I have big plans for my ministry as a priest. I can’t wait to create a little parish community. To teach lay people how to 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, assuming I actually get to do it. But, it won’t be the most exciting. Through my ministry I am focused on one task equally important: 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 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 garbage, 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 for the larger Church, this is not enough: I must also look the part. Therefore, 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.