Women are the backbone of the Catholic Church. We hold 80% of lay ecclesial ministry positions (including women religious) and I venture to say we do the lion’s share of the volunteering. Without women, parishes simply would not be able to operate. Period. Yet, we are excluded from Church governance and sacramental ministry. Why--why—do we accept this treatment?
Sociologists have studied ad nauseam the myriad ways cultural messaging tries to shape and control women. We are expected to sacrifice, to accommodate, to be silent. To be the caretakers, the harmonizers, the peacemakers. We are warned about being too loud, too ambitious, too demanding. And above all, we—unlike the boys—are expected to follow the rules, especially when those rules don’t serve us.
What if we stopped behaving?
Want to see the gears of the Catholic Church come to a grinding halt? Imagine all female staff going on strike. And all female volunteers following suit. And all the men who are down for the cause doing the same. Now imagine all the women parishioners who give to their local parish or school or Archbishop’s appeal diverting all of their families' donations into a fund to pay the wages of the workers who are on strike. And now imagine all those staff and volunteers using their newfound free time to pester the shit out of the bishops—the same bishops who would begin to feel the squeeze from stressed priests who can no longer keep their parishes running without the support of women. What would happen then? Would we be taken seriously?
The truth is women already have the collective power to create change in the Church. It is up to us to stand together as one body in the Spirit and use it.
I personally know many priests who privately believe the Church should ordain women to the priesthood. And though I don't rub elbows with Bishops, I imagine there are a fair number of them who think the same. So, the question is, why--for the most part (thank you, Germany and now Ireland)--aren't they speaking out?
Practicing dissent in the Catholic Church is *tricky* business. It's easy enough to internally dissent on this or that issue in the quiet of our own hearts. We can also privately dissent with a friend or colleague--even with a priest or bishop--without much ado. But open and public disagreement with official Church teaching? This is much harder, especially if the end goal is to inspire movement on a teaching. This is because the magisterium generally relates to acts of dissent as threats to its teaching authority rather than as promptings to discernment. And though Pope Francis has a gentler touch on these kinds of things, obedience is deeply, deeply etched into the Catholic psyche. We all know what happened to theologian Charles Curran and Fr. Roy Bourgeois for challenging the magisterium on points of Catholic teaching. Public dissent means potentially attracting the Eye of Sauron, and with it grave punishment.
In such a climate, priests and bishops who believe in ordination justice for the most part simply stay quiet, opting to minister as best they can under the circumstances. It's understandable. Still, we have to ask: what is the cost of this silence? Women suffer psychological injury, girls are taught they are less than human, boys learn they are inherently superior, and men never have to relate to women as true equals (and you better believe this also shows up at home and in the workplace). Further, the Church not only loses out on the gifts of female leaders, it increasingly forfeits its power to participate in the public square in meaningful ways. Understandable or not, the cost of this complicit silence is enormous, and as long as these priests and bishops stay quiet, a great moral maiming continues at the hands of the Catholic Church and, very sadly, in the name of Jesus.
Yet, things could change--and change rapidly (at least in Church time). What if our brothers who have collars and wear mitres transitioned from private allies to public dissenters? What if they called for open dialogue on ordination? What if in one collective and prophetic voice they made a stand on behalf of women, on behalf of God? Imagine, just imagine, the difference they would make.
So, gentlemen, how about it? We need you to use those balls God gave you and make a stand for justice.
I've grown tired of people singing Pope Francis' praises. Yes, he is an awesome human being with one of the hardest jobs in the world. He is deeply compassionate. He is a man of prayer and discernment. He centers the experience of the poor. He cares for creation. He provides us with stirring documents. He has to deal with backstabbing garbage from people like Archbishop Viganò, and he does so with grace. And yes, he has appointed women to positions of power, even giving one of them an actual vote (yes, but one out of how many--let us not get too excited about the tiny crumb from the table).
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He's great. He's so great, that he has been pushing for synodality for years, working to decentralize power so that decision-making in the Church is more collaborative and consultative. Synodality is all about journeying together, accompaniment, dialogue. In fact, there is an excellent article by Cardinal Tobin in this month's Commonweal that describes this "long game" and its benefits.
