By Carol Stanton
Rita Lucey is smiling. She defies her 80 years in photographer Red Huber’s wonderful picture accompanying the article about her ordination to priesthood (“She’ll become priest, get excommunicated,” Friday).
This is a woman who has given many of her eight decades to action, even imprisonment, for social justice and to care for the sick. This is a wife of 60 years, a mother and grandmother who, under ordinary circumstances, would be celebrated in Catholic officialdom as a model of what Pope Francis is encouraging priests and people to be.
This is a woman whose ordination to priesthood through the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests will automatically incur excommunication from a church that does not recognize the association as one of its own, even though many of its own are part of it. A church whose leaders continue to bar women from ordination, the participation in governance that comes along with it and the fullest use of their gifts as servant leaders.
Excommunication has a long history in the Catholic Church. Often used as a political weapon, it could place entire communities under a pall of eucharistic deprivation sometimes lasting years.
Excommunication in 2015 has not lost that whiff of weaponry, and Lucey joins a whole raft of politicians and other waywards who, by the law of the church, either incur it automatically or are pronounced “out of communion” by a local bishop. Its punitive cousins are the increasing threats of job loss for church employees who are judged to stray.
Yet, here is Lucey, well beyond the age of acceptance into any of the Roman Catholic Church’s Seminary or Diaconate preparation programs but, from all indications, a woman faithful, over a lifetime, to her church’s call to discipleship. Somewhere along the way, in her spiritual journey, she found this current path and is following it, despite the official consequences.
And she is not alone. A couple of hundred women from around the world have been following this same path. Without ecclesial space in their church of origin, they find other spaces for gathering and leading communities of worship and service to the marginalized.
Are the Rita Luceys seeking ordination because they are frustrated, disgruntled, angry and alienated and want to poke the eye of a clerical and mostly male church bureaucracy?
Maybe. Women keep Catholic parishes and dioceses going on a daily basis, bringing extraordinary pastoral and leadership skills. Many pastors will admit that should the women in their church go on strike, parish life would come to a grinding halt. It is difficult for women to minister and yet remain invisible and mostly unacknowledged. This is cause for some just anger. However, perhaps there is another and ironically more traditional reason some catholic women are seeking ordination where they can find it.
Catholic faithful, both men and women, are beginning to recognize the dissonance of not having women able to serve sacramentally — not only prepare for baptism but baptize; not only accompany the dying but bury them; not only teach the Gospel but proclaim and preach it.
A Pew Research Center survey in February 2014 shows that 68 percent of the U.S. Catholics polled are in favor of ordaining women as priests, and that 42 percent expect the church to change its position by 2050. Church leaders are not known to be swayed by popularity or polls. At the same time, the church has always taught that there is a sense of the faithful operating in the reception of church teaching, a resonating that speaks to the wisdom and timeliness of a teaching.
In 2015, a serious survey such as Pew’s could be revealing where that sense of the faithful is heading. It may be worth some attention.
Is it possible that despite being excommunicated from the center of the present church, Lucey, at 80, may be the face of the church to come? What is certain is that change rarely comes from the center.
Carol Stanton has worked as a teacher and director of programs, communications and marketing/development in the Catholic Church in Boston, Maryland, Central Florida and the Republic of Ireland. She was also a TV news reporter/anchor for WFTV and WESH in Orlando.
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