April 02, 2005


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.


PPB said...

Wow. As a non-Catholic, I don't feel it fair for me to comment about this, but it's beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

The Catholic Church left me in 1998, and with great sadness -- but no regret -- I had to let it go. The same priest who taught me that self-respect was an act of devotion honoring the Holy within oneself cried with me when I came around to say goodbye.

Friday Mom said...

If it's not prying too much, jo(e), I'm wondering how all of this changed your relationship to the church.

jo(e) said...

Friday Mom: I'm still trying to figure out that myself. Have spent my life trying to just take the good parts of the church and leave the rest, but that gets increasingly difficult. I still live in the Catholic community I grew up in and still consider myself part of that community. My kids go to the same Catholic school I went to. But I see other churches moving forward, changing, exploding some of the gender stereotypes and all that homophobic crap -- but the Catholic Church has not moved forward. More and more, I feel like I have left it behind. A difficult choice for somene who is part of a large extended Catholic family.

For my own spirituality, I borrow from other churches, other religions, all the time. I do reiki, which comes from Buddhism. My meditation practices are pretty eastern. I go to local native ceremonies. And of course many of the beliefs those sisters of Francis taught me in elementary school weren't Catholic at all, but traditional Hawaiian beliefs.

Still trying to sort it all out. One of the amazing thing about blogging for me has been to be exposed to WOMEN who are leaders in their church communities. It's been so affirming. Something that simply does not exist in my home community.

Unknown said...

jo(e), I'm not informed about how edicts and canon law work, so please forgive me if this is a dumb question: is there no way canon law can ever be overturned?

What Now? said...

Thanks for a moving post, jo(e). I find the struggles of many Catholics I know to be deeply touching. I'll also confess that I'm Protestant enough not to always understand it, which is why these stories are so important for me to hear. When I came back to faith and church in my late 20s, I first returned to the church of my childhood, the Presbyterian Church. After three years, it was clear to me that this really wasn't the denomination for me, so I researched the variety of denominations and chose the one that best fitted me in terms of theology, polity, and politics, the Episcopal Church. I'll always be grateful to the Presbyterian Church for welcoming me back "into the fold," but I'm also glad that I felt I had options and that it was so clear to me that there was a variety of ways in which to be a Christian. But many Catholics I know aren't happy with their own denomination but won't consider moving into another denomination; it almost seems to be preferable to be a lapsed Catholic not part of any worshiping community than be a Catholic who converts to another denomination. There clearly are cultural aspects to Catholicism that cannot be underestimated but that are outside of my understanding. Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

I am not Catholic; I grew up Episcopalian, but before women could be ordained in the Episcopal Church, and I remember the same thoughts and feelings when I was told "girls can't be acolytes, girls can't be priests, girls can't be...." Fortunately for me, the Episcopal Church changed. But it took many years for that change to catch up in my life. Now at age 52 I wll be ordained to the transitional diaconate in June and to the priesthood six months later, God willing, answering a call that was, I think, long there but not able to bloom and be answered. My heart aches for my Catholic sisters who still must struggle with a church that cannot or will not recognize their full humanity.

kp said...

Beautiful post. I've only attended a few Catholic services in my life, but I, too, felt very drawn to the sensual aspects of them. And I love, love, love the writings of Father Anthony DeMello (who also includes elements of Buddhism, etc.)

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, so I well understand the lack of women in leadership positions, homophobia, etc. I tried for a long time, and with many different religions, to take the good parts and push the bad out of my mind, but when I found something that kept me from having to do that, it was a huge, huge, relief.

I started looking around for something to fit me better in college, and moreso in graduate school. When I finally got around to going to a Unitarian Universalist sevice, I felt at home in a way I'd never felt before, anywhere. And when I discovered that this was the religion of Whitman and cummings and William Carlos Williams, and Thoreau, and Dickens and all sorts of writers I've felt so wonderfully and even spiritually drawn to, I knew I was in the right place.

