At the annual meeting of the Central Seniorate Council of the Eastern Diocese on October 24, 2009, the delegates voted to hold a one day retreat on the topic of women in the ministry.After receiving Bp. Thomas Gnat’s approval, the retreat was scheduled for Sunday, June 13th at the GenesisRetreatCenter in Westfield, MA.The month of June was chosen due to its designation as Sacred Vocations month.About 35 people gathered together from our parishes in Chicopee, Northampton, South Deerfield, Ware and Westfield on June 13th.Our day together began with a prayer service on the topic.The service was led by Christine Newman and additional readers were Kate Shaughnessy, Tracy Follansbee, Margaret Kostiuk and Dorothy Stahelski.The homily was offered by Fr. Sen. Fryderyk Banas.He spoke about the up-lifting example of women in the Bible and also referenced many of the teachings made by Bp. Francis Hodur on the topic of women’s roles in the church.
After the prayer service we moved from the chapel to the carriage house meeting room.There Fr. Sen. Joseph Soltysiak formally welcomed all of us to this Central Seniorate Retreat.He introduced the topic by making reference to the fact that we have entertained this subject in the past at a diocesan level discussion group, at another Central Seniorate gathering and at two diocesan Adoration Society gatherings.Fr. Sen. Soltysiak also spoke about his own calling to the sacred ministry of the priesthood.He told those of us there gathered that it was a spiritual awareness that Jesus had called him to this ministry.He was not called as a man per se, but as a person of faith.He then offered the personal insight that if the call to sacred vocations is a spiritual matter, then gender should not be a prerequisite for Ordination.Our spiritual identities, in other words, are not qualified by male or female designations, but by our faith in God.He then introduced Sister Elizabeth Oleksak of the GenesisRetreatCenter staff.This wonderful and welcoming Roman Catholic nun spoke to us briefly about the fact that women religious in her church have long discussed the topic of women in the ministry and even women in the priesthood.She spoke of our gathering as a very appropriate “Genesis moment,” that this was a starting point on a long journey of openly and piously discussing the possibility of women’s Ordination.She wished us well in our journey.
Fr. Calvo then introduced his presentation by mentioning the book From the Pews in the Back, which gives voice to the frustration of many Catholic women who hoped to be more involved in the spiritual life of the church, but who could not.They created and discovered ways to express their spirituality more fully within their churches, but the church itself stood as a hindrance to them.In our own situation, mention was then made of a young woman from one of our diocesan parishes who is graduating from high school this year and who will be attending college in the Fall with a concentration on early childhood education.When asked at her college interview if she always wanted to be a school teacher she answered in the negative, saying instead that she always wanted to be a priest, but that her church would not let her, and that she would not leave her church.Fr. Calvo then spoke to the fact that ours is somewhat different than that in From the Pews in the Back because ours is a democratic Catholic church.We are allowed the privilege of responsibility.We acknowledge the right and the duty of all members to voice their opinion and to help make decisions.And that it was in this spirit that we gathered together from our local Seniorate parishes to discuss women in the ministry.
Bp. Hodur wrote in the Preamble to our church constitution:“To search for this truth through the free reading and study of the Holy Scripture with the aid of learning which the human soul acquired in the course of centuries-long effort – This is our commandment.”Our “commandment” as church is to dialogue on the important issues of religion.This is one of our fundamental and defining tenets, and for this reason the participants were encouraged to voice their opinions and questions at any point during the presentations.From this premise the first question addressed at the retreat was what does the Bible say about the Christian priesthood.And the answer is simply but surprising:It says nothing.There are no Christian priests in the Bible.The priests mentioned in the New Testament are the Jewish priests of the Temple, and while it is said in the Acts of the Apostles that the Jerusalem Christians attended the Temple worship it also says that they “they broke bread from house to house.” (Acts 2:46) It has been argued that the one who presided at these house-churches would have been the head of that household.It is noted at several points in the biblical text that the heads of some of the households in the earliest Christian church were women.Were some of the first believers to preside at the Eucharist, therefore, women?
It was also noted that while Jesus said to the men gathered at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me,” He also said to the same men, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …’” (Matt. 28:19)The church teaches all of her members to baptize even though that was an explicit order to the disciples.To be logically consistent, the same should apply to the Eucharist.
The fact that our church has for more than a century held the Word of God Heard and Preached to be a sacrament also points to the necessity of interpretation of the biblical text and re-interpretation.In other words, we do not read the Bible literally.The Old Catholic theologian Urs von Arx once wrote that 2,000 years ago the witness of women was held suspect (cf. Luke 24:11), but he continues by asking whether the institutional limitation of a woman’s full witness to the faith as a priest would elicit the same reaction of ridicule in our day and age. As times have changed, the biblical words need to be interpreted to maintain the biblical Word.
The second question dealt with the issue that Jesus chose only men to be His disciples.The problem with this biblical argument is that the disciples cannot be equated with the Christian priesthood.The rationale is extensive, but briefly there are women apostles mentioned in the New Testament (i.e., Romans 16:6-7), Paul is an apostle called by Christ after the historical life and ministry of Jesus, the abiding role of the Twelve is never mentioned in the Bible in a priestly context but as the eschatological representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28), there is no indication in the New Testament Epistles of pastor/priests at the communities addressed, and finally as the New Testament scholar and Roman Catholic priest Raymond E. Brown has concluded:“There simply is no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to missionary Apostles to presbyter-bishops.” (Bishop and Priest, p. 41)
A third question centered on the priest as the “icon” of Christ.The argument against women’s Ordination based on this objection runs into immediate difficulties because our Eucharistic theology as stated in the Declaration of Utrecht that Bp. Hodur signed in 1907 and that has been ratified by the Declaration of Scranton is based on Jesus the glorified and heavenly High Priest of the Epistle to the Hebrews.As such, Jesus has transcended gender qualifications (cf. Roman 15: 44, 50)There is also the fact that the Incarnation shares our human nature with Jesus; it is not simply his male gender that defines this theology.If this is called into question because of the argument for male-only Ordination, then the entire argument of Jesus’ salvific role for all humans must be called into question.If Jesus is incarnated only as a male, then He is only a Saviour of men because He represents only men.If His Incarnation pertains to His human nature, then as we teach, He is the Saviour of all people based on our shared humanity.
Therefore, if the Christian priesthood is not a specifically biblical concept, from where does it come?The church.Again, Fr. Raymond E. Brown writes:“If the sacramental power [of Ordination] resides in the Church, it can be given to those whom the Church designates or acknowledges, without a lineal connection to the Twelve.” (Bishops and Priests, p. 55)With that said, what kind of church are we?Fr. Calvo then listed several innovations of our church denomination such as new church governance, the vernacular in the Mass, a new sacrament, a new method of Confession, new rules on priestly celibacy, new teaching on original sin, new Mass facing the people, and a new Mass Canon.Bp. Hodur once challenged us by saying:“That kind of Church which does not give something better is worth nothing; it does not deserve to exist because it is not needed.” (Hodur, p. 59-60)Reference was also made to the concluding prayer of the recently celebrated Pentecost Sunday:“Grant us a new vision and a new counsel, new wisdom and fresh understanding …”
To the final question of whether the Ordination of women would divide and destroy our church, mention was made of several polling statistics that show that a sizeable number of church people are leaving organized religion because of the treatment of women and that an even greater percentage of church people accept the idea of women’s Ordination.In a society where women are achieving equality with men in all fields from academia to the military, where women now believe and fight for their equal treatment in the work place and society at large, it is reasonable to assume that the church will not suffer division from allowing women to fulfill their calling to sacred vocations, but in our refusal to allow for this.
At this time Fr. Calvo introduced the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Crosson-Harrington who is the pastor of the Whately United Church of Christ.Rev. Harrington spoke with great sincerity about her calling to ministry.Her calling by Christ mimicked many of the same stories offered by the male clergy of our church that I have heard over the years.And she spoke of the wonderful sense of spiritual fulfillment that the ministry offered to her and the closeness that it offered to Christ.She spoke of her pastoral role and that sometimes a woman’s perspective is different, not necessarily better, but different than a man’s, and that this difference is needed by some in the community.She also asked those present to write down the qualities that they as parishioners associated with their priests.After sharing some of those traits, she then asked the body if any of those qualities were exclusively male.There was silence.The message, however, was heard loud and clear that it is not the gender that defines our ideas of priesthood and pastor.We thank Rev. Harrington for spending four hours of a Sunday afternoon with us to help us at our “Genesis moment” of discussing the possibility of ordaining women in our church.
Our day together closed with a brief discussion of our next step.We agreed that we would approach the Central Seniorate Council with a proposal that this body petition the bishop to place this topic on the agenda of our Diocesan Synod in 2012.In the meanwhile, the attendees were asked to keep praying on the issue, for our church and for Sacred Vocations.
Fr. Randolph Calvo
The following is the article that appeared in the Greenfield Recorder newspaper.
Greenfield Recorder 07/03/2010, Page D04
‘I don’t believe the soul has a gender’
Local clergy discuss women in the ministry
By BOB DUNN
What qualities would you appreciate in a spiritual leader?
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Crosson-Harrington posed that question at a recent retreat to discuss the role of women in the ministry.
She asked the question to see if any of those in attendance would seek qualities that were gender-specific.
None of them did.
Crosson-Harrington, who is the pastor for the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Whately, said that while almost all of those at the retreat were in favor of seeing women take a larger role in the ministry, there is still a great deal of resistance to the idea at large.
Crosson-Harrington said that people object to the idea of female clergy for a number of reasons.
Some feel that because Jesus and his disciples were all males, that priests should be as well, she said.
Others feel that because male clergy are the way it’s always been, that there’s no need to change.
“The church in Rome created a lot of practices that got passed down,” Crosson-Harrington said.
She also said that it’s incorrect to use the Bible as a means to justify a male-only clergy as there’s no mention of that in it.
Crosson-Harrington said that, quite conversely, there’s evidence to suggest that there were important women in the inner circles of both Jesus and his disciples who took on many priestly duties.
The Rev. Randolph Calvo, pastor of the Holy Name of Jesus Church in South Deerfield, also attended the retreat on June 13 at the GenesisRetreatCenter in Westfield and feels that continuing to deny women entry into the field is an offense.
According to Calvo, approximately 35 people attended the retreat representing parishes from Chicopee, Northampton, South Deerfield, Ware and Westfield. Calvo reasons that, over the years, women have gained entry into fields once denied them like the military, universities and much of the corporate world, and that the church should be no different.
“For the church to remain relevant, it can’t hold on to ancient forms that people are starting to reject,” he said.
Calvo said that religious experiences, including being called into service to the church, tend to be identical when described by men and women.
“A calling is a religious experience,” Calvo said. “Not a gender experience.”
“I don’t believe the soul has a gender,” Calvo said.
Crosson-Harrington said that there are emotional and intuitive qualities women possess that make them well suited for a career in the clergy.
Both Calvo and Crosson-Harrington believe that eventually women will be accepted into the priesthood, but that change, especially in the face of 2,000 years of tradition, will take time. “It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Calvo said. “But I think that it’s worth the effort.” Staff reporter Robert Dunn started working at The Recorder in 2009. His beat includes Deerfield, Conway, Whately and Sunderland.