I get that. Synodality is super important and absolutely must be pursued. But pin our hopes on it? I don’t know. Maybe this is easy for the people at the top to do. But down here on the bottom, things are a mess. We have a Church that people are leaving every year BY THE THOUSANDS. Bishops have zero credibility in the secular world after the sexual abuse crisis (and clamoring to deny people communion based on this or that reason ain't gonna earn it back, guys). Parish staff are being crushed to death by never-ending workloads and poverty wages. Every week there seems to be yet another atrocious scandal in the media (mother and baby homes, anyone?). And, oh yeah, we are running out of priests. The Titanic is sinking, so forgive me if I roll my eyes every time I hear about the long game of synodality. By the time the long game kicks in, how many of us will have drowned? (And, by the way, is true synodality even possible when women are not part of the magisterium?)
Here's the thing: This colossal mess—it's not just about the Church. It is about the world. The Church's mission is to be God's love in the world, and let's face it, we are in such a mess at this point that it is very difficult for us to do this effectively. Let's take Ethiopia, for example. Right now women are being systematically gang raped by Eritrean soldiers as a tactic of war. Really think about what that must be like for a woman to experience, about the impact it must have on her life, her family, her relationships, her health, her dreams. Now, I ask, how can the Catholic Church--with no credibility in the eyes of the secular world and with its very own long history of oppressing women--say one damn thing to confront this situation in any sort of meaningful way?
The truth of the matter is that there are millions and millions of people both in and out of the Church that simply cannot afford to wait for the long game to materialize. This does not mean the long game should not be played--it should. But, we also need a short game, and an aggressive one at that. To this point, I invite Pope Francis to more boldly claim his papal power even while he diligently works to decentralize it. And one thing he can do right now is #LiftTheBan and allow us as a Church to freely dialogue about ordaining women to the priesthood. For we will never--and I mean NEVER--get out of this mess as long as women are excluded from fully participating in leadership and governance. We cannot wait any longer. The only way forward is for both men and women to collaborate with the Spirit on charting the course to tomorrow.
This week I came out to my pastor. I needed to confide in him about my plans to be ordained. I didn’t want him to find out through some other source, and with a profile in the New Yorker on the way, I needed to share the news. I deeply respect this man, and I love worshipping in this particular community.
Months ago, I grappled with the reality that I would be excommunicated by the institutional Church upon ordination. The most severe penalty levied by the Church, it means I can no longer receive a sacrament of any kind. No. More. Communion. And, no matter how upstanding in the faith I may be, I will no longer be permitted to work for an official Catholic institution, so I am throwing away my career. Also, and perhaps what makes my heart most tender, I will be denied a Christian burial.
Now, some female priests may not take excommunication seriously. It does sound rather…medieval. They may laugh or just simply dismiss the punishment as ridiculous, and sneak their way into a progressive Catholic community that welcomes them at the altar. I get that. After all, excommunication is a total BS move by an institution grasping onto a power it has no right to hoard. So, I get it.
But, for me? No, I will not do that. I take this punishment hella seriously, and though it burns me--burns me—to my core, I willingly accept the consequences. I suppose my response is a sign of respect for the Church I wish to serve, and I try my best to demonstrate that I do not take this decision lightly.
You might wonder: Father Anne, why do you even want to attend Mass in an official Church environment? A reasonable question, to be sure. The truth is that, though I will be excommunicated, I still consider myself part of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, my punishment is unjust, and part of my ministry is to the institutional Church itself—to hold it to account and help awaken it to justice. Part of this work is staying spiritually and practically connected with the official Church… as best I can.
When I wrote my pastor, I explained to him my intentions for ordination and I asked if I would still be welcome to attend Mass if I plan to abstain from receiving communion. I do recognize that I am putting him in an awkward spot, and I have compassion for that. But, still, a girl has to ask. His response was very kind. I would indeed be welcomed to pray, but he sincerely appreciated my sensitivity in not approaching the altar in light of the path I have been led to take.
I read his response a couple of times. There it was, in black and white. I tried to let it sink in. A future that seemed so far off has suddenly arrived: I have received my last communion from the institutional Church. A punishment so cruel, not even a man who has raped a child receives it.
