I’ve been to a lot of ordinations, but never one such as the one I went to on Sunday, July 29.
The ordinand was a woman. In the Anglican or Lutheran or United or Presbyterian traditions, this would not have been remarkable. But the woman was a Roman Catholic, as was the ordaining bishop, also a woman (she brought her husband with her, from Sudbury, for the occasion).
The new priest is Sister Vikki, the animatrice of the Catholic Worker House in Vancouver. I knew her from when she took part in the Pacific Jubilee Program in Spiritual Direction, and also when I served as external examiner on her MA thesis committee at SFU. She’s originally from New York, of African-American heritage and experience, and has been a member of a small Franciscan sisterhood based in Omaha. Now that she has been ordained, she is organizing her own “parish,” which will bear the name of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin Community.
Many of us will be familiar with the name of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. I have myself seen the miraculous cloak on which her image appeared in the early 16th century to an indigenous campesino, Juan Diego (or was he really an Aztec prince?). It’s in a glass case behind the altar in the cathedral in Mexico City, and is viewed from a conveyor belt which passes slowly before it. But who is Tonantzin? She is the mother of the Aztec gods, and it was on the very site of her temple, destroyed by the Spanish, that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. Now Mary and Tonantzin are revealed together, in the dedication of this new community, as one, or, if you prefer, as two faces of different cultural origins, of the great mother, the goddess-reality who appears in different forms in every tradition. Is this a case of two steps forward and one step back? More likely, a step back and two steps forward. (You can read more on Tonantzin and Juan Diego at http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/2614-our-lady-of-guadalupe-tonantzin-or-the-virgin-mary).
The bishop, Marie Bouclin (I have her permission to name names), in her homily, gave us some of the background of the occasion. John XXIII, when he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), spoke of opening the windows of the church so that a fresh wind could blow away the dust which had gathered over the centuries. This raised in many women the hope that sooner or later (it’s turning out to be later) they would be treated as equals within a strongly hierarchical institution. Paul VI, however, against the advice of the theological commission that he had appointed to consider the issue of women’s ordination, and which concluded that there was no ultimate biblical or theological reason against it, declined to accept the advice of his commission. He did the same thing in response to the commission he appointed on artificial contraception: his forward-and-back behaviour generated for him the sobriquet of the papal Hamlet.
Then in the nineties, John Paul II, whose public charm masked his essential authoritarianism, prohibited the very discussion of the issue in Roman Catholic contexts. At this point, some woman in Germany and Austria began to organize. They had been encouraged when after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was revealed that during the Communist period, at least one Czech bishop had ordained women. When this became known, they were ordered by the Vatican to renounce their “purported” ordinations; some did, some didn’t. This echoed the Anglican experience, when in occupied Hong Kong during WWII, the bishop ordained Florence Li Tim Oi. Again, when this was revealed, she was instructed, not to renounce her ordination, but not to exercise any priestly ministry. That was rectified in the seventies, when Anglican women elsewhere were beginning to be ordained; and she is now honoured among Anglicans as the first woman priest of their communion.
The German and Austrian women found a sympathetic bishop, in good standing with the Vatican, to ordain them, and he did so, on a boat in the Danube, in the presence of a carefully-screened congregation. Later, some of them were ordained as bishops, meaning that this “underground church” community could proceed with its own ordinations.
Yesterday, Bishop Marie told us that there are now about 120 female priests, and ten or a dozen female bishops, who consider themselves Roman Catholics in good faith, if not in good standing. When Sr Vikki went to see the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vancouver, he asked her why she just didn’t join some other church that already ordained women. “Because I’m a Catholic,” she said (or words to that effect: I heard the story second-hand). Manifestly, her idea of what it means to be a Roman Catholic and the archbishop’s are very different [ ].
The ordination followed the regular Roman Catholic rite of ordination, ably MC’d by the United Church minister in whose church the ordination took place. There were some variations, of course. God was regularly addressed as “Mother and Father.” In the Litany of the Saints, the saints of former times and our own (Angelo Roncalli–John XXIII, Oscar Romero, Henri Nouwen) were invited to pray with us, rather than for us. At the time of the laying-on-of-hands (performed in silence, unlike other Christian traditions: it was very dramatic and moving), ordained members of the other Christian traditions joined the Roman Catholic clergy there (all women) in laying hands of blessing on Vikki.
Was this ordination irregular? Without a doubt. Was it invalid, i.e., not real? The Vatican would say so, the rest of us wouldn’t. Was it the right thing to do? Again, without a doubt. History, I have not the slightest doubt, will vindicate Vikki, and Bishop Marie, and all those brave women who have started this quiet underground movement for spiritual justice. I visualize Vikki, when she enters into heaven (no rush!), getting a big hug from John XXIII, and heartfelt apologies from Paul VI and John Paul II–just before they introduce her to Mary and Tonantzin.