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31 March 2008

Life as a Roman Catholic woman priest

The Faith Column this week will look into women who are given leadership roles in various faiths. R

By Marie Evans Bouclin

When bishop Patricia Fresen ordained me as a Roman Catholic woman priest, she perceived in me a call to minister to some of the most wounded women of the Church – women who had been sexually abused, as children or vulnerable adults, by a priest. For several years I had been giving lectures, workshops and retreats to survivors of abuse in the hope of finding with them pathways to healing for their violated souls.

I expected this ministry to abused women would continue with the added benefit of my being able to offer the sacraments of the church to those who asked for them and it did. The day after my ordination, however, I was invited to pastor at Christ the Servant, a small parish that had been abandoned by its priest, a man who had been dismissed by his bishop for supporting women’s ordination. My home is too far away to travel to this church every weekend, so I serve as an associate, part-time pastor. From this community I learned that parish renewal is possible. At Christ the Servant, lay leaders administer the parish, organize visits to the sick and elderly of the community, provide material assistance to the poor, and lead Bible study and a week-night prayer group. The priest provides sacramental services, theological grounding, and pastoral support.

Many Catholics tell me they long for substantial spiritual nourishment. They need energetic leaders who celebrate and affirm their commitment to live Christ-centred lives at a time when there is a critical shortage of priests. And they would welcome women priests.

My ordination generated considerable media interest. The reaction of the church hierarchy was to publicly declare that I had “excluded myself” by not adhering to an official teaching of the church. So, while I received no official notification from my diocesan bishop that I was under interdict, I received an email from my parish priest that I would not be allowed to receive communion. Most Catholic priests are polite but are careful not to openly support me.

Media exposure also prompted invitations to celebrate Eucharist with groups of disenfranchised Catholics – people also “excluded” from communion for a variety of reasons. A young woman asked me to bless her marriage because she had been told she was no longer Catholic when she moved in with her boyfriend. The family of an elderly woman who left the church in her thirties asked me to give their dying mother absolution and to celebrate her funeral – at her specific request.

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Perhaps because the paedophilia scandal has hit this diocese particularly hard, many Catholics here support me. They believe it is time women and married men were ordained, that the Church needs priests who understand the “realities of ordinary life.” They know that I’m married, have raised three children and have a grandchild. They also seem to know that my only motive is to serve and help heal the wounds of abuse in the church I love.