How Does It Feel To Be A Woman and a RC Priest?
I have had some wonderful responses to my sharing that my anniversary for ten years as a RC Priest is this Friday, July 20,2018. Many are affirmations, public and private, some are reflective thoughts about me and our ministry and some are questions, stated or implied. I am so thankful for all responses and am drawn to share a little more on a more personal note. I also will still say “our ministry” for my partner in life and the love of God’s people, Rev. Judy Beaumont who developed Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community and Ministry with me completed almost six years as a priest and a whole life as a servant-leader of Love before she returned home to God on January first of this year.
What does it feel like to be a woman and a Roman Catholic Priest? Well,that is a good question but I can answer it only for this one woman-there are over 250 of us in the world now. It may seem to some to be a contradiction in terms as there are those who say that one can NOT be a woman and a RC Priest. They cite Jesus’ physicality and the names we have been given of his first twelve Apostles (none of whom were actually ordained at the Last Supper since Ordination appeared much much later in church history). They conveniently forget who was at the cross and the grave, all of the women named in Luke 4 and elsewhere in the epistles and that Mary of Magdala was sent to tell the Apostles the most important news and the essence of the Gospel: Jesus Lives! And though some may call his mother, Mary, Miriam, his first disciple they still say a woman can not be ordained. This also seems to imply that men are better suited to the priesthood than women and that there are significant differences in men and women as they approach, serve and understand God. I really do not know about that but we might say with the French, if so, Vive La Difference! That is, how wonderful it is to appreciate all the many ways we can serve God and share this with one another in love. Ah, the mention of love- and God is LOVE, brings me to the heart of the matter.
In response to Ten Years A Woman RC Priest I received this lovely poem from Patricia Byrne, a woman of great compassion and faith with advanced degrees in theology who became a part of our Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community and presently also serves the poor with the St. Martin De Porres Ministry in Fort Myers. She adapted it from Hafiz the 14th Century Persian Sufi Master rendered by Daniel Ladinsky in (I Heard God Laughing Penguin Books, 2006, p. 36.) I include her adaptations but excerpt the poem:
How Does It Feel to Be a Heart?
Once a young woman asked me,
“How does it feel to be a woman.?”
I am not so sure”…..
I view gender
As a beautiful animal
that people often take for a walk….”
A better question for Pastor Judy
Would have been,
“How does it feel to be a heart?’
For all I know is Love,
And I find my heart Infinite
I am indebted to Patricia for such a poem and such a view of me and our Good Shepherd Ministry. She is right that we seek to live Love, but may not know how often I fall short. Despite falling short,God loves through each one of us, and through those of us audacious and humble enough to accept Holy Orders. Through us God loves the broken, and the proud, the high and the low, and especially those who are cast out by society and even by the church. And this is how I feel about loving the people God has given to us to shepherd and to love. that IS the commission: Love one another.
First, love is not easy to come by and we all need it. Without it we starve and barely take hold. With it all things are possible. Love can also break your heart as much as it can enliven it. Second, loving those who feel unloved or have actually not been loved is not easy. There are often behaviors that reject and at times attack before love takes hold. In Come By Here: Church with the Poor (2007, (Publishamerica-America Star Books) I describe the struggle I had with God about reaching out to the homeless and poorest again. I knew what I was getting into for this was a return mission not a new one for me. The new part would come in 2008 when I would do this as an ordained Priest but this would not necessarily make it any easier to reach those most hurt by society. Both Pastor Judy B. and I would always describe our “homeless ministry” as the greatest joy in our lives. And it was. Shepherding someone from the woods or the streets into housing was the most rewarding and totally joyful event experienced.
This is Pat who, thanks be to God, was able to leave the dangerous woods behind and establish a beautiful home for herself and her cat. She is with Pastor Marina Sanchez in the second picture, part of a team that helped Pat move into Senior Housing.
But this work was also the most time consuming, all consuming and most difficult thing in our lives. For me,it was really hard to break up fights of alcoholics especially in our Church in the Park and more rarely in our church building as well, and to tolerate the hatred one group of poor folks sometimes directed toward the other, whether this was expressed in terms of feelings of superiority toward others that were racial, gender, heterosexual or culturally based. With the grace of God we became a rainbow community. Many noted that it was the first church in Fort Myers(an area that had segregated schools officially until 1969 and in actuality for many years after that and in some areas in the present as well) where there was a good proportion of blacks and whites together as well as people of different cultures and economic backgrounds and gays as well as straight people who worshiped and served together. While we received a good deal of love in return from the vast majority of those we reached out to love, there were those who not only despised each other but who could not accept us as women, and loved also to spread rumors about lesbian behavior they never got the chance to witness. How could they-?- we were too busy loving them. There were times we felt like Jesus trying to get in the boat to get away a bit only to find the people still there on the other side. The demand would seem unending.