My parents wanted us to get married with their minister at Church, but it didn't feel right... so we eloped. And so when we got married on the beach, 2 summers ago, we chose a Unitarian minister. A woman, too.

poitevin said...

I love Woody Allen's quip that he grew up in a family with profound religious differences, because his father was an atheist and his mother an agnostic. In my case, my mother was the atheist and my father the agnostic. But both came from Catholic backgrounds, and my maternal grandmother is still, to this day, a devout Catholic. Because of my great love for my grandmother, I decided to do the first communion, and to become a Catholic. My parents--who are absolutely wonderful--were always very accepting, and cultivated my autonomy on all sorts of matters, spiritual included. So I became a Catholic, and shortly after my first communion I grew terribly disenchanted, and renounced religion with the sort of vehemency with which Pope John Paul II renounced to have any discussions about women ordinance in the Church.

To make a long story short, I'm still a non-believer, but I endorse zipzap's remarks about Unitarian Universalists. In my opinion, many progressive, spiritual people who're a bit disgruntled with their own religious background are UU's without knowing. Counting agnostics. Heck, even some atheists.

Yankee, Transferred said...

To quote George Karlan, "I used to be an Irish Catholic. Now I'm an American."

PPB said...

I've had some of the same conversations around "why not leave the Presbyterians if you disagree with their homosexuality stance?After all, you can "just" become UCC." I think my answer to that question was found in Beth Stroud the U Methodist pastor that was stripped of her ordination after admitting to being a lesbian. She was also asked why not become UCC or MCC or ECUSA, rather than go through a church trial, and she said that it was like asking an Italian to become Irish.

I think some of us find a religious home with which we have long term lover's quarrels. Some of us leave that which we're born to and find something else. But for me....like many Catholics I know who are unhappy....leaving is like trying to become Irish.


The pope has just died, and the Catholic church across the street from me is opening its doors, and people are coming in. Maybe a regular mass? Maybe special? I'm curious, but I'll never really understand.

Friday Mom said...

I made the move from the faith tradition of my family. Sometimes I wonder if it was the right thing to do. I lost a lot in the process, although I've gained a lot too. I'm still sorting too.

The legacy of the Sisters of Francis is obvious in your writing. I'm drawn to your sense of balance and rootedness.

Rosa G. said...

I was 16 when the first six women became Episcopal priests, and I thought it would be a matter of a few years before I could be a Catholic one. I left the church at 18 and am a lapsed and lingering Catholic. I'm too identified with it to join another group, and too pissed off to actively participate.
Like you, Joe, I have practiced Buddhism, which seems to fit my temperment pretty well. But I miss not being part of a faith group.
Like you, I realize there's a complexity of things that growing up Catholic and female has given me. I value having gone to a Catholic High School in the 70's and being told that I could be what I wanted to be (except priest)--now, the many of the nuns telling me that have left the convent! But others stayed--one is feminist theologian, another does pastoral work at a hospital.
As far as this pope goes, I'm on the fence, too. One the one hand, I think he was forward thinking and caring, and on the other hand, he was sexist.

Anonymous said...

I was an alter girl in the early 70's and my daughter's have been too. It depends on the diocease and priest.

I had a priest once that when one of the nuns wanted to do the homily, said, " I will jump off the roof when a woman preaches in my parish." Was really glad when he was relocated.

Daughter #1 in second grade and asked why there were no girl priests. I said it was against the rules. She said "When I am old enough I will vote against that." It took me a long time to tell her that the church wasn't a democracy, like her country, and she couldn't vote. Though oonsidering what is happening in this country her vote may not count even if she could.

Anonymous said...


The ritual you're observing is called the Office of the Dead. It's a special Mass that Catholics gather to participate in when the Pope's death is announced.

What Now? said...

