e-mail us

Address given at the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests held July 28-Aug. 1, 1999


First reading: I Cor. 11:23 ff.

Gospel: Mark 16: 1-9

Good evening. It is wonderful to be with you to carry on the tradition celebrated in tonight’s gospel: standing here as a woman commissioned to preach the good news.

I bring you greetings from the Quixote Center where I work. I wear tonight a purple stole, the international symbol of the quest for the ordination of women. And so I also bring greetings from Catholic womenacross the globe who feel called to priesthood.

I want to speak tonight in the vein of the gospel: moving from death to the hope of new life and resurrection.

We’ve talked a great deal these days about human rights and reconciliation. I want to begin tonight’s reflection on scripture in Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia.

Who among us was not wrenched to see the horrible sights of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans -- no matter who was doing it to whom? People routed from their homes, houses torched and in flames, women raped, old people and children walking for days to the border, men and women tortured and killed. And in the blood, bodies and burning embers was a message and a warning to others… You are unworthy, unclean, unwanted, undeserving …You must be driven out so that those who are dominant at the moment may live. All others take heed; you may be next.

And all this happened because people were of the wrong ethnic group, deemed inferior, or wicked or unworthy of being neighbors. The world rightly named this a horror, and condemned it.

But there is a different version of this same practice in our church. I call it “theological cleansing.” For more than 20 years now, the Vatican and some bishops have gone house to house in our church, driving out those who are unwanted because they have a theological view or lifestyle that is feared. In some cases, there have been mass removals: married priests, gay and lesbian people who worship as Dignity chapters, women who dare to suggest that gospel equality calls them to ordination, the New Faith Community in Rochester, NY. In other cases, it is a lone theologian, meant to be an example to others -- Leonardo Boff for liberation theologians, Carmel McEnroy and Ivone Gebara for uppity Catholic women, Remi de Roo for progressive bishops, and Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent for all those who minister to gay and lesbian people.

Theological cleansing may not cause the dire physical suffering of ethnic cleansing, but it surely causes deep psychological and spiritual suffering. It has routed good people from their spiritual home, attempted to burn out whole schools of theology, raped the spirituality of women, sent tens of thousands hobbling outside the borders of our church and has led to the death of faith in tens of thousands of good Catholics. And when a theologian or minister is under fire, the message is clear: all others take heed; you may be next.

And all this happened because people were of the wrong theological -- and perhaps human -- orientation, deemed inferior, or wicked or unworthy of being neighbors in the same church. We are called by tonight’s scriptures to condemn -- and reverse -- theological cleansing as surely,swiftly and strongly as we condemn ethnic cleansing.

Our first reading tonight recalls Jesus’ Eucharistic legacy to us, beckoning us to move away from all divisiveness and separation and anathema because it is incompatible with the sharing of the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is our celebration of unity, our intimate meal together, our family dinner as a community of faith. It is a sharing of welcoming and inclusion, incompatible with theological cleansing.

But the gospel goes further. Here, women come to the tomb, bringing oils to embalm the dead. There they find a messenger of resurrection, who tells them that Jesus is risen and commissions them to spread the good news -- to preach. The idea that women might preach -- to men, no less -- is truly revolutionary -- for women in that age were deemed unclean, unworthy and inferior beings. And yet here we have women as the first called to preach the Resurrection.

Now the end of this reading does say they were afraid and kept their mouths shut -- but it’s an abrupt ending, as if much is missing. So the early community added a later ending with content that is corroborated in other gospels: the fact that these women overcome their fears and reported everything to Peter and disciples, even though the men did not believe them!

My, how the men of our church are still in line with that tradition! But in Peter’s day, they backpedaled rapidly -- thank God -- and recaptured the women’s message, which is central to whole redemptive mystery. Would that the male leaders of our church might have the same agility today!

How then do these Scriptures speak to us today? How do they help us find a way to overcome the divisions caused by theological cleansing in our church? They raise three questions about our church today: What is dead? Wherein lies the hope of Resurrection? And who will preach that good news to the world?

First -- what is dead? I submit that what is dead is the old church, the church as most of us have known it, and still experience it. It is the church of hierarchy, the church where power and control are uppermost, where dissent is not tolerated, and whole groups of people are prevented from coming to the table of the Eucharist, where God is always “Lord” and “Father” but never “Mother” and “Companion,” where power creates divisions and excludes whole classes of people. What is dead is the church of theological cleansing where the celebration of the Eucharist in its most profound sense is really not possible. What we are called to do is what the women did: bring on the oils and embalm it!