As a devout Catholic this is a knife to the heart, and I am grieving. It will take some time to process this new reality. Though part of me will always grieve this loss, somewhere deep in my heart I hope--hope in the power of the Spirit. I learned of a Syrian song, I do not know the name, where the prisoner sings to his jailer, “No matter how much you try to keep me in the darkness, there will always be light.”
I pray that someday the institutional Church will right this wrong and welcome me at the altar in more ways than one. Until then: Bring it, Rome--hit me with your best shot.
-photo from Pixabay
Ash Wednesday has arrived! Here's one way to enter into Lent.
(Note: This approach focuses on the individual. For resources that reflect on social sin, check Call to Action, FutureChurch, or Ignatian Spirituality.)
First: See Lent as an opportunity
Lent can sometimes seem like one more thing on a very long to-do list. Instead, shift your perspective; see Lent as an intoxicating opportunity to go deep with our loving God. To cultivate intimacy or renew our love affair. To investigate the roots of our hurtful behavior in the light of God's mercy. To examine those parts of ourselves that are wounded or broken and in need of healing. To take responsibility and apologize to God and others for mistakes we have made. Lent offers us the time and space to be transformed by the Spirit, if we are willing to take it.
Second: Take time to reflect
To make the most of your opportunity with God, put a little thought and prayer into planning it. Between now (Ash Wednesday) and Sunday (the First Sunday of Lent), take 30 or 40 minutes to pray and journal on the following questions:
Third: Determine your spiritual practices
Once you pray on the above questions, select spiritual practices that make sense according to your answers. Consider the traditional Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For example, say you are a person of financial means but you have a shopping habit that you know in your heart is out of balance. You might decide to fast from shopping, but instead of doing it as an act of willpower that you will eagerly abandon as soon as Lent is over, you might fast from shopping as prayer for God to transform this behavior. You might write down during the day every time you have the urge to shop, and then for 15 minutes each night before bed you might review your day and pray about the root of this behavior, what pay off it gives you, and how you can meet your needs in healthier ways. You might donate the money you would have spent shopping over the 40 days to local nonprofits that serve the very poorest people in your community.
Or another example: say there is someone in your family with whom you have a strained relationship and you cannot help but behave in ways that make you feel small. This constant dynamic in your life is interfering with your relationship with God and certainly with yourself and probably with your whole family. For Lent, you might decide to invite this person to serve weekly with you at a soup kitchen, and approach this service together as prayer to God for a breakthrough in your relationship. You might spend 10 minutes a day praying the rosary for this person and their needs, asking to see things from their perspective rather than focusing on how you want them to change. You might fast from a particular negative behavior or tactic you use when interacting with them, and pray for guidance about how to interact instead.
Design your Lenten observance with creativity. The key is to choose spiritual practices that invite you to look honestly at yourself in the light of God's mercy, and at what is blocking you from fully embodying God's love in the world.
Four: Make a commitment
Once you have a sense of which spiritual practices will be lifegiving and transformative for you, determine how much time you can devote to them. Be specific: how much time and on which days will you practice? Spell it out so that you can hold yourself accountable. One note of caution: be realistic. On the one hand, Lent is meant to elicit more effort and sacrifice and devotion than a typical day. On the other hand, don't overburden yourself to the point that you are tempted to quit. Be generous but reasonable in carving out time for your spiritual practice. Once you have a sense of how you will observe Lent, return to prayer for 20 minutes to offer your intentions up to God.
Five: Live your commitment
With your intentions set, now you just need to honor them: do what you said you would do. If you find you need to adapt your spiritual practice as Lent unfolds, simply bring your desires to your prayer and adjust your practice in the light of the Holy Spirit. Remember to pray for the graces you need, and remember to thank God for the ways you see God moving in your life--especially in relation to any specific petitions you are asking God to answer. Last but not least, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit along the way!
How do you decide to end the life of your best friend? I grapple with this question each time one of my dogs approaches death. I especially struggled with Border, the dog with whom I had the deepest relationship.