In response to Songbird and Lisa V.--This is, in fact, exactly my issue with the Catholic Church. (And of course--disclaimer and apology--this isn't a tradition I'm a part of but one in which I work at St. Martyr's.) I can imagine being a part of a religious tradition that had some basic principles with which I absolutely didn't agree, IF I thought that I could work actively to change those principles. So, a la PPB, sometimes I think that I should have stayed in the Presbyterian Church and devoted myself to changing their anti-gay policies. I didn't--my faith was too new and fragile at the time, and there were other reasons that the Episcopal Church was a better fit--but I think it's a noble struggle. But it's harder for me to figure out how one would go about working actively to change the Catholic Church, since the people in the pews don't get a vote, and it's such a top-down hierarchy in which lay people really don't have the power (structurally, at least) to make changes. So what effect would one's witness to the Church actually have? And is witnessing, knowing that any result is highly unlikely, good stewardship of one's personal resources, or is one better off shaking the dust from one's feet and moving on to the next denomination and witnessing there? Let me hasten to add that I have no answers here, just a lot of questions. And this is a personal struggle for me, because I work at a Catholic school. At least once a month I condemn myself for implicitly supporting by my very presence the very church policies that condemn me; a colleague keeps reassuring me that my presence on campus is an important witness to our Catholic students that keeps many of them from knee-jerk condemning all gay people, but my response to her is always, "But so what? Will they be able to change church policy? So what effect does that 'witness' really have?" These are hard questions.

Jo(e), sorry to hijack your comments with these long responses.

Psycho Kitty said...

What a moving post, Jo(e). You continue to amaze me.

Anonymous said...

What Now? I completely understand what you are saying. I used to belong to a group called Call To Action, that works for reform in the Church. They work very hard to reignite the promises made in Vatican II. I felt for awhile this was a more productive way than leaving and becoming Episcopal or even part of the American Catholic Church. I felt like I was taking a stand that the conservatives weren't going to run me off, and that I was going to be one of the people that brought the evolution. I have as much right to this church as they do. Then I just got tired I think. I haven't been to mass in 2 years. I think if you can stomach it, that remaining a part of the church can bring about change. It may be you just change individual hearts, not the institution. Maybe you will be the face that humanizes homosexuality for them. Let's them know it truly is "their family, friends and neighbors." I am not one to really advise, giving my current religous limbo.

jo(e) said...

I think one of the things that complicates my relationship to the Catholic Church is that I have chosen to live in my home community, which is Catholic. So even if I choose not to go to Mass, I still live with a Catholic husband, Catholic friends, Catholic neighbors, Catholic parents,etc. So the Catholic Church is going to affect my life. People say, "Why are you always criticizing the Church? Why don't you just leave it?" but I think the only way I could really do that would be to move away. And there are huge advantages to living in my hometown that I am not willing to give up.

I have friends who are working to change the Church but that's very difficult since it is, as some of you have pointed out, a top-down hierarchy. It is just a little bizarre for me to go to a conference, give a presentation on feminism, talking about how destructive hierarchal thinking is -- and then return to my Catholic community. Or maybe it isn't bizarre. I have seen just how destructive patriarchy can be.

Can canon law be changed? I think it's kind of tricky. Once something has been invested with that whole aura of papal infallibility, it's tough to reverse. The Catholic Church is absurdly slow to change. In 1983, the Church officially admitted they were wrong to persecute Gallileo. That's pretty slow ....

PPB said...

I'm sure Galileo really appreciated it, though! :-)
I understand the whole Catholic community thing. I lived across the street from my elementary school and was one of only a handful of kids that walked to school.....everyone else for miles and miles went to Catholic school.

You win the prize for having the most comments where no one is peeing in the corner or decroating with duct tape. Someday will you write about what it's like to live and teach in your hometown? I can't imagine it.

Jane said...

Thanks for such a wonderful and heartfelt post. As a lapsed Catholic who's finally decided to leave the church but hasn't decided what to do next, this post really resonates with me.

Scrivener said...

I've tried commenting three times now, and I keep getting interrupted before I can actually get much typed. We'll see if it works this time.

First: Can't believe What Now? actually apologized for hijacking your comments, jo(e). She must not have seen what you do to everyone else's comment boxes.

