Are women called to be priests?
by John Wijngaards
The Tablet 8 April 2000, p. 474.
ST CATHERINE of Siena, Doctor of the Church, is one of the women saints recently proclaimed patron of Europe by Pope John Paul II. Few people know that, when young, she felt called to the priesthood. Realising that she might be refused because of her sex, she planned to disguise herself as a man and so be admitted to the Dominican order. Her plan failed, but had she been mistaken? Years later Catherine heard God reassure her in a vision: “Don’t say you’re only a woman, and so not highly considered by men. I pour out the grace of my Spirit where I will. To confound the arrogance of men who consider women ignorant and frail by nature, I will raise up women endowed with strength and divine wisdom. Then the men will come to their senses and humble themselves….” Did she dream that women might one day be priests?
The issue has become acute in our day with thousands of Catholic women feeling the call to the priesthood. Every vocation needs to be tested, of course. But if a Catholic woman, after a process of prayer and discernment, shows all such signs of a genuine vocation as are generally accepted for men, how are we to explain it?
Over the past year I have collected the testimonies and life stories of more than 80 Catholic women who feel called to the priestly ministry. Some I know personally. Some have corresponded with me. Some have told the story of their inner searchings and pastoral involvements in magazine articles and books. They live all over the world: Australia, Canada, the United States, Britain, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands. With permission, I have begun to publish their testimonies on the Internet (www.womenpriests.org).
The women speaking in these testimonies are balanced, dedicated, spiritual and competent people. Almost all possess theological qualifications. Many have proved their mettle in prolonged and demanding pastoral ministries. We are not dealing here with fanatics, or with women who want to be ordained to redress a psychological hurt. We are hearing women who care that they cannot give others spiritual and sacramental support as priests.
A lay missionary, who prefers to remain anonymous, serves rural communities in a remote corner of Africa. She does everything for her people, conducting Sunday services with sermons and Communion, teaching the catechism, baptising and blessing marriages. What she cannot do is hear confession, preside at the Eucharist and anoint the sick. For this she relies on the occasional priest who visits every two or three months. “I am the priest for these people day in day out”, she tells me. “Can this really be God’s will that an outsider, who doesn’t even speak the people’s language, represents Christ better only because he is a man?”
Another woman who feels a personal call to the priesthood is Helen Blackburn. Born in Lancashire, she now represents the Catholic Women’s Ordination group in Scotland. “For some reason those opposed to women’s ordination often seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to be rude to people like myself”, she says.
“I have had people who barely know me demand to know what kind of books I read and whether I go to Mass. Even priests have made unpleasant jokes at my expense. One or two have asked me why I don’t just become an Anglican. At the Chrism Mass last year, a woman to whom I gave a leaflet at the cathedral door took it, ripped it in half and almost flung it back at me. She was so angry. I just couldn’t stop wondering what it is about the issue of women’s ordination that brings out so much emotion in people.”
John Wijngaards is director of London’s Housetop Centre for Communications.
Read further correspondence in the Tablet.