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An Ordination Vista

A couple of weeks ago, nine North American women engaged in a Catholic ordination ceremony in Ottawa. This followed a number of ordinations of Catholic women in France a week before. And in Australia?

by Jane Anderson

On the Feast of St Benedict, I had the good fortune to attend an ordination service. The congregation was alive with expectation and camaraderie, incense hung heavy in the air, candles burned brightly, and the choir heralded the extended procession of deacons, priests and bishops leading in the ordinand.

However, it was a scene that could not yet happen in the Catholic Church because the ordinand was a woman. In the front pews stood her husband and their four young children, supporting and encouraging her. Behind them were parishioners she already served as deacon, eager to have her minister to them as priest.

It was truly a joyous and significant celebration: tradition went hand in glove with contemporary gender relations. In the words of an eighty-something-year old woman seated next to me: "Isn't it nice to see the ladies being ordained." That perspective was echoed in the homilist's counsel. He made it clear that her gender was not the significant thing; rather, his message emphasised God's call working powerfully in, around and through her.

In our catholic church, contemporary gender relations are rarely reassessed. Such matters are confined to bureaucratic shadows and authoritative judgements. These at times reduce complex cultural developments to the aberrations of reformers or the impulse of misguided individuals. Such a church attitude seems to confuse eternity with history. In our Catholic tradition, we need to understand and debate the historical development of different ministries. It is our only way to provide effective, relevant service in the post-modern era.

In the Catholic tradition, there has always been some diversity of orders, as different cultures reflect different social patterns. And yes, there is the danger of essentialising or canonising one particular cultural pattern, then entrenching that with the stamp of official sanction to the exclusion of all others. But any change is historical, not eternal. Church leadership will always need to temper its universal laws with concern for justice for the disempowered, for minority groups and for the care for local communities. Currently, there is no flexibility - if a person doesn't fit Roman prescriptions then too bad! Too bad, for instance, for those individuals and parishes who are without regular Eucharist, or whom exhausted or inappropriate priests service. We in the Western church are not alone in this regard; it is a concern also in South America, Africa and other parts of the Catholic world. This perspective leads to a third point.

Part of our critique of the current prerequisites for ordination must include the right of communities to determine the qualities and qualifications of its ministers. Claims for universality cannot be an excuse for weakening the authority of the local church. The church at the grassroots level should have some say in who gives leadership and makes decisions about our lives. An element of self-determination is central to building functional, dynamic and mature communities.

Finally, the teaching and example of Christ should exercise constantly a critique on clericalism. Any policy that uncritically supports the power, prestige and views of the clergy to the exclusion of others quite simply inhibits the journey of the Church as a whole and hinders our development as Christians. The church was not founded to privilege and maintain clergy, but to organize all Christians to mission effectively to the world in the spirit and style of Jesus. Nor has the Catholic tradition been built exclusively on the knowledge and expertise of clerics; rather, it has been profoundly shaped by the wisdom of the sensus fidelium - that instinct and awareness of faith shared by both lay people and clergy. This source of authority has always been in place to balance magisterial ideas and positions on matters in dispute in the church, such as gender relations.

That change is possible was made obvious to me at that ordination service. For the Anglican Church is not so distant from us. It shares with Catholicism a long history, reflects a similar structure, fosters a familiar liturgical patterning, and cherishes similar sacramental rites. I am not suggesting that Anglicanism is a blue print for reform in the Catholic tradition, but I am asserting, as the Vatican Council did, that God's Spirit moves in these sister churches, and perhaps we have much to learn from them. Indeed, I have come away from this ceremony blessed with a different perspective and, I hope, with a better understanding of priestly ministry. Priesthood is surely impoverished when it is restricted to the celibate male, and people of goodwill are quite capable of embracing present-day images of personhood and priesthood, without the exclusion of women and married men from the equation.

So any time we are presented with panoramic insights into faith and belief beyond our narrow Catholic borders, then I think we should enjoy the vista - it does wonders for the exhausted spirit and shifts the focus away from the doctrinal intransigence that plagues Catholicism. More importantly, it lifts the veil on the horizon of hope.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Brian Gagen for editorial assistance.

Jane Anderson is the author of Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Relationships, (John Garratt Publishing, 2005)

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