The universal call to holiness and women’s leadership in the Catholic Church

Blog Published: April 1, 2010
By Sister Julie

Our very own Sister Maxine Kollasch, IHM, was interviewed on NPR program “Tell Me More” with host Michel Martin. A couple weeks ago, the program’s producer found Sister Maxine via A Nun’s Life Ministry and asked to interview her along with author Leora Tanenbaum, an observant Jew, and the Reverend Renita Weems, a minister ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The conversation was on women’s leadership in religion, though, as we soon discovered, it was steered specifically towards the “glass ceiling” and the ways in which women do not have access to the same roles or experiences that men do. Listen to the 15 minute segment by clicking the play button below (if the player doesn’t appear, here’s the direct link to NPR website).

This was an interesting topic, to be sure, and a timely one as March was Women’s History Month. It was fascinating to see the topic addressed across three different religious traditions. Sister Maxine did a great job, especially since she found out only moments before the show that she’d be asked about women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. Not an easy topic to address! But Sister Maxine did a great job and spoke well.

I think there’s an assumption among some that if ordination were open to women that Catholic sisters and nuns would of course take that “next” step. But that’s not the case at all. Ordination is not a “next” step or a “higher” calling, as if somehow an advanced progression along the path of holiness. However God calls a person is the way of holiness for them, no better or worse than any other calling. We have to unseat this assumption in our Catholic imagination because it does an injustice to God and to each one of us.

There’s also another assumption that the only way to fully lead within the Catholic Church is to be a priest. This is a tough assumption to address because on the one hand we know there are many ways to lead within the church. There are many leadership roles for women and men, lay and ordained. On the other hand, the structure of church leadership is built on ordination, specifically the ordination of men to the priesthood. For many women and men, this is a conundrum. And that’s an understatement.

Think about we as a church have thought about calling, especially with the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation of the universal call to holiness. What does your own call to holiness mean in terms of how you relate to everybody in the church? What questions does that raise for you? What surprises or insights?

Archived Comments

Susan Rose, CSJP April 1, 2010 at 8:24 am

Haven’t listened yet but will try to do so later. I was struck by these two comments in your post: “I think there’s an assumption among some that if ordination were open to women that Catholic sisters and nuns would of course take that “next” step.” … and … “There’s also another assumption that the only way to fully lead within the Catholic Church is to be a priest.”

When I was discerning my vocation, I first had to figure out if my call was to ministry (such as ordained ministry) or to something else. At the time I had two female protestant friends who were discerning their own vocations – one is now in seminary. At the time I realized how interesting it is that in my Catholic tradition, ordained ministry was not an option but religious life was, while in my friend’s tradition religious life was not an option but ordained ministry was. These are two very different calls and certainly not interchangeable.

In the end I realized that I am called to religious life: to live a life of prayer and ministry in the context of community. Were ordained ministry to suddenly open up as an option, I would not be first in line, for many reasons, but mainly because that is not my calling. You are correct though I think in the assumptions of many, both within and without the church, as to that assumption.

Your second comment about leadership is also interesting. In my experience, there are many forms of leadership, and it is not always from the “top-down.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that ordained ministers in all denominations have a leadership role to play. But in many organizations, not just the church, I think it’s too easy to leave leadership at that. And it also puts the rest of us off the hook. They’re in charge, I’m not.

But in reality, as Baptized Christians we all have a call to holiness and active participation. In the Catholic tradition, I think that vowed religious life is another amazing gift to the Church in terms of modeling other forms of leadership. No, we’re not going to become Pope. No, we’re not going to be “in charge.” But how do we live our call as the baptized to be priest, prophet and king?

Interesting thoughts. Thanks Julie for your wonderful A Nun’s Life Ministry!

Cody April 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

I’ve not listened to the interview yet (I will have 15 minutes later in the day). As S. Susan Rose, I was struck with your comment about the assumption that many women religious would flock to the ordination lines. While I agree 100% with the statement that not ALL religious are called to the priesthood, I would say that there are definitely some who have felt a sense of calling for some time, but given the ecclesiastical structures only allowed for them to become religious. Please don’t take this as me belittling the religious life–I’m not! I love religious–especially women religious. I’m merely saying that I think some Sisters and nuns across the Church would have loved to be priests–but only had the option of being Sisters and nuns…much like what S. Susan Rose said about her Protestant friends not having a religious option and she not having an ordination option (ALTHOUGH! There are Protestant monastic communities…I’m looking into a few right now!)