But wherein lies the hope of resurrection in our church today? Is it in the distant past -- in the mythic dreams of the early Christian community? Is it in the hope of regaining a married priesthood in a church that remains largely the same? Is it in the hope of ordaining women into the present structure? No, it is in the hope of birthing a completely renewed community of faith and justice, a church focused not on its own internal dynamics -- because that will no longer require the energy it needs today -- but is riveted on the needs of the poor and marginalized of the earth. This dream calls us to strengthen our unity as a reforming and renewing movement, and abolish any artificial divisions among ourselves that may be remnants of the theological cleansing we have all suffered. For such repression leaves its mark, even in the best of us.

Understanding this call requires a renewed vision of resurrection. For the resurrection of Jesus in some deep sense was not merely a moment, an instant, a single event. It was the beginning of a process -- a type of spiritual “big bang” that was intended to propel the ever-expanding energy of holiness in our world.

The resurrection of our church is a part of that call to expanding, exploding holiness as a faith community. It will not be instant, but a process, perhaps a long process. And we will be true to that process only if we hang together as a community of struggle for justice.

Let me dare to be specific. Like many speakers at this congress, I am optimistic. I believe that there will be major, positive changes in the next papacy -- simply because the reality of the world demands it. But some of those in authority may accept change only with strings attached. We have to untie them! Example: the acceptance of a married clergy is very likely to be one of the first changes -- limited perhaps, but real. I will among the first to applaud and celebrate this step toward resurrection as long as -- for example -- those who accept such a priesthood are not required to reject the idea that women can be priests. By the same token, if women are ordained, we cannot accept a requirement that we exclude our gay brothers or lesbian sisters, or that we refuse communion to those of other faith traditions, nor can any of us take stands that exclude whole classes of people from church or priesthood. Resurrection calls us to solidarity in all our struggles for reform.

Resurrection also means initiating Catholic ministries that dare to include all those who have been excluded by authority. This is the model of many practicing married priests in small communities of faith, the experience of women in worshipping groups, and it is the special light shining forth in Rochester, NY these days. These are ministries that just DO justice, instead of begging someone else to approve it. They are beacons of hope in this process of resurrection. We need more of them, just as stars and planets are formed in that ever-expanded “big bang” of resurrection.

And so we are called to leave aside any scars of theological cleansing, and live a gospel unity even now, doing as the women and the apostles did: preach the good news while walking into an unknown, and perhaps frightening, future. But unity will make that journey possible.

And finally, who will preach that good news? Just as the woman at the tomb were the lowliest creatures imaginable for preaching, so the call to resurrection will come incessantly from the most marginalized and historically excluded among us.

It will be preached by women, yes -- but not only by women -- but poor people, gay and lesbian people, single mothers, divorced and remarried people, those with AIDS, those who are the most wretched and forgotten of the earth. Indeed, it will come from the earth itself.

Let me conclude with a story wherein such a call came to me. In 1970, I was working in rural South Carolina, in a poor black community. An elderly minister and his wife lived behind the church, and I used to visit them every morning. Mostly, our conversation was about the weather, or crops or crabs. But one morning, he got very serious and wanted to discuss the evils and pain of racism.

“The really awful thing,” he said, “is when you believe what they say about you.” He was crying. “If you are ever oppressed, don’t believe what they say about you.” I was at the beginning of my feminist consciousness, so his words sank into my heart, and I’ve never forgotten them. His call beckons all of us as well: we cannot believe what the hierarchy frequently says about us, or implies about us. We are not wicked or unclean or inferior or unworthy; we are good, caring people of faith who love their church. We are not heretics, but faithful Catholics -- loving critics and critical lovers. We are not “cafeteria” Catholics, but “conscience” Catholics.

We will hear calls like this only when we know those who are poor and marginalized stand with them and listen to their message. And that’s very important to do. For the gospel tonight tells us that they are God’s favorite preachers.

And when we hear the Word so preached, it will be dinnertime in our church. We then can sit down and celebrate the Eucharist together, singing as we never have before. Those are the moments we will know, at the deepest level, the meaning of human rights and reconciliation.

Maureen Fiedler, SL
Catholics Speak Out/Quixote Center
P.O. Box 5206, Hyattsville, MD 20782-0206
Phone: 301-699-0042
Fax: 301-864-2182

E-mail: cso@quixote.org

Web Page: www.quixote.org/cso

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999