My faith is the primary source of my struggle. After all, the Catholic Church is a pro-life church, teaching that the dignity of human life is sacred from womb to tomb, as they say. Unfortunately, the term "pro-life" is generally reduced both inside and outside the Church to one issue and one issue alone: the stance against abortion. However, being truly pro-life encompasses far more than this. Being pro-life is a way of seeing the world and all that is in it. It is a view that acknowledges God's desires of salvation for all human life, whether it is in the womb (or, let's not forget, the mother with that womb), crossing the US-Mexico border, sentenced to life in a federal prison, mumbling to one's self on the street corner, or trading sex for meth at a truck stop. To be pro-life is to see value in all people and to stand up for the voiceless, the oppressed, the crucified. To hold to account the powerful, the greedy, and the cruel. To sacrifice one's self in order to help God create a just, equitable and compassionate world where all people and communities can thrive. (So, let's be clear, Donald Trump: you are NOT pro-life. Not by a long shot.)
This acknowledgment of the inherent sanctity of life is the bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching. It is an inspired and inspiring way of understanding the great gift of being alive. But, where do animals fit into this framework? Ah, a different standard applies, you might say. Hmmm...does it? Why as human beings are we so quick to jump to the conclusion that our lives are more sacred, more special, more meaningful than any other creature on earth? That we have the right to shoot animals for sport, to carry out brutal science experiments on them, to annihilate their habitat, to corral them into the unspeakable cruelty of factory farms (do you know they rip the testicles off male piglets without even a drop of anesthesia? Think about that next time you eat that bacon that you don't really need.). Why is it that we think we are so different, so much better, so entitled? Yes, we have special gifts and certainly a different level of power and responsibility, but we are not more sacred. God's Spirit runs through every single thing on this planet, and God is continually inviting us into a deeper noticing of this sanctity pulsating all around us.
Where does this leave me? When one of my dogs approaches death, I agonize about whether and when to euthanize. What does God want for this creature? Is God asking me to end their suffering or am I taking power that is not mine to take? Is euthanasia a compassionate gift (the constant refrain of the veterinarians) or am I interfering with God's process of preparing this life for its earthly conclusion? Who am I to take a life away? It's excruciating. I run through these gymnastics each time, and each time I end up at the same place: it is unethical for me to intervene and end this life that God has brought into the world. This is not my right--it is God's and God's alone.
But then, there is the reality in front of me. I look deeply into the eyes of the being who is suffering. Who is falling down in his own urine and feces, and is too weak to pull himself up. Who is so thin from illness that you can count every bone in her spine and ribcage. Who paces night after night because his dementia is so severe he cannot sleep, even with the help of a tranquilizer. Whose yellow eyes stare into mine, saying "I am ready to go." What does it mean to be pro-life now? Do I to allow the slow and painful decline to continue for weeks or even months? Do I order the killing of this creature with whom I am deeply bonded? I beg God in prayer for answers, but they do not come. I am left without clarity, only love. I opt for mercy and make the decision to intervene, to bring the suffering in their eyes to an end. Maybe it is the right thing to do. Maybe I am just too weak to allow life to fully run its course. Whatever the case, it rips me apart every time, and all I can do is ask the Lord for forgiveness.
As difficult as this process is, I hope it never gets easier. I will enter the end-of-life phase with every dog anew. Each life on this earth matters. The trees and the rivers and the bees matter. All is imbued with God's Spirit, with everything communicating to us something about who God is, what God desires, what God dreams. I consciously embrace being a human being in this sacred milieu, as well as the burden of this terrifying power. This burden is the price of living life through the eyes of the Sacred Heart of God. It is the price of love.
-- In loving memory of Border, who passed away this day of December 8th, 2020 at 9:11 am.
-- photo by Jerome Clarysse
I have a good life. I have a cozy little apartment with lots of character. I have enough food to eat--really good food like veggies and fruits and nuts and eggs. I can afford coffee in the mornings and chocolate in the afternoons (and--let's be honest--evenings). I have an old Toyota that runs well and reflects my quirky personality. I have a job at a good organization with truly incredible people. I have excellent yoga teachers, access to a gym (well, usually!), and health care. I live in a safe(ish) neighborhood and I don't have to worry about bombs being dropped on me. I have long-time friends that know me well and love me anyway, and a few new ones who make me laugh. I have my dogs and the joy they bring. And most of all, I have a deep connection with our God. What more can a girl ask for? "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." (Luke 5: 8).
