A Prophet Without Honor: Reflections of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest
Instead of giving up comforts or conveniences for Lent, what would happen if you decided to take a stand for something important, even essential, that you believe. What is the penalty for leading a life of standing up for what you believe? What is the penalty of prophetic obedience and prophetic disobedience?
Our Gospel reading for today leads us to Jesus’ own experience of rejection in the town where he grew up and worked as a carpenter. In response to his powerful speaking and many miraculous healings the people say in disbelief ” Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22) and in another place, “Is this not the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3). And in response to this clear rejection “Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth, ‘Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place’ “( Luke 4:24). And, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor”(Mark 6: 4). Mark’s Gospel continues: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith”. ( Mark 6: 5-6).
James Martin,SJ in his wonderful book Jesus: A Pilgrimage ( Harper One, 2014) discusses Jesus’ experience in his hometown of Nazareth at length. He says ” They cannot get over the fact that someone from their hometown is saying and doing these things. They move quickly from amazement to anger. Jealousy may have played a role as well.” Reflecting on Mark 6 where Jesus includes his relatives and his own house in the list of faithless “rejectors”, Martin says: ” Imagine the combination of sadness and pity he must have felt uttering those words before his closest friends and family (Martin: p.122).
And so we are reminded that Jesus faced major rejection of his message and, ultimately, of himself as he lived out his call to preach, to reach those even outside of his Jewish community, to include those hated and on the margins like the lepers, the tax collectors, and the Samaritan woman at the well, to heal, to bring to life, and to redefine and underline what was important in the law and in the faith-LOVE. Fully human and fully God, he was rejected not only for what he said and did but ultimately for Who He was. It is no wonder that he looked at Jerusalem and wept. And he said “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” ( Matthew 23:37). This suggests Jesus’ heart was broken long before the Cross, and we know that in time he expected that he would be handed over to the authorities and killed, and that he would rise again in three days. His disciples barely understood this, and at the end, denied him and left him, except for the women. And yet ultimately they too gave their lives for Him. And we, as we seek to follow Him, following the call of the Holy Spirit within us, are also faced with decisions that require courage and wisdom, perhaps even more courage than conventional wisdom.
One such major decision and action of conscience for almost 300 women who have been validly ordained in the Roman Catholic Church since 2002 is the decision to become ordained contra legem. (Against the canon law of the RC Church). The Church’s penalty for this is ex-communication. That is, to be denied the sacraments of the church. Since ordained priests who are women can consecrate with the people of God, they are not ultimately denied Holy Communion-either the Eucharist or the communion that is holy with the people of God. But they are excluded from receiving this in the traditional Church. So many of us miss our parishes and may be rejected in them. Those who were part of religious communities or working directly within the Church have also been removed from membership and from participation. For some, that is a loss of all their lives have been until that point as well as economic and social security. For all of us, we have lost a part of our lives that we have loved and that, ironically, called us to serve . And yet when we consider the rejection of Jesus our situations pale by comparison and we can understand a little more of what Jesus went through as he was rejected.
As I contemplate the “penalties” for being a Roman Catholic Woman Priest and for some of our supporters I am strongly reminded that we are simply following in Jesus’ footsteps. This day in our Lenten readings we see Jesus’ response to the doubt and rejection of his ministry and of himself. Jesus has just read the Isaiah 61:1-2 passage in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. He tells them that “The spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of the sight of the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). He adds “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. And the people in his hometown respond, in today’s vernacular, “”Who does he think he is?” As well, the Roman Church seems to say to its ordained women “Who do they think they are?” Simply we are people called by God to serve in the priesthood and we accept the call, no matter what happens because of this acceptance.
Below there are two pictures. The first is of Bishop Patricia Fresen of South Africa ordaining Diane Willman in 2021. The second is the cover of a book written by Fr. Roy Bourgeois in 2022 (ISBN 9798436033976). Both of these priests are examples of those willing to lose everything in order to follow conscience and in order to take a stand for that which is essential in their understanding of the Gospel. Both lost their religious communities and their status in the church for supporting the ordination of women to the priesthood. Both are extraordinary examples of courage under fire-the fire of the Church against those who question and break their man-made unjust laws for the greater good.
