I discovered FemCatholic two years ago when I was in RCIA. I was quickly relieved to find a community of Catholic women who understood my feminist identity when, to the outside world, it seemed like I tossed that part of myself aside by coming into the Catholic Church. I devoured every article I read and almost always finished a post with a sigh of relief that someone understood exactly what went on in my head.
That is, with the exception of one article.
I was left uneasy and a bit confused after reading Emily Archer’s post on the female priesthood. My feelings had nothing to do with her article, but rather with my own experiences leading up to my conversion to Catholicism.
You see, just a few years ago, I discerned a call to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. When I read Emily’s article, I imagined that discernment process. I pictured the women I knew who used to be Catholic, but were now either already priests or discerning the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. I tried to figure out the difference between their lived experience of the female priesthood and my own.
My committee and I discerned that I was not called to the priesthood. More accurately, we determined that we heard the message, “Not right now.” As the months passed, however, I felt increasingly sure that I would never become a priest. This feeling became a certainty when I was received into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil in 2017. Then, when my fiancé proposed to me in December 2017, I knew without a doubt that my vocation is marriage.
I still thought about the women who were disappointed and hurt by the Church because they felt a desire to become priests. I could still understand their struggle, even if I made peace with my own vocation, because the Eucharist is the best part of our faith. There were so many times when I wanted to trade places with the priest praying over the Precious Body of our Lord during Mass so that I could touch Him at such a holy moment, when Heaven and Earth meet.
There were so many times when I wanted to trade places with the priest praying over the Precious Body of our Lord during Mass so that I could touch Him at such a holy moment
Thankfully, during my Engaged Encounter retreat a few months ago, God finally answered the questions I was silently pondering and asking Him.
One of the first sessions of the retreat presented a theological explanation of the sacrament of marriage. I knew it was one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. I knew that a sacrament was a visible sign of an invisible grace. What I didn’t know was that a sacrament requires the proper minister, form, and matter. A priest broke that down for us in a way I had never thought about before.
Intention, form, and matter are the absolute minimum requirements for a sacrament to be valid. First, sacraments require a minister who intends to confer the sacrament. Also required are the form and matter, or the “how” and “what.” Form generally includes the words and actions used while performing the sacrament. Matter refers to the materials present or the necessary prerequisites. Sacraments usually take place with other prayers and rituals, but if those rituals do not include form, matter, and intent, they do not make a sacrament.
The priest walked us through the minister, form, and matter of various sacraments. With the Eucharist, the proper minister is a priest, the form entails the words spoken by the priest at the consecration, and the matter is the bread and wine. For a baptism, the proper minister can be anyone, the form is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and the matter is water.
With this knowledge, I saw the definition of marriage in a new light. Our Catholic Faith describes marriage as “the intimate, exclusive, indissoluble communion of life and love entered by man and woman at the design of the Creator for the purpose of their own good and the procreation and education of children” (Christopher West, Catholic Exchange).
In the sacrament of holy matrimony, then, the ministers are the bride and groom. The priest or deacon serves only as an official witness for the Church. I don’t know why it took me until the retreat to figure this out! Had I been asked, I probably would have said the priest was the minister. The proper words and actions of marriage (i.e. the form) are the vows. The matter is the very bodies of the bride and groom.
The day that I learned all of this, I wrote in my journal, “I think now I know why I had such a strong call to the priesthood when I was in the Episcopal Church…I wanted to be a minister. But I think my call to minister is in marriage. In the Eucharist, the matter is bread and wine. In marriage, it’s my body. How cool is that?!”
I think now I know why I had such a strong call to the priesthood when I was in the Episcopal Church…I wanted to be a minister. But I think my call to minister is in marriage.
I finally understood what our Lord was trying to tell me this entire time.
Now, I want to return to Emily’s article, which started me on this puzzling journey. When I first read it, I completely agreed with her statement that “[m]otherhood is the natural feminine complement to the priesthood.” I had never thought of that before and I am eternally grateful to Emily for enlightening me.
One recurring issue during my discernment of the priesthood was that I knew I wanted to be a mother. I know female (non-Catholic) priests who were mothers and I do not intend to say that these women are bad mothers or bad priests. In my own experience, however, I was always struck by how difficult it would be for me to leave my children on Sunday and go serve another community. I felt uneasy at the idea of spending time away from my own little community, borne of my own body (if God willed it), on Sundays or faithful holidays.
I wanted to learn more about what the Church says regarding the purpose of the priesthood. The Catechism tells us that, in the priesthood, “the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community. . . [and] exercise their service for the People of God by teaching. . ., divine worship. . ., and pastoral governance” (CCC 1591-1592).
Reading this gave me a great sense of peace. I wasn’t crazy for feeling like I would split my responsibilities if I were both a mother and a priest. A priest is meant to serve others, and not just those in their own families, but the entire people of God. This means going off in the middle of the day to confer last rites on someone who is dying, even if it means leaving a family member’s birthday party. In that situation, God’s people would be more important than my own people. If I had been a priest and a mother, I would have felt divided and I don’t think I would have been able to give my whole heart to either community.
I’m not saying that my experience is the reason why women shouldn’t priests. After all, Emily described other reasons that don’t resonate with me as much. Maybe you have your own reasons, too. For me, I can’t be a priest because it would require me to follow two vocations at once, and that would make it impossible for me to fully become the minister that God wants me to be.