I really appreciated this post. Your response to current events in the church is so thoughtful and powerful, and you capture what so many of us within and adjacent to the church have struggled with for so long. I wasn't raised Catholic, but one side of my family is Catholic now so I've been to mass here and had many discussions with them about the church.

I was raised Southern Baptist--my father is a devout, fire-and-brimstone, world-is-ending-tomorrow, hate-everyone-who-isn't-exactly-like-me Baptist. I rejected his faith when I was young, internally when I was very young and I finally spoke up about it and quit attending church when I was in middle school I guess. I spent a lot of years vigorously anti-religion, but realized some time ago that I was shutting myself off from my interest in and engagement with spirituality just to spite my father and his faith. So I looked around and like Zipzap, found the UUs, where I've been quite happy.

I'm not a hundred percent sure what my personal relationship with spirituality has directly to do with your post. I suppose I'm saying that anyone who is actually engaged with their faith must be always struggling to define that relationship, though some faiths are perhaps more fruitfully struggled with than others.

Does anyone think there's a chance that there'll be a more progressive pope named to follow this one? Could the next pope put on that pointy hat and, speaking as the voice of God, overturn the 1978 edict against women in leadership positions in the church? Any chance that'd happen?

jo(e) said...

Yeah, Scrivener, it is funny that anyone would apologize to me for hijacking comments.

There's all kinds of speculation about who the next pope will be. This last pope was a surprise choice after all. I read something that listed many of the possibilities -- and did not see the word feminist on any of the resumes.

One thing we know: the choice will be made by a entirely male group, all men entrenched in the current hierarchy of the Church. And I think we can all agree the next pope will most certainly not be an American. I've often wondered, actually, what would happen if the American Catholic Church split from Rome -- it would make sense in many ways. The American Catholic Church, I think, is ready to embrace many kinds of changes that other cultures are not ready for.

I think part of the difficulty with getting the church to change is that if a pope admits that a previous pope was wrong about something, that somehow undermines his own credibility. Unlike a political leader who runs for election and wants to prove that the other guy is worng and he is right, a church leader has to convince people that the church is being led by the Holy Spirit. A very different dynamic.

reverendmother said...

I loved this post and all the comments, which I only have time to skim right now!

The wonderful thoughts about why a person doesn't just leave when a denomination's theology is so different from one's own... it reminds me of the Don and Emily Saliers workshop that PPB and I are going to in May (woo-hoo!). The course description quotes Emily as saying that she's having a "lovers' quarrel" with the church.

Stay and fight, or go and find a new home--these are difficult questions. But I am so touched by the love I hear for these different traditions. That's what makes this stuff hard.

Unknown said...

jo(e), thanks for the further explanation about canon law.
My own journey from Southern Baptist to UCC was aided by geography. When, as the young married mom of a toddler I really wanted to find a church (after a hiatus in my early 20's), I didn't live in the South anymore. We visited a couple of churches, and I was amazed to discover that the Associate at the big UCC church nearby had also grown up as a Southern Baptist. I didn't know much at that point about the ordination of women (this was 1987, but I'll grant I was behind the curve), and I was fascinated to hear her story: her father had been drummed out of the SBC for ordaining her!
I hear what you are all saying about having a lover's quarrel with your various denominations, but I guess I'm a little put off by the idea that has been expressed above, that the UCC is there for people who "just" can't be bothered to wrestle with their true faith traditions. My call to ministry in the United Church of Christ is just that, not an escape route of some kind. If my suggestion on someone else's blog that the UCC was welcoming gave offense, I am frankly perplexed.

reverendmother said...

Songbird, I'm not sure those comments were necessarily directed at you when people talked about others saying "why don't you 'just' go to the UCC?" (Although maybe I shouldn't try to speak for her!) Because I have Presbyterian friends who get that all the time too.

I think that in the midst of denominations that, er, have some room to grow theologically :-), the UCC is seen as a sort of promised land. Rightly or wrongly! I hope you hear that as a deep and abiding admiration for your denomination, not a sense of "well the UCC will take anybody, why don't you just go there?" At least, that is the way I think about it.