Still, I would be lying if I did not admit that deep down--way down--I am unhappy. I want to be a Roman Catholic priest. I have the education, the experience, the skills, and I also have the call: every single day I hear God asking me to do this. And every single day, I respond, "Yes, Lord, I will do this for you." We share a moment of tenderness as God whispers, "I know." God appreciates my yes, knows its cost. Because although I would make this commitment to God and to God's people, the institution prevents me from obliging.
So, unable to endure any more time in an institutional Catholic environment, I now spend my days at a secular job. It's a good job--I really can't complain. I believe in the organization's mission, the people are fantastic, and I get a decent paycheck for my effort. It's a good set-up. We should all be so lucky. But, the truth of the matter is that it's not really where I'm supposed to be. We do not pray, we do not worship, we are not even allowed to speak God's name. It's so...unsatisfying. I try to remain positive but, truth be told, it's more and more challenging, and each day my spirit dies a little more. I am weary of banging my head against the wall.
The truth is I would be able to accept my exclusion if, say, I wasn't suited for the role--if I didn't have the skills or education or the gift for it. But none of these things are true. Instead, the reason offered is that I don't have the right body. It is pure prejudice, rooted in the age-old belief that there are just some groups of people that are innately superior to others, and that God intentionally designed it this way. This idea of superiority is persistent, and it is the most powerful tool that evil uses to create hell on earth. It is the thing that needs to be rooted out of all human hearts if God's hopes and dreams for creation are to be actualized. And it is the thing that the Catholic Church must confront within itself if the Church is to survive. Yet, the magisterium has shown no real will to do this--to do what we all know in our heart of hearts is right.
Why the hell do you bother, you ask? It's a reasonable question. I stay because there is something in me, down even deeper, that still hopes. Hopes in the steady stream of whispers from God's Spirit to mine. Hopes in the Church's call to be that which it proclaims. Hopes in the Lord's promise of justice for all people. So, while I take time each day to offer thanks to God for the steady stream of blessings I am given, I also kneel at God's feet unabashed and ask for more.
One aspect of my call to ministry is to rescue senior dogs with special needs and provide them with end-of-life care. I rescued Border in late June of 2017. She was ten or eleven years old--sweet, smart, loyal and always ready for an adventure. I obliged: I adopted her in San Diego and three days later tossed her in the car and drove to Tacoma, WA to start a new life.
Those were good days. Border and I did everything together. She came with me on errands, to friends' homes--even to the office every single day. She cared about one thing, and one thing only: being by my side. We were close. Like two peas in a pod. And it's been that way since...up until a few months ago.
Border developed cognitive disorder earlier this year, a condition similar to dementia. What does it look like in dogs, you ask? Dogs with cognitive disorder stare at the wall, get trapped behind open doors (staring out between the hinges with uncertainty as to how to escape), get stuck under furniture like kitchen tables and futons, forget commands, start going to the bathroom in the house, stop playing with their toys, give up sleep for relentless pacing, and--eventually--even forget how to eat or drink. It is heartbreaking to witness, and it becomes a challenge to determine when the end has arrived.
These months have been difficult but the thing I did not anticipate is the almost total transformation of her personality. Where there was once a sweet, snuggly girl, there is now a snarl-faced grump who no longer likes affection. She doesn't allow me to pet her. She doesn't sleep with me. She snaps at me if I get too close. The girl I once knew is gone.
I miss my friend.
All this being said, I feel honored to walk with her as she approaches the end of this life. I give her the best care I can under the circumstances. She gets lots of time outside to sniff all the interestings left behind by passersby. We play a bit of fetch at the park, which she loves though she struggles to track the stick. I hand feed her at mealtime since she usually cannot figure out how to get the food out of the bowl. It's all precious time for she will be gone soon, and I will be left with my broken heart.
Border has been the face of God for me. I pray that now I, too, can be the same for her.
I have big plans for my ministry as a priest. I can’t wait to create a parish community. To teach lay people how to preach and lead liturgy. To organize social actions for justice. To critique the Church on the exclusion of women.
