A Woman Called By God: Ten Years a Roman Catholic Priest
The The Gospel readings for this Sunday, and indeed the Roman Catholic Sunday readings for the whole month of July this year, are about God’s call. I will reflect on my call to the priesthood here for ten years have quickly come and gone since I was ordained on July 20,2008. For me that particular call is another part of my lifelong call to serve God and and be in solidarity with the poor and outcast of society. I am deeply thankful for this opportunity to serve. I write in gratitude.
This Sunday we read from Mark 6:7-13 that Jesus gave the disciples authority and sent them out two by two, mindful of their need for companionship on the journey. They preach repentance (turning your life around when it is off God’s track) and they anoint and heal. Luke 8:1-3 also shows and names many women who clearly followed Jesus along with “the twelve”. God calls all of us according to our gifts and talents and presses us into service in many ways for the kin-dom/ reign of God, the reign of justice and peace, to appear on this earth.
Throughout history God has called women to servant leadership in the Church and to the priesthood,the diaconate and the Episcopate. (See for example Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination). Historical evidence of this is crystal clear but so often written out of the history books by the male hierarchy in the Church who indeed continue to take it upon themselves to decide whom God can call to the priesthood-only men according to Canon Law. So, validly ordained RC women priests are illicit and even “excommunicated” (on the same page as pedophiles and rapists though many of the latter were not given this sentence). We reject this so called “excommunication” for while some of us have received warning letters from bishops none of us has received such ” official papers” and we strongly hold that nothing can separate us from our baptisms and from the love of and communion with Christ and Christ’s people. We are not a priesthood coming in the future, we are here, we exist, through the courage and wisdom of the Roman Catholic Womenpriest Movement started on the Danube in Germany in 2002 when a validly ordained Bishop in a line of full Apostolic Succession ordained well prepared women to the priesthood “for the sake of the Church”. This Bishop ordained our earliest Bishops and is known to our bishops and his name will be revealed only upon his death-hence he remains in good standing with the Vatican.
(For this history/herstory and stories of several priests, including me please see Women Find A Way edited by Elsie Hainz McGrath, Bridget Mary Meehan and Ida Raming,VBW Publishing, 2008).
On Sunday July 20th, 2008 I and two other women, Gloria Ray Carpeneto of Maryland and Gabriella Velardi Ward of New York responded to God’s call to the priesthood. We were validly ordained to the Roman Catholic Priesthood in Boston, Massachussetts with Bishop Dana Reynolds presiding assisted by Bishop Ida Raming of Germany while Mary Ann Schoettly of New Jersey (now passed on to her eternal life with our loving God) was ordained to the transitional RC Diaconate, later to become a Priest. All of us have developed churches individually and with other women priests and we have done our best with God’s help and grace to serve as Priests. We were among the first 49 women ordained in the Movement that has over 250 ordained priests world-wide today,and we are happily growing.
As I Look Back on Ten Years
From the beginning I felt the enormity of the charge of becoming a Priest and that only by God’s grace and support could I ever do it. I am often reminded of the words and sentiments of Amos in this Sundays reading:”I was no prophet,nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and dresser of sycamores” Amos 7:12-15). One can translate shepherd and tree tender in my case to a social worker and professor of Social Work and writer-most certainly not a priest or prophet.) I can identify with the prophets as all women who accept the call to priesthood when the Church says it is not possible are prophetic. Like Ezekiel in last Sunday’s reading(Ezekiel 2:2-5) “As the Lord spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet…Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord God! And whether they heed or resist-for they are a rebellious house-they shall know that a prophet has been among them”. Indeed, to take the step of Ordination I had to be “set on my feet” because it is more weakness than boldness that I felt in beginning this journey. Yet I was , and am, reminded of the words of Paul from last Sunday’s Epistle: 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10. Paul is complaining of the weakness of his flesh and spirit and hears: My grace is sufficient for you,for power is made perfect in weakness….therefore I am content with weaknesses,insults,hardships,persecutions,and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” There is hardly a better description of the obstacles facing women who are ordained Roman Catholic Priests and it is in our weakness that God’s power is revealed. Thanks be to God!
