I have found myself wondering since I heard about the Vatican's crackdown on U.S. nuns whether this will be a watershed moment. It feels a bit silly to think of, acknowledging that the sexual abuse scandal seems to have done not one thing to deter the hierarchy from their self-destructive path of escalating authoritarianism. Why should this be different?
But I'm not alone in imagining it might be. I have heard several women in my life with ties to the church as Catholics or as former or non-practicing Catholics say, "If there is going to be change, it's going to come from the women."
When I was a girl, I was introduced to the inequality in church roles for men and women when I was not allowed to be an altar server. I could be an acolyte, carrying the candles, but then I would have to sit and watch while my male peers did the real work of serving at the altar. I was told that girls were not allowed because then they might want to become priests.
I already wanted to become one, although I knew I wanted to be a mother more; even if I had been allowed, I would have eschewed the celibacy in favor of a family. Still, I wanted what I thought the priesthood meant -- not I might add, the power of consecration or other sacramental functions, but the opportunity to dedicate my life to the service of God. It would be many years before I understood that I have that opportunity, even without the collar.
Now girls do serve at the altar, maybe because nobody, at least in the U.S. seems to want to be a priest anymore. Anyone who has belonged to a parish in the past couple of dozen years has experienced a pastor or associate whose accent was difficult to understand, because his first language is not English. There are too few American men entering the priesthood, so many have to come from other countries around the world. Otherwise, one might expect to find an older, guitar-mass-and-felt-banner Vatican II Catholic priest or a young, right-wing, traditionalist American priest. That seems to encompass the range.
As for nuns, I came of age when they were wearing polyester skirts and pant-suits rather than habits. They got to keep their baptismal -- feminine -- names. I didn't know very many of them, having gone to public school. Even at my Jesuit university there were only a couple of Sisters I remember, both from the office of campus ministry. What I remember about them is that they were not in charge of anything important or interesting, even then, in the mid-to-late 80's.
All I knew of nuns was that they taught my mother her perfect penmanship and that they tended to do the dirty work of caring for the young or infirm. I never thought of them as rebels until college, when they became the face staring down Central American guerrillas or the officials at nuclear weapons facilities. They were, are, heroes, following the narrow path of peaceful resistance in the face of institutional violence. Just like Jesus.
They continue, these American nuns, to do the same thing today. It is tragic that the face of institutional violence is, in this instance, the face of a priest, a bishop, a pope.
Will it be the women to bring the change, to restore the church universal to the call of her Lord, the call to serve with selfless love? When I look to the gospels, I see that God calls the church his bride. I see that the first witnesses to the resurrection were the women, faithful at the foot of the cross, fulfilled in encountering the risen Christ. I have hope.
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