On consulting the faithful: one woman’s experience.
The present appeal to the faithful to contribute at diocesan level to the Synod of Bishops has led me to reflect back and to wonder: How do you ”walk together’ ‘when you have been thrown overboard?
I grew up a Catholic, trained as a catechist (like my mother), studied ecumenical theology, worked as a marriage and relationship counsellor for CMAC (now ACCORD).
My first experience of formal consultation in the church was as a member of the sub-committee Women In The Church in the Dublin diocese. It happened nearly three decades ago but I never forgot the experience and what it painfully taught me.
The Dublin Council of Priests wanted to ‘listen to women’s pain’ and had set up our sub-committee of 4 priests and 4 women (lay & religious). Our sub-committee met regularly for over a year. Very quickly it emerged that there was pressure to censor ourselves; one priest in particular was adamant that some topics couldn’t and shouldn’t be mentioned. Women’s ordination in particular was anathema to him. Not that he was against it, but he was very fearful of the archbishop’s reaction.
”What is the worst that can happen?” I asked.
”He’ll get angry and storm out of the room,” he replied.
”Well, if he chooses to respond like that, so be it.’’ I argued that we had been tasked with speaking about women’s pain in the church, and we would fail if we only spoke what we believed was acceptable to the archbishop. He might as well listen to himself.
The meetings grew more painful and difficult, as we prepared to hand over our report and make a verbal presentation to the assembled Council of Priests with Archbishop Desmond Connell and the auxiliary bishops. I couldn’t believe how fearful that senior priest was. I had known him as quite an outspoken lecturer, but now he was full of fear, which he expressed through anger.
D-day, February 23rd 1994, finally arrived, when we gathered in a large room in Clonliffe. Our colleague on the sub-committee sat well apart from us, in a safe place amongst the other priests.
We, the four women, took turns in sharing our experiences in the church, especially the painful aspects and our recommendations, as was our brief. The issue of altar girls (still forbidden then) was one. When my turn came I spoke of my sense of calling to the presbyterate/ priesthood. It took me all the courage I could muster to share at a very deep level. I was aware of intense resistance to what I was saying and the level of discomfort in the room. But the archbishop didn’t go and slam the door…
When it was over, there was no real reaction or response. We were formally thanked and there was lunch. After months of intense preparation, that was it. There never was to be any further contact.
Several months later I received a phone call from a journalist with The Tablet, Margaret Hebblethwaite, in London. Margaret, who knew my advocacy for women’s ordination, expressed her puzzlement at seeing my name attached to a Report expressly ruling out Women’s ordination. I asked: ”What Report?” The Report of the Council of Priests on Women in the Church had been written up (by whom?) and press releases sent out to journalists far and wide and we, the members of the sub-committee had never seen it. Our names, however, were prominently attached to it .
Margaret Hebblethwaite couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it either. She read out the content of the Report over the phone to me. I felt physically sick at what, for me, was a betrayal. No wonder Margaret Hebblethwaite had wondered what my name was doing with it. The Report, approved by the archbishop, stated: ”The fact that the priesthood was given only to men did not prevent women from taking their full part in the life of the Church.”
The next day part of the Report appeared in print in the Irish Catholic, with my name and that of the other women listed beside it.
When I had recovered enough I wrote to the priest chairing the Council of Priests, and sent copies to the auxiliary bishops to express how I felt about this Report, both the content and the manner of its release.
The priest replied, none of the bishops did.
It was carefully explained to me that this was a Report of the Council of Priests, of which I was not a member. I was only on the sub-committee, therefore I had no grounds to complain. The fact that my name, and the other women’s names, appeared with the Report didn’t seem to matter. That was obviously for window-dressing: after all, we had been consulted! And why would we want the basic courtesy of a copy of the Report?
I wrote back that if that was the way they treated lay people, they wouldn’t get too many in future. I felt used and betrayed.
A month later, in May 1994, Pope John Paul II with Ordinatio Sacerdatolis, closed the door to women’s ordination and imposed silence.
Lesson learned. Regretfully, three decades later of personal, painful dealings with the institutional church with its violent attempts at silencing, freezing out behind a door closed ‘for ever’, orders to desist, blacklisting and loss of job, and threats of excommunication, do not inspire trust.
And now we are to speak freely… Really ?
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
14th September 2021