Sounds like fun, eh? Indeed. This ministry will be exhilarating, but, it won’t be the most exciting. I am focused on one task equally important to all those listed above: expanding the symbol of the Roman Catholic priest to include the body of a woman.
As Catholics we rely heavily on symbol. Catholicism sees symbol not as something unreal (e.g., that’s only a symbol) but as that which makes what is real yet unseen perceptible to our senses. When the real yet unseen becomes perceptible to us, we are much better able to encounter that reality. We don’t usually dissect a symbol for its meaning—we just soak up the reality it evokes. The sharing of the bread and wine, the absolution in confession, the white pall on a casket—these symbols draw our attention to and help us experience the uncompromising commitment of a God who pours out mercy on us while continuing to invite us into an ever-deeper relationship of love. Symbols are the privileged way through which Catholics encounter God.
A central symbol in the Church is, of course, the priest. The priest makes present the relationship of love between Jesus and God, and the mutual pouring out of self that is the underlying design of life. The priest also calls into consciousness Christ himself—that Christ exists, that Christ has a mission of salvation for all creation, that it is Christ himself who guides and animates our Church. The priest also symbolizes the Church--the entire body of God’s people, past and present, who join with one another and with Jesus in worship and thanksgiving to God the Father. And the priest, as the symbol of the relationship between God and Christ and Christ and the Church, reaches beyond Catholics into the secular world, proclaiming to all people the reality of a compassionate God whose desire is a world of love and forgiveness, and God's body of people committed to this dream of salvation.
I can understand why in this day and age some people are in favor of abolishing the priesthood. I, however, am not. Reform, yes. Abolish, no. As you can see, the symbolic work of the priesthood is a very heavy lift that is imperative to the realization of the Church’s mission, and it cannot be easily replaced. Yes, all Catholics are equally important in carrying out the work of Jesus, but we need a group of people to symbolize this ongoing reality to one another and to the secular world.
In looking at the priesthood through this lens, one of the most pernicious obstacles we face as an institution is that we lack an imagination great enough to include the possibility that women can do this symbolic work. When I use the word imagination, I don’t mean let’s close our eyes and imagine a woman saying Mass. I am speaking of the collective Catholic imagination which shapes our understanding of the world and its very design—the Catholic imagination that strives to see as God sees, to understand as God understands, to love as God loves—the imagination that encounters all creation as revelatory of God. This vibrant Catholic imagination is sharply contracted by a theology that excludes women’s bodies and hearts and minds as a place, so-to-speak, of God’s revelation.
This, my friends, is complete bullshit, and I am going to work to change it. How? Like this.
There are lots of layers that create the symbol of the priest. Things like the embodiment of Catholic values, the placement of the priest on the altar, a long history of position and institutional authority, personal character, and the quality of decisions being made in leadership and ministry. There are other immediate markers of priesthood, such as the clerical collar, liturgical vestments, and—in English-speaking countries—the title “Father.” All of these things (and more) coalesce into this powerful symbol that functions to make the real but unseen perceptible to our senses.
My plan is to insert myself as fully as possible into the symbol of priest. Of course this means I will work hard on my inner self and with the help of the Holy Spirit I hope to embody the best of what the Catholic faith and its priesthood have to offer. But if I am to expand the symbol it is not enough to be a priest: I must also look the part. And so, I will wear clerics, I will wear liturgical vestments, and I will go by the title, “Father.” It is my hope that all of these layers will coalesce to expand the symbol of priesthood—at least for those in my little orbit. And maybe, just maybe, some day, my efforts will join with the hope and work and prayer of so many to expand our collective Catholic imagination, too.
Lastly, if I had to cut to the chase, I would say this: I don’t want any confusion. You may think that going by “Father” is ridiculous or that I am playing into a sexist system, but the truth of the matter is that when people in this country hear “Father” in reference to a minister, they inevitably identify this term with the Catholic Church. I want there to be no mistake: I am not Lutheran, I am not Episcopalian, I am not Presbyterian, and I am not Methodist. I am a Catholic priest, and it is the Catholic Church and it’s leadership (this includes you, Pope Francis) that I challenge with my ministry.
I do believe that at some point in history the Catholic Church will welcome women into the priesthood. I hope I see that day. Until then, call me Father Anne.
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.