Patricia Fresen, a South African Dominican nun and Professor of Theology at the National Seminary in Pretoria studied theology in Rome for seven years and also earned her Doctorate in Theology in 1996 through the University of South Africa. From 1999-2003 she was on the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University in Johannesburg. While studying in Rome in the 1980’s and teaching in Johannesburg in the late 1990’s she experienced her own call to the priesthood. Learning of the ordination of seven women on the Danube in 2002, she was ordained in Barcelona in 2003. In 2005 she was ordained Bishop. As a result of her ordination she had to leave her beloved Dominican community and everything in her life behind and live in Germany for several years. She became the International Program Coordinator for Preparation for the Priesthood for RCWP. She was the primary bishop for the ordination of women in the United States of America and we are so grateful for her guidance. While she is finally home in South Africa now, her life of courage, ministry and service remains an inspiration for all of us. She is working on her biography but her chapter in Women Find A Way, ( VBW Publishing, 2008) A New Understanding of Priestly Ministry (pp.28-35) captures the essence of her response to her call to the priesthood and her views on priesthood. I urge the reader to read this. The following comparison of racism in South Africa and misogyny in the Roman Church is thought provoking. She says:
“I was born and bred in South Africa…I grew up in the racially segregated society of South Africa, where people were forcibly separated by law. However, things were changing in South Africa and there was a growing awareness of how wrong apartheid was. It was the Black people themselves who began to take matters in their own hands. We all know that this is usually the way in human society. It is not the oppressors, the ones with all the power and privilege, who come forward to put things right; it is the oppressed, who become aware of their oppression and aware that they need to band together and stand up for their rights, often at great cost. They are the ones who overturn the systems of oppression and bring society one step closer to justice and the recognition of human dignity and human rights.
I never dreamed that my experience of the breaking-down of racism in South Africa would, in part, lead me to where I am today: and ordained Roman Catholic bishop whose journey to ordination has led me to stand up against unjust church laws…”
Of the growing participation in the Movement she adds: “What is at work here is the sensus fidelium, the inner sense of the faithful, that this is the right way to go and that the Spirit is leading them in this direction. The people are ready. The time is now.
Could we be in the midst of an evolutionary leap in the life of the Church-a leap which is part of the reconstruction of the Church, the Church of tomorrow, the Church that we believe is closer to the community Jesus had in mind?”
Below is the cover of the book written by Father Roy Bourgeois. As the cover suggests, the book tells it like it is. Many times in his life Fr. Roy took courageous moral stands that brought penalties of arrest and jail and prison time. This stand, the active support of women’s ordination set him apart from his brother priests and from Canon Law. Many male priests have supported us privately, but Fr. Roy stood with us publicly , marching with us, preaching in support of us, and risking everything for what he saw as right. He said:
” As a Roman Catholic priest, I found meaning, joy and support in my ministry. One day, however, I did the unspeakable: I called for the ordination of women. This angered not only many of my fellow priests but also then Pope Benedict XVI. I received a letter from the Vatican stating that I was “causing grave scandal” in the church and that I must recant my public support for the ordination of women. For me, this was not possible. Believing that women and men are created of equal worth and dignity and that both are called by an all-loving God to serve as priests, my conscience would not allow me to recant. Therefore in 2012, after serving as a Catholic priest for forty years, I was expelled from the priesthood and my religious community of longtime friends (p. vi).”
He adds: “Polls show that the majority of Catholics in the United states support having women priests in their churches. They believe, as I do, that the problem is not with God, but with an all-male clerical culture that views women as lesser beings than men. It saddens me that the majority of Catholic priests I know and have worked with for forty years see women as a threat to their power.
Being expelled from the priesthood for trying to reform the Catholic Church was very painful. I had never before experienced such rejection. But I have no regrets about what I did. This experience gave me a glimpse of what millions of people go through every day on a much deeper level because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation…(p.ix)”
The following is part of his letter to the Vatican after being warned to recant in 2008,
” Where there is injustice, silence is the voice of consent. Therefore I call upon all Catholics, fellow priests, bishops, Pope Benedict, and all Church leaders at the Vatican to speak out clearly and boldly about this grave injustice being done to women in our Church.”
I urge you to get Roy’s book and to read it thoughtfully. Indeed he is right- silence is the voice of consent. Whether it is support for the priesthood of women, or the realization that all lives will matter only when Black lives matter, or other issues of justice, it is necessary to speak and act for justice. As Fr. Roy concludes:
“I don’t know what can be more important than working for equality in society and in our faith communities. In this struggle, we can all do something” (p.102).
Thank you, Bishop Patricia Fresen, and Fr. Roy Bourgeois for showing us what it means to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. Thank you for your courage all Roman Catholic Women Priests, Thank you, Jesus, for giving it all away for us, thank you for teaching us what love in action looks like.
All honor and love to all prophets who gave it all away for justice,
Bless you as you find your voice and act in small and large things,
Pastor Judy Lee, RCWP
Rev. Dr. Judith Lee,
Good Shepherd Ministries of Fort Myers, Florida