Well, to whom am I sent? To the poor and those on the margins, that is where I have long been called and working-but also to the whole Church, those solidly within the traditions and those barely on the margins as well as to those who define it, and I believe it is the latter in its Magisterium that can be described as “hard of face and obstinate of heart”. Not the poor and outcast- though any individual can sometimes be hard of heart. I am called more to the broken of heart, and I have been there, indeed I am now there with the January 2018 death of my life and ministry companion, Pastor Judy Beaumont (ordained 1/21/12). And yet ten years ago,no,many more years ago than that, and now I am “called by the Spirit of God, and anointed to ‘preach good news to the poor… (to bind up the broken-hearted…)to release the oppressed…” Luke 4: 16-20 and Isaiah 61:1-2). And, since I am now also called to do this as a Priest, I am called to speak truth to power, even the power of the Church.
In 1981 I was teaching Social Work at NYU School of Social Work. I loved teaching and was seen by the students to be good at it. Yet, as I walked across Washington Square Park every day on my way to the School I was struck by and drawn to the diverse people who seemed to be actually living in the Park. Since my youth I was aware of the call to serve Christ and this was made easy because people were able to be open to me. One of my Pastors and youth leaders in my inner city Brooklyn church, Rev. Mel G. Williams, was a social worker and a Pastor. I learned so much from him and in a way he helped me to recognize my first call and showed me how to minister, as did my devoutly caring Grandmother and many others. So when people in the Park reached out to me in my daily walks I realized that it was God’s Spirit drawing us together.
I was increasingly troubled. One night after planning my classes, I opened my Bible and read and prayed all night. Through Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 God’s spirit spoke to me. By the morning I had a proposal for my colleagues at NYU regarding how we could work with the area’s homeless who were right in front of our School. Despite the help of friends I didn’t change the school’s focus right away but I did enter two women’s Shelters with top level City Approval and begin my work. Some of the policy changes I recommended took place years after I left New York but more important were the several women that I helped in groups and individually. And, they taught me that social work help was not enough- they asked me to pray with them. And so, on my own time, my Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 ministry began. It continued when I moved to Connecticut in 1984 to join the UConn SSW Faculty and in 1988 met my ministry and life partner Judy Beaumont. She was then a Sister of St. Benedict and lived a life of prophetic peace and justice witness. She directed My Sisters’ Place, a shelter for women and children and later we developed residences and programs for men and women with mental illness in Hartford. She truly taught me how to serve and brought me back into the life of the Church as well. Now, with the companionship of each other we could enact the Gospel with the poor. When we moved to Fort Myers Florida in 1998 we found ways to continue this work. How blessed we were to have love and companionship as we served together and separately, her in the church and me in the community then also in the church, our own parish and a Mission parish.
By 2007 I retired (again) with early retirement, from Social Work education and practice here and was looking for a way to pursue more full time ministry and perhaps Seminary training. I felt a strong call to become a Pastor like those who moved and guided me so- Pastors David and Mel and Al and Angelo. Yet,that seemed a mere contradiction in the RC Church- the road for a woman in accepting this call was not at all clear. It was then that we were invited to a house Mass led by a Roman Catholic Woman Priest, Rev. Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan, Ordained in 2006. My eyes and consciousness were opened and the path led to my preparation and the Ordination in 2008. By then Judy and I had developed Church in the Park with the homeless and poor (in February of 2007) and Good Shepherd Ministries a continuation of a housing ministry we began in 2003. By 2009 we bought a house in the middle of Fort Myers and dedicated it as a Church (Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community) where well- to- do and poor and all types of people -all races and cultures, gay and straight and all who felt left out of churches for many reasons could come together to serve and worship, and a transitional residence for people leaving homelessness. Fifty-five men, women and children passed through there to permanent housing and over a 100 were helped to affordable housing as Judy Beaumont and I worked together to serve the poor and homeless. We both found that the Sacramental services we could offer as Priests were life changing and life saving. We did over 30 baptisms and had over 25 Confirmed in faith. We prayed for and anointed countless sick and dying and found that the homeless and formerly homeless and the poor of this area are often sick and die young. So we also buried the dead. This ministry continued full force until her fourth cancer in 2016 made us slow down and offer less. I continue now with our ministry, but not anywhere as fully as we both could do. Yet the grace and call of God bids me go on and gives me the strength to do it.
I am totally humbled by and still awed every minute by being called to priesthood. Now, perhaps in dealing with profound loss and getting older I am not as strong as I grew to be. Yet, Paul’s words ring true: “…When I am weak, then I am strong”. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. I can understand that now. And so as I continue past ten years in my priesthood, I ask you to join me in prayer for the next steps.
With love and thanksgiving,
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP