Now that Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have assembled a commission to investigate the possibility of ordaining women deacons in the Catholic Church, commentators and bloggers can gaze into their crystal balls to tell us just what this group has in store for the future of the Church and the general cause of women. I will let the commission finish its work before spouting my own theo-cultural reflections on the job it has done. For now, I share what my fellow seminarians have taught me about misguided demands for priestly ordination.
When my companion Br. Gabriel decided to leave the seminary for married life, I briefly questioned my own vocation to the priesthood. I knew myself to be far less competent for ministry than my friend was. It seemed presumptuous for me to continue in his absence.
Br. Gabriel and I worked together closely at one of our religious congregation’s private schools. It did not take many days of communal life or apostolic collaboration before I learned his talents. Before meeting him in person, I had heard his music recordings and seen a successful music video he had spearheaded. Students, faculty, parents, and confreres admired not only his music but his initiative, fortitude, adventurousness, and humor. He could run circles around competitors on the soccer field and read Latin like it was his mother tongue.
He aspired to be an apostle to the modern world and imagined himself, by the grace of God, giving his life for Christ like the heroic early Jesuits. Of all the career paths that lay open to a wildly successful young man, none seemed to him so noble as the priesthood.
We all knew he would make a great priest, but, well … he did not. He did not get caught in a sexual affair or financial scandal. He simply left the seminary. Years of frank spiritual direction with wise guides and personal discernment before God helped Br. Gabriel discover that God wanted him to serve in a manner different from the dreams that had sustained nearly a decade of generous self-giving in the black cassock he wore so proudly. In ensuing years, I would bid farewell to other talented confreres who came to the same surprising conclusions. It would take me much prayer and counsel to learn how to waste less time comparing qualifications and more time contemplating the priestly vocation as gift and mystery. I now appreciate more than ever Christ’s words to His own apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16).
We are accustomed to climbing corporate ladders through grueling workdays and savvy networking. Universities boast of producing graduates capable of adapting to multiple professions during their lifetimes. On-demand abortion licenses couples to dispose of unwanted children, while IVF lets them produce progeny made to order.
In a world that offers us unprecedented dominion over our lifestyles and futures, critics will wage perennial war against the Church’s refusal to ordain women. Those who want equal-opportunity employment for women in the Church fail to understand that the Church’s posture is not stubborn refusal, but rather humble obedience. The Church sees herself as powerless to alter Christ’s will to ordain men to represent the male Incarnate Word in persona Christi at the celebration of the Holy Mass. John Paul II’s declaration that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” in 1994’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was not the contingent policy decision of a reactionary Pope. The announcement was a good steward’s admission that he came not to design his own church, but to transmit faithfully the deposit of faith received from his Lord. The sacrament of Holy Orders in the Church is not a right to be demanded, but a gift to be graciously received in a spirit of service to the rest of the Christian flock.
The Church’s ordained ministry is not won through the right skill set, an impressive resume, or a stellar interview. There are indeed many women with pastoral capacities exceeding those of men. As I learned from my companions, the same can be said of many men who depart the seminary. God does not reveal why he chooses some men rather than others to serve the Christian people as priests.
Before embracing her call as a Carmelite nun, St. Therese of Lisieux longed to be a missionary priest. As she contemplated the manifold ways of serving the Lord as Apostle, teacher, or martyr, she found Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 gave her new perspective on the Church’s unity within a diversity of ministries. Not all were called to serve in the same manner, but all were equipped with the graces necessary to reach their common end of sanctity.
Just as it is deplorable to deem men without a priestly vocation any less valuable to the Mystical Body, so too is it insulting to women to make their status in the Church dependent upon access to ordained ministry. As Ordinatio Sacerdotalis recalled, “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.