I wanted to be an altar girl.
I was eleven years old. I loved my church. The big grey stone building with its stained glass windows. The long wooden pews I played in during Mass, hiding beneath all the grown-up feet. The rituals, the ceremony, the priestly vestments that changed color with the seasons. The puffs of incense and flickering candles that made prayer physical, sensual. I had a rosary that seemed to me a string of jewels, sparkling and slipping through my fingers.
When our little Catholic school put on a nativity play, we sometimes got a real baby to act the part of Jesus. I liked the idea of a God who would appear to humans as a infant, choosing to come to earth through the body of a woman.
My brother, a year younger, got to be an altar boy. I watched enviously as he put on the robes, learned the responses. He got to light candles on the altar, snuff them out at the end of Mass. He got to sit in the red velvet chair, up near the altar. He got to spend an hour in that sacred place, that mysterious place on the other side of the altar rail.
I was not allowed to be an altar server. Because I was a girl. The priest who came to our classroom explained, in response to our questions, that it would not be right. Only men could be priests. Because God said so. And that meant it would not be right for girls to be at the altar.
The priest talked about the leaders of the church being men. I did not understand how he thought that to be true. I know it was a group of women who came in on Saturdays to take care of the church, bringing in flowers, snipping off dead buds. Women who got their children out of bed and brought them to church on Sunday mornings. Women made the food for the big gatherings that took place after funerals or baptisms. Women who chose the clothes we children wore to church. Women who stood in groups out in the parking lot after Mass, chatting, making the weekly event into a community gathering.
The most spiritual women I knew were the Franciscan sisters at my school. They were young women, and many of them had been raised in Hawaii. My second grade teacher used to push back our desks every afternoon and teach us to dance. Another sister taught us to sing. When the boys were at gym class, the sisters talked to us girls about our bodies, telling us how unique and wonderful and special the female body was. One sister told us stories about her childhood in Hawaii; her spirituality was tied to the muddy hills, the ocean waves, the island she grew up on.
When the old priest came to our classroom and explained that only men could be leaders in the church, that women were so different from men that they could not be priests, I listened and wondered if he understood just how absurd he was being.
As I got older, I realized I was not alone in my thinking. Catholic women and men across the country, the world even, were talking about women's ordination, about the need for the misogynist patriarchy of the church to change. I can remember feeling hopeful about the church that I wanted to belong to. After all, I had seen all the changes that had happened as a result of the second Vatican Council. The church I knew growing up in the sixties was a church full of hope and change. John XXIII had tried to fling open the doors of the Vatican, allowing the winds of the Holy Spirit to change the church.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II. And those doors slammed shut. For women, at least.
In 1994 the pope came out with a definitive statement against the ordination of women to the priesthood. If fact, John Paul II was so sure that he knew the mind of Christ, that he was making this teaching a central tenet of the Catholic faith: women may not ever represent God at the altar. In 1998 this papal edict was placed within canon law as a teaching that cannot be denied or opposed, and one subject to the ultimate penalty of excommunication from the Catholic Church. The edict that women should never be priests has become an article of faith for Catholics, one that will continue even after the death of the pope.
During John Paul II's reign as pope, the conversation about women becoming spiritual leaders in the Catholic Church was shut down. For eternity.