I Couldn’t Stay

“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.

4 thoughts on “I Couldn’t Stay

  1. Jessica,

    As a older middle aged man I cannot adequately put myself into your position. However I have several woman friends who have the same desire to act in this capacity and we have had long conversations about this. I’m more of a listener than contributor to the conversation. I can give you something to consider that may provide some focus. I have been approached many times to become a Deacon. In my heart I know I could be a good deacon. But, in my dealings with younger adults I have found there is a certain reluctance for them to be as open with an ordained person. Perhaps this might even resonant with you. I am also halfway through my masters of theology which the prospective Deacons also attend. They end up becoming a Deacon but instead I’m going to end up with the ability to do pastoral ministry focusing on young adults which I have accepted with grace.

    I am working with my parish priest on something unique during the Gospel reading/Homily that I hope may stick. Earlier this year as an experiment we had the younger adult group (which I am the adviser) along with a number of kids from our confirmation group (I co-lead) do a shadow version of the Passion while the Gospel was proclaimed. It was so well received that we decided to continue the concept this fall. Next month for instance we are doing what some people call the Little Apocalypse. I bring this example up as it puts ordinary people (as priestly people) front and center into the Liturgy and especially the Liturgy of the Word. When I was not much younger, doing something like this would have been preposterous. So would woman being Lectors and Altar Servers for instance. We have come very far in very little Church time. I believe that in the not to distant future there will be even further participation of laity in liturgy. I have no doubt this will include probably woman deaconess first (think Phoebe) and woman priest especially if the passion to do so continues to express itself in people like you. By all means cry the gift of tears as we all should for the right reasons. But, stay and be strong and positive in making your desire known, I think you will be surprised to witness more than a brush off at all levels of your local hierarchy.


  2. What does the Bible tell us we must do as followers of His? “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

    Don’t let yourself get distracted by your own “perceived” limitations.

  3. I understand how emotional this must have been. The first time I saw Mass said by a woman, I cried through the entire service. I never realized how much it hurt not having that female presence — or at least, the possibility of a female presence — as part of my spiritual heritage. I think that I need to make myself numb to the pain of that void most of the time — to remain Catholic at all.

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