In this fascinating homily RCWP-USA-East Bishop Andrea Johnson astutely traces the history of the priesthood and “plugs in” Vatican II and the RCWP Movement as electrifying sources of church renewal. The occasion for this homily was the ordination of three women to the RC priesthood in Morristown, New Jersey on April 23, 2016. These faithful and courageous women are: Jacqueline Clarys of the Living Water Community in Maryland, Sharon Dickinson of the Spirit of Life Community in Massachusetts, and Claire Gareaux of the Sophia Community in New Jersey. Bishop Andrea notes that they were called by God and called forth from communities to serve the people of God as servant leaders in a renewed priesthood for our times.
Homily for RCWP-USA Eastern Region Priestly Ordinations
April 23, 2016
At The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, New Jersey
“But what if salt were to lose its flavor? How could you restore it? It would be fit for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot…..”
Dear Sisters and Brothers, it is my great joy to be here with all of you this day to celebrate the calling forth to priestly service of three women of spirit and truth, three seekers of wisdom who have discerned a call to ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. Jacqueline Clarys of the Living Water Inclusive Catholic Community, Sharon Dickinson of the Spirit of Life Catholic Community of Justice and Joy, and Claire Gareau of the Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community – all of these women have discerned deeply their call to ordained priestly ministry with Roman Catholic Womenpriests; and today, they proclaim their readiness to serve the People of God in their communities as servant leaders. Alleluia!
These sisters of ours, who are called forth by their communities and who have discerned their call with the Eastern region of Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, have chosen readings and music for this liturgy that bespeak their rich understanding of what it means to be called to this ministry. They clearly understand this role as one of servant leadership, and they embrace it. They know that they are called above all to proclaim the Good News; to act on behalf of the powerless; to do the work of justice, while trusting in God to be their strength. They have committed themselves to an ever deeper relationship with the God whom they trust to be present to them and to uphold them in their ministry. They know that it is the presence of the Spirit which produces the fruit in them which empowers them to overcome their own smallness – their own limitedness – and to live by love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is for this that they are anointed. They know themselves to be called to identify with the poor, the suffering and the dispossessed. They know themselves to be called to model God’s mercy and God’s justice. They know themselves to be called to be salt for the earth and light for the world. They know themselves to be called to lead- to lead with humility and courage – always seeking wisdom.
As we stand here in 2016, our church is at a very important crossroads. Ministry is in deep crisis. It is more than evident that the model of priestly ministry in our institutional church is having great difficulty serving the needs of people around the globe. In First World countries, there is a decided shortage of male, celibate priests; and in developing countries (for example, in Africa) the model doesn’t seem to work any better for cultural, if not numeric, reasons. For many reasons, the Catholic priesthood is in crisis.
History sheds a great deal of light on why we are where we are. Those who have made a study of how the ministry has been envisioned and has functioned over two thousand years have a great deal to tell us about how we got to this place. We know now that the apostolic church – the church during the lifetimes of Peter and Paul) – did not have priests or any sort of set (i.e., ordained) liturgical leaders. The post-apostolic period, (the time of the writing of the gospels and the pastoral epistles), knew leaders known as episkopoi (or bishops). This was a term borrowed from the secular Greco-Roman culture. These episkopoi were community leaders who were essentially managers of the community’s interests. There was no connection to priesthood at that time. Later, in the period of establishment of the church, (from the 3rd to the 5th centuries CE), bishops were located in major cities, and sometimes had presbyters to assist them with the needs of the church communities. These presbyters were considered assistants to the bishop who were essentially wisdom counselors. It was only late in this period, once the church had become the principal religion of the Roman Empire, that public churches were established and liturgical functions began to be exercised by permanently established (ordained) leaders, and these roles were taken on by the bishops and the presbyters. So, the theology of ministry (or of priesthood) has varied greatly over the different eras of church history.
It was during the early Middle Ages, when the feudal system came into being that church and state functions began to blend together in a Europe dominated by barbarian kingdoms – in which a noble class came to dominate both the church and state power structures. This was all a far cry from the simple proclamation of the Good News and the Eucharist that celebrated the receiving and sharing of that Good News in the early Christian communities.
By the High Middle Ages, reforms undertaken in the 11th century in order to rid the church of serious corruption actually led to the domination of all theology by the concept of Canon Law. In this way, the theology of priesthood and ministry underwent a metamorphosis that created a legalistic and clericalist foundation for the understanding of the role of the priest. It is from this theological development which wrested the priest from any sort of relationality to the community he served which led to the Reformation of the 16th century. Tragically, the Counter-Reformation undertaken by the Roman hierarchy nearly 40 years later did too little and was too late to be able to serve the purpose of useful dialogue. And so, there ensued nearly 500 years of the Catholic priesthood being frozen in this mode – a model which owed more to a late 5th century Christian philosopher, Pseudo-Dionysius, than to the thoughts of the apostles or the early fathers of the church. Indeed, the church’s present pyramidal hierarchical structures stem mainly from Pseudo-Dionysius, and not from Jesus.