When we had Joshua House, our transitional living residence for those leaving homelessness we were delighted at seeing the progress people could make with a decent place to live and support. Yet, there was occasion to have to eject people actively involved with drugs and/or off needed psychotropic meds and all this could bring to the otherwise peaceful house. It was wonderful to see so many people take a new hold on life and maintain their housing. Yet every time one person went off their meds or back on drugs the whole community was hurt by it. Standing by each one through the hard times was a challenge to deal with. And at the same time the key to establishing a loving community was seeing the face of Christ in each one. Not only in the sad and the lonely, the sick and the meek but in the rough and the angry and the hurt and damaged and even the privileged. This was our challenge and with God’s grace it was our reward to see Christ everywhere among us. And so we truly learned to love one another and how beautiful that is.
Another very difficult aspect of loving our people is facing illness and death with them. When one serves an elderly congregation this is difficult but expected but our median ages would be in the forties considering the many children and young people we served as well as those of all ages and states of health. As noted in a recent blog we had over ten deaths in the last two years and in the ten years of my priesthood that would easily double or even triple. In fact, it may seem harsh but it is necessary, when working with some of our people who have suffered a variety of addictions, that I will say gently but strongly: “You need to stop that or stay straight with the help of God, prayer, AA,NA, Doctors, support groups, etc. because I do not want to bury you.” Now, as I look back I sadly see that was not an overstatement. While with a few, death was a relief from suffering,they died younger than it would seem need be. This brought a sense of deep pain and wishes that we could have done more to help while they were alive. Helping families with the loss of a loved one is helping with a mass of complicated feelings. Sometimes family members had not heard from the loved one in many years and we were links to that person. Sometimes families were overwhelmed with grief and regrets. Sometimes a time of grief opened a window -a time to find a loving God. What a complex challenge to be priest and pastor in someone’s life at times of profound grief and loss. All of this speaks to the need for priestly preparation in counselling and understanding how to be there both pastorally and Sacramentally with people. The comforting words of the Scriptures and of the Church ritual on eternal life and resurrection are often all they have to hang on to, that is, in addition to the person of the priest/pastor and other members of the congregation. Being but one part of the Body of Christ with a special set of roles in a network of help and love is being a part of the true church. What a beautiful experience!
The pictures above and the last picture in the set before is of our community members celebrating with the newly ordained Priest Maria Elena Sierra Sanchez of Cali, Colombia. One of the most wonderful things our community did was to participate in the ordinations of women priests. Our children often led the Liturgical Procession in Sarasota with Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan presiding. They were joyful leaders with drums, dance and song. Reverenda Maria Elena Sierra Sanchez was ordained by Bishop Andrea Johnson in our own Fort Myers church in February of 2017. When we sang our hymn “We’re standing on Holy Ground” we were so happy to share our humble church for this holy event. Our people formed a bond with several priests especially those from Colombia where part of my ministry within RCWP since 2009 (and with ARCWP from 2010-2014)was to mentor and be the “Program Coordinator” for priests from Colombia discerning their calls to priesthood. While I have been honored to mentor five Colombian Priests (four of whom visited Good shepherd Church) I have a special love for all of the Colombian priests. Pastor Judy Beaumont and I were welcomed to their beautiful land four times. I have learned so much from them especially from those lives led in the deep understanding of liberation theology. This was a special joy in our ministry and helped our Good Shepherd Community to be even more international.
The pictures below are part of our ministry to the sick and the grieving.
So, learning to be God’s heart in the form of a priest and pastor is at once the most wonderful and the most difficult thing I will ever do. Perhaps it was the work with the children and youth that brought me the greatest joy. These are young people who had almost no religious teaching, church attendance or “God concepts”. To see them grow to know and love Christ and one another,even across the racial and class lines they already grew up with was both moving and amazing. Yes, there were moments when this did not happen, when a Haitian boy was ridiculed or the black kids would stay together with the white and mixed on the other side of a game, but a beginning was there that was not there before. And we helped to open the world of nature and diversity to the children and young people. How thankful we are for this.
In my last discussion of these ten years I shared how much we loved sharing the Sacraments with our people- the many baptisms, First Holy Communions, confirmations, holy anointings, and witnessing marriages were such special moments revealing God’s love in the community. And with each Reconciliation celebrated with individuals or with the community as a whole I felt both the power of sin as very real and destructive in lives, causing much pain and the power of God’s love to take away this pain and its sources. These days confession is sometimes seen as not necessary, but I have learned in all ways possible that it is good for the soul, and for the community. What a beautiful Sacrament.
But it was at each Mass that we shared the Body and Blood of Christ at an open Table where all were invited that truly characterized the love of God in Christ in this ministry. Judy B’s wonderful knowledge of liturgy combined with my preaching and her presiding at Eucharist and the assistance of Hank Tessandori as our Deacon and Mr. Harry Gary as our lay leader with Efe Cudjoe first, then Natasha Terrell as Lectors and all the people participating in the consecration and blessing brought life and love and the fullness of Christ to the Mass each week. The hot meal afterward lovingly prepared by many hands was but an extension of that Table. It is this Body, this life and love that continues to enliven this woman priest. How does it feel? It feels like love.
And in summation Isaiah 26:12 speaks to us:
“O God, you mete out peace to us, for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.”
Thanks be to our loving God who has called both women and men to be Priests and enlivens the priesthood of all believers.
Love and blessings,
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee