfully within it. Well, I thought, if I can't be a priest, how can I be a priest? I did my best to work around it. I poured myself into parish life. I earned a Master of Divinity. I became a spiritual director. I led retreats. I even learned how to preach and preside over the Liturgy of the Word.
This work was quite fulfilling for quite a while. Years, even. It was a privilege to watch God work in people's lives—and in my own life—and I learned a tremendous amount from the communities that formed me. There are too many blessings to count. But, in time, things started to whither. Each parish assignment, each ordination of a male colleague, each episode of clericalism left me a little more dead inside. I was unable to become who God was asking me to be—and there was no good reason I felt as to why this was the case. Finally, after an especially bad experience, I had no choice but to leave ministry entirely. I quit my parish job, moved to a new city, and took a temp job. Just like that, my life in ministry was ended.
Over the next few months, I worked, took care of my dogs, spent time with friends, and built a new life in my new town. I attended Mass each week and tried my best to transition into simply being a parishioner. Life was good, but strange. On the surface I was happy. I enjoyed my new town and a job that was stress-free for a change. I was making new friends and I got a library card. I adopted a third dog and painted my living room. Life was light…joyful. Yet, deep down it still felt empty--something was missing. I did my best to move forward and let go of my life in Church work.
Then, one night, I watched the show Fleabag. If you don't know it, I won't spoil it for you (however, I command you to watch it immediately). Season 2 welcomes an Irish Catholic priest into the story. He is a walking paradox: he drinks, he smokes, he swears—yet he is so clearly in love with the Church, its sacraments, and the great gift of priesthood that his vocation is undeniable. This character detonated a bomb inside me. I wept during the show and for days afterwards. I was compelled to watch it again. Then a third time. I couldn't understand why I was having such an extreme reaction. Why in the world was I so upset?
Once the dust settled I realized it: the priest in the show was me. Now I don't drink or smoke, but I am equally puzzling. I wear tight clothing, I am tattooed, I cuss up a storm—yet I am so clearly in love with the Church, its sacraments and the great gift of priesthood that my vocation is undeniable. In the last five years I have grown increasingly hopeless, crucified by a choice to either stay in the Church as a lay minister who cannot fully blossom, or leave ministry entirely and surely die inside. Each choice was no choice at all. As my spiritual director repeatedly reminds me, such dead-end either/or choices leave no room for the Spirit to move. There is always a third way: the way of the resurrection.
So, the next step finally became clear: I am to become a Roman Catholic priest. Since I have decided to pursue ordination, my heart is risen--alive once again with joy and hope. Sadly, I will not be welcomed by the institutional Roman Catholic Church. In fact, quite the opposite. No matter: they can ostracize me, insult me, and shame me, but they cannot stop me from becoming Father Anne.