I think about Church reform so often that I need to be reminded of the significance of my healing ministry. I admit that during my formation I foolishly did not realize how important—and prevalent—this work would be in my work as a priest. I was far more focused on preparing to say Mass, providing sacraments, working for justice—basically, the ministerial work I had observed over the years in my male counterparts (well, except for the concentration on ordination justice!). But after a mere 7 months of priesthood, I am starting to realize just how much people need healing from—and amends for—the hurt they have experienced at the hands of the institutional Church. I need the grace to keep this insight at the forefront of my heart and mind when I am in my priestly role.
Recently a woman came to Contemplative Mass for the first time. I cannot remember how she found out about me—perhaps it was through the New Yorker article that was published last June. After Mass, she followed me into the sacristy to help me clean up a bit. While I was putting things away, she shared that she was sexually abused by a priest. She told me about the callous response she received from the priest when she demanded an apology, and about the similar treatment from his religious order. In short, they refused to apologize. You may think that by now I have become anaesthetized to such stories, but this is not the case: each and every time I am still aghast. Aghast! In fact, I hope I always remain scandalized when I hear such things. I never want to be so desensitized that I can no longer feel another person’s pain.
After she finished telling me about her experience, she said, “Now that you are an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church, would you like to apologize to me?” Earlier at Mass, I homilized about what are termed the Indian boarding schools, the atrocities that occurred there, and the role of the Church in these crimes. I implored the bishops and those of us that remain that we are the ones now called to make amends for the evils that others have done, and that this is difficult and arduous and humbling this is, it is also a gift straight from the heart of God.
I couldn’t fully tell if she was being sincere or teasing. Either way, within the question was earnest desire and I took it quite seriously. There in the tiny sacristy, under the yellow light, I knelt on the hard linoleum floor, I took her hands into my hands, and I gazed into her eyes. After a long moment of becoming present to her, I started to cry. From the deepest part of myself, I apologized. I told her that on behalf of the entire Church I was so deeply sorry for all that she had and continues to experience, that it never should have happened, that I pray that she would finally be totally free from the harm the Church has done to her body and spirit. Tears silently spilled down her cheeks. I squeezed her hands.
The institutional Church may excommunicate me and claim my sacramental work is invalid—that I am invalid—but saying something as if it is true does not actually make it true. The Body of Christ relates to me as a Roman Catholic priest, and God works powerfully through my commitment to serve. Doctrine and punishment cannot prevent the power of the Holy Spirit from touching us--she will always wind her way around any blockade to do the work of God.
It is up to us to cooperate.
Last week I scored an invite to a “Clergywomen’s Breakfast” sponsored by the New Mexico Council of Churches. There is a pastor here in ABQ who looks out for me, constantly connecting me with the goings-on around town. Because I am excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, I find it difficult to learn about what is happening in the Church world, Roman Catholic and beyond. She always thinks of me, and I am especially grateful for her.
I was honored and excited to go the breakfast. Often I feel alone. Since I am presently focusing on Church reform, I do not have the bandwidth to start and build a faith community from scratch. I frequently catch myself pining for my former Jesuit parish communities--the intense connection of journeying together with a group people in love with God. I do not have that here, and like so many others in the Catholic Church, I do not know when or if I will have it again. I was looking forward to being in a room full of people who adore God so much they devote their lives to God’s work.
There were maybe 30 women present from various traditions: Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, Disciples of Christ, Judaism, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, and probably several others. Of course, I was the only Roman Catholic priest present since clergy in my tradition are only male. We had a lovely casual breakfast, then circled up for sharing. The facilitator was fabulous, posing simple questions that provoked inner searching and generosity of heart. It was an impressive group of women.
At first I felt inspired. It was a pleasure to listen to them reflect. Then, as the hour continued on, my energy began to drain out of my body into a pool beneath my chair. Some of the women talked about looking forward to sabbaticals; others shared about the challenges they face as pastors trying to rekindle community life in the wake of COVID; still others talked about retirement after decades of service.
Depression descended into my heart-space. My body became so heavy I would have loved to slide down my chair onto the floor to sleep for a week. I didn’t recognize what was going on until I got in my car to drive home: every woman in that room was fully supported by her institution. The more I listened, the more I fell into a pit of despair.
Over the rest of the day, I pondered. Why couldn’t I forget my own situation and simply focus on celebrating and learning from these remarkable women, their work, their lives? Am I a weak sinner? Yup. Do I lack maturity? Probably. Am I a wounded child? For sure.
Then an insight crystalized in my prayer in a way it hadn’t previously. One of the greatest and most dangerous temptations I face on a daily basis in my work as a priest-reformer in the Roman Catholic Church is to compare myself to others. Women clergy in this or that tradition. Male clergy in my own. I must admit too many times I stare out the window and think about just how different my life would be if I were a man.
Inevitably, though, after I take these little psychic trips of exploration, I always return back home to myself--grateful for who I am and my unique path. In the end, there is only one person I want to be, and only one place I want to be in. Father Anne. On the journey of a lifetime for God.