I recently went to a vespers service at the institute of Catholic higher learning that I attend, celebrated in honor of the school’s outgoing president. When it came time for the honoree to give some remarks, he said, “All students, could you please stand.”
The seemingly innocuous request threw me into a paroxysm of indecision. All students? I thought. Surely he doesn’t mean me? . . . But he said all students . . .
Slowly I raised myself from my pew in the midst of the crowded chapel. The president looked around from side to side, not making eye contact with me. He smiled broadly.
“We have two hundred and twenty-five men this year. . . .”
I slunk back down. It was just another experience at Mundelein Seminary, the Illinois school I entered last year, founded to prepare men for the priesthood of the Archdiocese of Chicago. During much of my time here, I have been the only woman living on campus, though recently the population of resident female students has doubled.
It is very unusual for a woman to study full-time at a Catholic seminary in the United States. I chose Mundelein (officially the University of St. Mary of the Lake) because it was the best option among the handful of US schools offering the degree I sought: a sacred-theology doctorate (STD), issued under the authority of the Holy See.
A pontifical degree was far from my mind in 2008 when, at the age of forty, I began my theology studies in the MA program at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. As a recent Jewish convert to Catholicism and the author of a book on chastity, I envisioned a career in campus ministry. But as I grew to love the Summa, I decided to press ahead toward a doctorate in hope of teaching at a Catholic college.
Dominican House, as its name suggests, was established as a seminary for the Order of Preachers. Its founders would doubtless have been shocked to see women within its hallowed walls, let alone studying beside fresh-faced friars. But under John Paul II’s 1979 Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana, institutions granting ecclesiastical degrees were opened to all, whether clergy or lay, who met the academic prerequisites and could legally testify to leading a moral life. While the majority of Dominican House’s students were friars, there were also men and women from other religious orders, diocesan priests studying for their licentiate, and a sprinkling of lay students.
Why would a layperson desire a seminary education? For me, the prime attraction was attending a school that took its Catholic identity seriously and would educate me in the faith’s intellectual tradition. I also liked being in a prayerful environment alongside others who, like me, saw theology not merely as a career but also as a vocation.
While my hopes were borne out at Dominican House, the blessings were tempered by the strangeness of being an outsider. I don’t believe the outsider feeling came so much from being a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment as it did from being a layperson surrounded by future priests. There is something incommunicable about the priestly vocation that creates a bond among those called to it. Lay students of theology do not have that same connection. I did not envy my seminarian schoolmates’ vocation, but I did envy their brotherhood.
Upon earning my MA in 2010, I was elated to be accepted into the PhD program at the Catholic University of America. My enthusiasm dimmed, however, when the department head informed me that the school’s limited amount of scholarship funds had already been doled out, and the tuition would be twice what I had been paying.
I opted to re-enroll at Dominican House. Since the school offered only ecclesiastical degrees, I entered its pontifical licentiate (STL) program, which placed me in an even more rarefied world than before. Few laity enter such programs: the CARA Institute reports that US ecclesiastical faculties of theology in 2015 awarded pontifical baccalaureates or licentiates to 181 seminarians, 76 priests, and ten “lay persons or deacons.”
While advancing to STL-level courses brought new opportunities, like studying Church Fathers and Scholastic theologians in their original languages, it also brought a new sense of isolation. Finding peers who understood my research interests well enough to offer feedback was a challenge. (There are few more reliable ways to make a person’s eyes glaze over than to say, “I just discovered that Aquinas’s understanding of ‘Christus resurgens’ as the efficient habitual cause of our resurrection was drawn from Albert the Great.”)
Yet the very same learning that separated me from some people helped me grow closer to others—the seminarians and lay students who needed some extra help. Longing to try my vocation as a teacher, I took joy in preparing them for exams, proofreading their papers, and guiding them in using the library’s resources. When one such seminarian, who had come perilously close to dropping out, was able to graduate, I felt I had learned something about living the mystery of spiritual motherhood.
There were other life lessons to learn at Dominican House. One of the most important came via an STL-level seminar course. Whereas lower-level classes were taught in the European style—a lecturer spoke and students listened—seminar courses centered upon group discussion of texts. In this particular one, it soon became clear that my concept of group discussion was different from that of my classmates, all of whom were friars as was the professor.
I thought group discussion meant “I listen to you, you listen to me, and together we arrive at the truth—perhaps with some gentle correction along the way.” The student brothers’ concept was simpler and, I would say, more masculine: “We are right and you are wrong.” “We” was usually (but not always) all the friars en masse. “You” was usually (but not always) me.
After one particularly brutal session where my classmates unanimously opposed me on a point of biblical interpretation, I sought out the priest-professor during his office hours. He had taught me before; I liked him and trusted he would rectify the situation. I showed him an encyclical proving I was right and my classmates were wrong, and I told him I did not think he should let the student brothers gang up on me.
The professor, after listening respectfully, gave me a response, but not the one I had hoped for. He gently said that, when I became a professor and attended academic conferences, I would have to defend my positions—and my peers then would be no more merciful than my classmates were now.
I left the meeting with a strange mixture of disappointment and gratitude, realizing with reluctance that my professor’s advice was more helpful than anything he might have done to shield me.
In 2014, after receiving my STL from Dominican House magna cum laude, I moved to Mundelein, where I am writing my STD dissertation on “Recent Magisterial Teaching on Redemptive Suffering” under the direction of Dr. Matthew Levering. This time, I do not just study at a seminary. I live here.
Students in Mundelein’s graduate programs, clerical and lay, are permitted to live at the conference center. My neighbors comprise one fellow laywoman, one layman, and nine priests, as well as dozens of seminarians who are here because the main dormitory is full.
The living situation is not as awkward as it may sound. My priest neighbors are like typical graduate students, minus the partying; they brew coffee, joke with one another, and talk about how many pages they wrote that day. At the refectory, the seminarians always offer a kind hello; I know dozens of their names, and they all seem to know mine.
Yet I feel a kind of isolation here too, and not just due to the near-absence of women. Since I completed my coursework last year, my days have been taken up with dissertation writing—a solitary pursuit if ever there was one. When the loneliness comes, two lines come to mind, together forming a kind of prayer. The first is from a Chesterton poem: “Oh, who shall understand but you?” The second is from the dying words of Louis J. Twomey, S.J.: “All for thee.” Nobody but God understands what it is like for me to write my dissertation, and that is really the point. If it is for anybody, it is all for him.
Sometimes he surprises me. One weeknight late last year, while the refectory was closed for Christmas break, I wandered into the student lounge to heat up a frozen dinner and was greeted with the enticing scent of broiled salmon. It was my good fortune to find my neighbor Father John from the Diocese of Geita, Tanzania, who insisted I share the delicious African-style meal he was cooking.
As I took my last bite of salmon and sukuma wiki (collard greens), I asked Father John, “Will you be celebrating Mass tomorrow morning? I usually go to the seminary Mass, but I don’t know if there is anyone around to celebrate it.”
“What time would you like?”
And so, the next morning, as ice covered the trees outside, I walked to the little oratory down the hall, where Father John celebrated Mass for me. As he gave me Holy Communion, I felt as though the Lord were saying to me, I will always feed you.
Dawn Eden is the author of several books, including My Peace I Give You and the upcoming Remembering God's Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories.
This article was originally published in the October 19-20 edition of L'Osservatore Romano.