PPB said...

Songbird, it was me who said that, and I put just in quotes because I'm tired of hearing that word. I don't think switching denominations or religions should be easy, and I tired of hearing the implication that it is. To me it demeans the process of choosing to move as much as the denomination one is moving to. I hate it when people say "just" switch, as if it's as easy as switching laundry detergents. I didn't mean to offend. I was trying to defend! Sorry.

I was talking with a child earlier today. She told me she had been born to the wrong mommy, so she switched. She said sometimes babies are born to the wrong mommy so they find the right one. And other times babies are born to the right mommy. There's adoption in the eyes of a 5 year old

Thinking of this conversation, I would add that sometimes babies are born to the right mommy and they have a long process of seperating from her.

Sorry to offend Songbird. Jo(e) thanks for this conversation.

bitchphd said...

In 1994, when the Pope issued that statement, the parish I was part of had a nun deliver the sermon. A quiet, but highly effective form of protest. I have never forgotten it.

Julian said...

Your post speaks to a lot of issues that the death of JP2 has prompted me to think about.
I too was a young girl that wanted to be an altar server. I was also pushed straight up to the priest immediately after the first mass where the standard announcement about altarserver training was reworded from "all interested boys" to "all interested children." This was about a decade before the Vatican decided it was ok. Although technology has made the world a much smaller place, much of the US (and the rest of the world) is still a long way from Rome and there is some latitude for local communities to ignore the pope.

That said, I disagree with the finality of your statement that the issue of women priests is forever closed. The pope has a massive amount of power, which he can also use to over rule his predecessors. If there is any doubt about this point, compare the results of the first Vatican ecumentical council with those of the second. These were roughly 100 years apart. Or consider the attention Poland would have received in the 1980s from an Italian pope.

The next pope could be more of the same. But there is no way that even the college of cardinals could guarentee that. They know that, so I suspect they will go for a pope that isn't likely to last 25 years and short of offing him themselves (there is plenty of historical precedent), that is a tough call these days.

venus de kilo said...

I posted here a very academic, sterile approach to JPII's papacy. It is easy for me to comment on his overall successes because I am not Catholic (or, frankly, religious, but that's a different story), and therefore, while I do not agree with many of his controversial positions, (including, but certainly not limited to, excluding women from the priesthood), it is easy for me to comment in a detached manner.

However, reading your comments, I was reminded of the absolutely terrible, shocking, identity-challenging power that people in religious authority have over their followers, especially the children. I'm a child of an interfaith marriage, and I think I was about the same age as you were in your story when one of our religious leaders said that he couldn't accept interfaith marriages, and he could not accept the children of interfaith marriages as members of the religion. It's fine for people to believe this, and if you are living in a community where marriages are arranged to make sure you marry people of your same economic or religious or cultural background, then that expectation exists, and while I don't agree with it, you're at liberty to espouse it to your followers. But don't alienate a number of your congregants or followers by excluding them, or not allowing them the opportunity to participate.

An underlying theme of both of our complaints, or alientations, or whatever the classification might be, may be that we are actually really fortunate to be in a position where we feel alienated. The "modernization" of our (society's) beliefs and secularization of our society allows us to feel that we have just as much a right as anyone to belong or participate.

Anonymous said...

I am not deeply religious, so i cannot comment on history or changes that have or need to be made within the catholic church or any other religious institution( er sorry, cannot comment accurately). I say this because my opinion does not count with any religion since I am not a faithful follower. But, as a person, who has the ability to think/act on there own, I feel that it is pathetic that any organization that tell's you, you are welcome, but not good enough because of your gender,race, etc. is simply not worth the time. You can follow your belief's and that of the church on your own accord without having to sacrifice your integrity to them. They will alway's believe in there doctrine and male dominated way's and that will never change. What is important is that you as a person will still hold your own values and identity. That, my friend is something no one can ever take away from you; and in the end that is what is important. Anyone that tells or believe's differently is only looking for something that they have not or will never find.