National Catholic Reporter
Viewpoint — On women as priests
Issue Date: November 4, 2005
An African and an American Disagree on Ordaining Women
By PEG HELMINSKI
I picked up the phone to hear a precise French accent pleading, “Peg, tell me it is not so!”
“What is not so, Abena?”
“On the news they say they will ordain a woman as priest. How can this be in the Catholic church? All day I pray, ‘Jesus, how can a woman be priest?’
“ ‘Call Peg,’ he said. ‘She will give you peace.’ So, I know you are a woman of wisdom and faith. Tell me, how can this be?”
“Abena, in the current Roman Catholic church this cannot be. Perhaps they mean some other church or an unrecognized ordination.”
“Oh, thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Peg. Not our Roman Catholic church!” She was laughing, nearly giddy with relief. “I prayed, ‘Lord, take me now if this should happen.’ I would rather be dead than see such a thing.”
“Abena,” I sighed with regret, “You and I will not live to see such a day in our Catholic church. This will not happen in our lifetime.”
“Oh, thank you! You give me so much hope and happiness.” But, suddenly serious, she said, “I think this cannot happen ever — as it was in the beginning it shall be in the Catholic church until Jesus comes again.”
Her distress evident, she continued:
“I do not know why women keep trying to be Jesus. They should try only to imitate the example of humility and obedience of our Blessed Mother.”
“Abena, are you saying that men should not try to imitate the example of Mary?”
I struggled to contain my anger. And I succeeded because this was Abena, a very simple woman, not a bishop, the pope or a Vatican spokesperson, all of whom, I think, should have a broader view of church history and the place of culture in determining our ever-evolving, collective understanding of God.
She laughed readily, “Of course, we all should. But what is more important is that women learn the beauty of raising children.
“Just today God has answered my prayer. The husband of a sister of ours planned to divorce her because she has not been pregnant in many years. I learned today that she is two months with child. God is so good!”
My blood nearly boiled at the sexist content of this assertion and her archaic proof of God’s mercy. Yet, I forgave her immediately because I recognized that she is a product of her culture. Only recently from Cameroon, she was jailed there for her faith. Shackled, she was beaten on the soles of her feet. Now, walking is difficult. Wearing shoes is still painful.
“They wanted to break my spirit,” she laughed when she told me. “They only strengthened my faith!”
She is temporarily here, illegally, an accident of clerical errors (or the truest intervention of the grace of God), awaiting deportation so she can return to spread the Gospel to prisoners until she is again jailed and, as she anticipates, tortured to death. As she awaits deportation, she cares for dying women in their homes. Between chores, she prays the rosary many times a day. Paid in cash by grateful families, she lives on handouts, saving the money to send basic necessities like soap, underwear and food to her beloved prisoners. “In Cameroon,” she said, “if you have no family to care for you while in prison, you die. We are all family in Jesus,” she said. “So, we must care for these brothers and sisters.”
This is the biblical imperative she risks her life to fulfill. She was jailed when a shift in governmental power made her care of certain prisoners a political threat.
I like to think that I would be willing to die for Jesus. But if it became a real possibility, would I seek escape or deliberately prepare for death as Abena does?
I respect her a great deal. I admire the depth of her faith. I am also aware that there is just so far the edge of her theological understanding will stretch and it is way back there on the opposite side of the church from where I stand.
Yet, I am also aware that we stand within the same church.
I recognize in her a spark of God that speaks to me of a sister. And it is evident that she sees the same in me. It is these sparks of God we hold in highest esteem.
Evenly matched in both strength of conviction and respect for each other, we gently volleyed questions back and forth. Although she did laugh a few times, I detected no malice or disrespect. It was my questions themselves, questions she had never considered, that she found amusing.
Unlike others with whom I have entered into such discussions, she was not intent upon recreating my soul in her image. Nor was I intent upon asserting my view to the exclusion of hers.
I felt profoundly blessed as Abena pointed to the truth in her own experience without condemning the truth in mine.
If the Holy Spirit truly guides the church, it is our responsibility to stand at the point God has placed us within the church and proclaim from the honest depths of our souls, “This is how I see God!” and respect each vision as equally valid. If the whole church entered into such respect-filled dialogue, surely the Kingdom of God would be manifest upon the earth.
Peg Helminski is a writer who lives in Woodbury, Minn.
National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005
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