We are called to the Priesthood

I was a lifelong Catholic studying at a Protestant seminary. My choice to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York was deliberate.

Jan 12, 2018

By Nancy Small
I was a lifelong Catholic studying at a Protestant seminary. My choice to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York was deliberate.

Women preached, presided and prayed in a place that welcomed the fullness of their spiritual gifts and in ways that made my spirit soar.

On Sundays, I set aside all this newness and stepped back into my Catholic world at the Jesuit parish where I was active. There, lay leadership was vibrant, the community spirit was contagious and women’s gifts were honoured. The prayers and rituals of this community, which had long been my spiritual sustenance, were growing more important to me.

At the same time, however, I was becoming more aware of the limited roles women could fill in the Catholic Church. I found I could no longer put off the question of ordination.

Was I really called to a life of lay ministry as a Catholic? Or was the true nature of my call to ordination?

The door to ordination in a Protestant church was open, and a number of people were encouraging me to walk through it. They noticed spiritual gifts in me that were well suited to ordained ministry. What a shame it would be to let those gifts go to waste, they said.

Their voices were strong and compelling. I knew the ordination process for Protestant women was not easy.

But I could not deny that God was moulding the clay of my being into a shape I was not sure could fit within the confines of the Catholic tradition.

I stopped running from the ordination question and started wrestling with it.

Shortly after I did, a new question arose in me. Some of the formerly Catholic women called to ordination had not decided which Protestant denomination to pursue. Some were thinking about becoming Congregational, others Episcopal or Lutheran. This struck me as odd. Wouldn’t the call to ordination grow out of a faith that you knew and loved in a Church where you felt at home? Would not the first step be to find your spiritual home and only then to pursue ordination within that tradition?

At that time in my studies, I was researching the documents of the Second Vatican Council. One day, I read something that caught me by surprise: “The baptised, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 10).

Those words struck a chord in me. They kept washing over my heart, like a mantra. Perhaps God was trying to get my attention.

I started contemplating the spiritual house I was baptised into and realised how much there was to love in it. There were religious communities whose charisms and witness were beacons illumining the path of the holy in my life. There were mystics and monastics, seekers and saints, peacemakers and prophets whose words of wisdom spoke to the depths of my soul. There were spiritual practices that connected me to God and communities of prayer. And there was the treasure of Catholic social teaching, a repository so rich that my Protestant professors turned to it again and again in class. Each time they did, they noted (often with apology) that the Catholics had the deepest wells to draw from when it came to social justice teachings to transform the world in which we live.

I came to realise that the spiritual house I had lived in since my childhood had shaped my faith and become my stronghold. My Catholic faith housed a spirituality that enlivened me and drew me deep into the heart of Christ.

What I had not known until then is that I already belonged to a holy, hidden priesthood by nature of my baptism. If they taught that in my Catechism, I had missed it.

Now that I knew about this holy priesthood, I began to see things in a new light. I shared this priesthood with all women and men baptised into the Catholic community, and there was power in that bond we shared. I belonged to a parish of people claiming their priesthood and living it out in ways that stretched people’s understanding of lay ministry. I was one of a growing number of Catholic women weaving the gifts of our priesthood into the fabric of the Catholic faith.

Discovering I was a priest by virtue of my baptism did not take away the challenge of living out my vocation in a Church that does not ordain women. But it validated in me a call already consecrated and a priesthood already blessed that no one could deny. Would that be enough to support my life of lay ministry? Would it be enough to put the ordination question to rest?

After graduating from seminary, I made a directed retreat. Late one night, I went to the chapel alone, knelt down and offered a prayer promising myself to Jesus in ministry. As I did, soft tears began to flow. I did not feel the laying on of hands that happens at ordinations. But I did feel the warmth of the Spirit wash over my heart. As I knelt there, I had a strong sense that the decision I made was the right one for me.

Many years later, I am still growing in my life of ministry. Sometimes people do not know what to make of me; I do not always fit into the mould of ministry they are accustomed to.

When that happens, I remember the covenant I made with Jesus, who lived his priesthood in unconventional ways. He did not fit the mould of messiah they were expecting. He stretched people’s understanding of what ministry looked like. As a disciple, I try to follow in his footsteps and learn from others who are doing the same. I am one of a multitude of Catholic women stretching conventional models of ministry with the spiritual gifts we bear.

We are all invited to be part of this stretching as each of us lives our baptismal priesthood in dynamic and differing ways. The stretching may feel uncomfortable at times. But in the stretching we grow. And we make room for the flourishing of one another’s gifts in the spiritual house I call home. -- America Magazine

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