By Fredrikka Joy Maxwell, DignityUSA member from Nashville, TN
I don’t know Gabriella Velardi Ward, Gloria Carpeneto, Judith Lee and Mary Ann McCarthy Schoettly personally. But I will personally pray for them, because those four women who were ordained in Boston July 20, 2008, are giving us one thing we need in the Catholic Church today—more priests.
As a Catholic who is also black and transgender, I understand that sometimes — in the name of justice — a person has to disobey laws that are not just. I still remember from my childhood that there were movie theaters and eateries I could not go into to enjoy a movie or a meal simply because I was black. So I understand up close and personal these women’s stance against the unjust laws in our church, a church that speaks out of both sides of its mouth when it insists that women have a key role in the life of the church but cannot be priests.
This is a sad waste of human potential. Let me give you an analogy. Suppose you hired me as your stockbroker and, instead of investing your money, I squandered it in Las Vegas or some such place. After you found out about it, you would be very un- happy and I wouldn’t be your broker for very long. You might decide that a criminal investigation is in order. Now we get to the point. This tremendous waste of human talent and potential perpetuated by the church is just that — criminal, especially in light of the fact that the number of priests we have is going down and the median age is going up. Priests are getting older and fewer.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website, there are approxi- mately 61.9 million Catholics in the United States today served by about 29,000 diocesan priests whose median age is over 50. According to an article in theLos Angeles Times, there were only 475 ordinations to the Catholic priesthood in 2007 — nationwide. In 1965, there were more than 900 ordinations nationwide. The number of priests is going down and has been since the 1960s.
Despite the declining numbers, I believe all hope is not lost. There are people all across the nation who are ready, willing and able to serve God and God’s people. But the church has not been prepared to accept such an awesome gift.
I honestly believe we can reverse this trend of decline by rethinking our concept of priesthood. First of all, we as church must remember we are all made after the divine image. Because we are, and because Christ is part and parcel of the divine image, every Christian — male and female — has the responsibility to image Christ, see Christ and serve Christ in our communities — especially, our faith communities.
While rethinking our concept of priesthood, we also need to reconsider the rule of MANDATORY celibacy. If a person wishes to remain celibate, he or she should be allowed to do so. The celibate state can be that person’s gift to the community of believers. But as long as we insist on MANDATORY celibacy, it ceases to be a gift freely given and becomes more a status of servitude.
Think about a gift, for a moment. Take a simple birthday present. You don’t give a birthday present to somebody because you HAVE to. No, you do so because you WANT to. In other words, you cannot mandate a gift. A gift is a gift only if freely given by the giver.
In addition, we must also rethink the concept of the deposit of faith and what it is. I read somewhere that Pope John Paul II said that the Church had no authority to ordain women because ordaining men was part of the deposit of faith. Jesus had no women among the “chosen twelve.” I would suggest that any blond-haired, blue-eyed person already ordained needs to become non-ordained. You see, I don’t think Jesus had any blond-haired, blue-eyed folks among the “chosen twelve” either. I know, I know: None of the “chosen twelve” had video-cams to document their looks and features!
But this we know for sure. The Catholic Church needs priests. Like right now.
Putting foreign priests into the American vineyard is putting a band-aid on a hemorrhage. Such priests, though zealous for the work of God, do not understand American culture and are often not understood by people in the pews even if we are thankful that such priests have come to minister to us.
Working retired and elderly priests to death is another band-aid solution. Yes, sometimes a bishop may not have anybody to send if a pastor has to be out because he needs R and R, or is in the hospital, or a family member is getting married or buried. So sometimes calling on a retired priest to cover a Catholic Mass is a necessary option — as I learned in my own home parish when my gallant but sometimes tired, hassled, and harassed pastor has to get some respite out of town. He’s only one person, for God’s sake, and not a teenager anymore! To quote Walter Cronkite, “And that’s the way it is…”
But it shouldn’t HAVE to be the way it is! We have the potential. We have men and women right now who are ready, willing, and able to serve God and God’s people! Instead of casting about for impediments, we need to stand back and let the Spirit work. Open the gates! Let the power of God show forth in our brothers and sisters who have presented themselves for service! I say open the gates! It shouldn’t matter whether they are male or female, married or single, gay, straight, or even transgender. Open the gates! Are we afraid to let the power of God blossom in our midst? Have we forgotten that St. Paul said that there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free person, male or female, but all are one in Jesus? Have we as church forgotten? Fervently I pray not! We are all made in the divine image and that divine image can, and does gift us — empowers us with the grace to sally forth and minister to the People of God.
Therefore, ladies, I may not know you personally, and Rome may not welcome you yet, but you have my personal prayers, along with those of the thousands who will gladly welcome you. On the eve of your ordination, I pray that the Holy Spirit will descend upon you with gifts of strength, courage, wisdom, and yes, compassion.
Go with God! May your ministries blossom!