Sister Julie April 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Hi Cody, Good to hear from you. You are right and I would also add that probably people in other vocational lifestyles might also have felt nudged toward ordained life but it was not an option due to age, marital status, dependents, gender, family responsibilities, etc.

There do seem to be a number of Protestant monastic communities as well as ecumenical communities such as the Benedictine Women of Madison. There are definitely options out there, though not always easy to find.

A blessed Holy Thursday to each of you.

John SFO April 1, 2010 at 4:17 pm

20 years ago I thought I was called to the priesthood but God had bigger plans for me. I have been blessed with an outstanding career in the Fashion world. I have impacted so many people and I have always preached the Gospel with out using words. 3 years ago God brought me to a beautiful group of people in the Fransican family, last year I made my profession as a SFO. Sister you did an outstanding job of talking about VOCATIONS and the differance of each. We all need each other in this catholic family and we need to listen to each other and pray that the Holy Spirit will lead each of us to Gods perfect plan for our lives. ” I know the plans I have for you and they are good says the Lord” Beautiful job Sister…. The church should all be proud of the words and hope you spoke and offered!!!

Sr. Hildegard Pleva April 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Indeed, indeed. I have a number of Anglican women friends who are either ordained priests or both priest and member of a monastic community of sisters. Although I understand that there are pluses and minuses to this, I do think much would be different in my own Roman Catholic contemplative community of nuns if one or two of our numbers had been ordained. I also know that one sister here who entered in the 1950s would seriously consider ordination if it were made available to her. By the way, it is a sad commentary that most of these Anglican women and some of the men are former Roman Catholics. I think Sr. Maxine was correct in saying that not all sisters or nuns would want ordination. It is a distinct calling. Religious brothers did not want to be priests. The option was open to them but they felt a specific calling to the brotherhood and not to priesthood. They do not feel second class. There is another issue; that of governance within the Roman Church. Sr. Sandra Schneider’s wrote about this in one of her recent NCR essays in response to the Apostolic Visititation. The male hierarchical structure cannot comprehend the collaborative type of governance currently operating in most women’s congrgations. Right now, any really significant leadership in the Church resides only in the ordained. Could it be that it is not so much a question of what gender can be ordained by rather how can we provide the path and means by which gifted, willing and wise women can be integrated into a collaborative decision-making and leadership model operative in our Church.

Lutheran Susan April 2, 2010 at 7:54 pm

In my own Lutheran tradition, the ordination of women is only about 35 years old. There have always been other options, among them deaconesses who live out their calling in the world but also belong to a distributed community of other deaconesses. In more recent times, Lay Associates in Ministry and Diaconal Ministers have enabled people called to “Word and Service” to find a place as lay leaders within the Lutheran Church. As I discerned my own call, what it came down to was that I believe God has called me to “Word and Sacrament,” the public proclamation of the Gospel through the speaking of the Word and the actions of the Sacrament. I feel grateful that there is place for this call within my tradition and it troubles me that other faiths (not just the Roman Catholic Church) do not recognize that God calls many different kinds of people into God’s service and that what is most important about these people is not what we might see on the outside, but what God sees on the inside. We all have a baptismal call from God and these other callings are not better (or worse) by definition–they are just more specific and God has given the right gifts to the people God has chosen for that particular call. Where God chooses, who are we to say no?

Karen April 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I think it’s very sad that women’s ordination is not allowed within the R.C. Church. I agree that it is not a higher calling than any other, but it is a calling that I think many women truly have which they cannot pursue. We see in the Gospels that Jesus had women followers, how he healed and preached to women and how he appeared first to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection. What I find interesting is the story of Martha and Mary, where Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to him along with all the men. When she is rebuked by Martha, Jesus comes to her defense, saying “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her”. Is the Church “taking” a sincere vocational option away from women who have a true calling? I really pray things change someday for Roman Catholic women who do have a call to Ordination but feel they either need to convert to Protestantism or enter Religious Life when neither of those paths are truly what they are meant to do.

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