“After I had put on the robes and a stole,” she said, “I just sat there and cried. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy…” I had been casually listening-in on a conversation between two fellow Divinity School students for some time before I heard the young woman describe this moment. From what I gathered, she is preparing for ordination in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition, and currently working as an intern at a local UU church where she had, for the first time, tried on the pastor’s robes she would wear while preaching during some upcoming Sunday service.
For the first time in my life I am surrounded by women who talk openly, almost unthinkingly, about their calls to ordained ministry. It is one of the first things one inquires about when meeting an MDiv (Master of Divinity) student at Harvard. “What tradition are you with?” one asks, “Are you preparing for ordination?” If a female student answers the first question with, “Catholic,” then the question of ordination does not follow, of course. Instead there is a pause and the changing of conversation topics. There is presumably no need to ask this Catholic female student about her discernment regarding ordination. Even if she did experience such a call, everyone here knows that it would not be honored by the tradition.
Today a professor told me that he stopped practicing in the Catholic church when he realized the he would never think of going to a church that would not ordain a person based on race, so he couldn’t participate in a church that would not ordain a woman because of her gender. When I responded with my thoughts, I knew he understood my personal justification for sticking with the Church. Yet my encounter with his simple reasoning amid this environment where almost no one thinks twice about the divinely-granted ordination of women left me wondering for the first time in a long time: What if I don’t stay? Where would I go if I didn’t stay? Who would I be, if I wasn’t a Catholic anymore?
My ease-dropping grew more attentive after hearing this MDiv student recount the power of wearing the robes of an ordained preacher. She and her conversation partner must have noticed how distracted I was from the theology book in my lap, as one of them turned to ask, “Are we bothering you with our conversation?” I smiled and assured them that was not the case–that I was simply packing up for the day and heading home.
I didn’t want them to see the tears that were swelling up in my eyes, and I didn’t know how to say what I was really thinking at that moment: “You are so lucky,” I wanted to tell this young woman, “This is so special. You are so lucky.”
So shaken up, I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t stay. I just left.
Jessica Coblentz is currently working on her Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard Divinity School where her studies focus on intersections among gender, sexuality, and Catholic theology. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.