All this to say that, until the Second Vatican Council wrote its documents on the church and its ministry, we were stuck with a model of ministry (always assumed to be limited to priests) which understood the essence of ordained priesthood to be special powers that are given to priests at ordination, which set them apart from the community! Happily, the ministry documents of Vatican II changed all of that – at least on paper! Post-Vatican II priests are no longer defined mainly by the POWER to consecrate, but rather by preaching the Word. Baptism, not Holy Orders, Is unequivocally recognized as the primary sacrament of the church – and Baptism is understood to empower all. The Eucharist is seen as the whole community’s action of thanks and remembrance, and as proceeding from the preaching of the Word, and resulting in the living out of baptism. This Vatican II view of priestly ministry and sacraments effectively made room for and joyfully acknowledged the Holy Spirit as the life-POWER infusing all sacraments, and gracing all that proceeds from them.
Vatican II indeed returned us to a more relational concept of priestly ministry which had its antecedents in the first millennium rather than the second. It is interesting to note that the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century had gone so far as to declare null and void any ordination that created a priest without a permanent relationship to an established community! The priest or presbyter was to be a part of and not set apart from the community.
All of this was very refreshing. The only problem is that from Vatican II in 1965 to this day, no structural changes – no changes in canon law – have been made accordingly to make this renewed model a reality in the institution. Enter RCWP!
“But what if salt were to lose its flavor? How could you restore it?
Who are we as Roman Catholic Womenpriests? What is our model of priesthood about? In real terms, how does our vision of inclusive ministry play out in a church whose structures have historically disenfranchised the many?
To begin with, we believe that our theology of ministry must, like that of the early church, be based on experience, and also on mutuality. It must be grounded in real life. We believe we are called to model a new way of leading which strives to empower others, to work with others in our communities to mobilize resources to serve the disenfranchised, to release creativity, and to enable stable communities to form and thrive
Our mission is to ordain women to serve as priests in the Roman Catholic tradition in a non-clericalist manner; to acknowledge and invite the richness of gifts for pastoral ministry in the community when functioning as pastoral leader and priest; to facilitate the empowerment of people and to build trust and collaboration; to see the power in interconnectedness, and also in diversity. We offer to a renewed and emerging Catholic Church priests as servant leaders, formed in this model and living their ministry commitment according to structures that are inclusive and non-clericalist. We hope thereby to ensure that the subversive memory of Jesus is perpetuated through the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is the core of our commitment to unity with one another – the unity that binds us in the One Body of Christ.
Nourished by Word and Bread, we as leaders, together with the whole people of God, call forth the gifts of the community to do the work of justice, peace and integrity of life. As for the communities we serve, they are diverse; nonetheless they are all characterized by a new spirit of collaboration. What do the communities committed to renewal and led by Roman Catholic Womenpriests look like?
- They are imbued with a spirit of discernment, and they give voice to all community members
- They have a variety of persons functioning in a variety of ministries according to their preparation, their gifts, and their call by the community
- There are ordained and non-ordained persons serving on teams together collaboratively
- There is mutual respect and openness to the views of others
- Our communities practice contemplative listening
- There is collaboration and connection with other RCWP-led (and other progressive) Catholic communities
- There is meaningful ecumenical and interfaith outreach.
- There is an unbroken liturgical and theological link with Roman Catholic tradition
- There are active social justice ministries
- The model of diakonia or service is foundational for all who minister in the community
- There is a deeply eucharistic (i.e. thankful) spirituality, with mindfulness of God’s indwelling presence in and through the life of the community
- And there is a deeply catholic spirit that is ever aware of being part of a much greater whole in terms of church
It is our great privilege to rejoice in the richness of the ministry tradition which we hold –while at the same time, remembering that throughout the church’s history, the ministry has, at the end of the day, been shaped by the needs of the people.
We as Roman Catholic Womenpriests are a powerful voice and witness to the need for change in the way those in ordained ministry see their priestly role in the community – as servant leaders and not as superiors – as animators of communities, not people set apart from them. The call to ordination is a specific call to a specific kind of leadership – but most importantly, it is a call from God from within the community of faith.
And so, today, we are truly thankful to our loving and compassionate God, who has given us in Jackie, Sharon and Claire an abundance of new servant leaders to continue to grow this movement for a renewed priesthood and church, and to discern a new understanding of what it means to be Catholic – of what it means to be One Body in all of our diversity.