Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period

by Joan Chittister The following address was given at the Women's Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin, Ireland on June 30, 2001.

Joan Chittister addresses the Women's Ordination Worldwide 1st International Conference in Dublin, Ireland in 2001. Joan Chittister addresses the Women's Ordination Worldwide 1st International Conference in Dublin, Ireland in 2001.

Three stories may explain these reflections on discipleship in an interim age best. The first is about an old woman who had a sweet — but dangerous — habit of making right hand turns from left hand lanes, the last man she hit broadside got out of his car, walked around to the driver's window, leaned in and said slowly, "Lady, just tell me one thing. Why didn't you signal?" And the old lady answered him, "Because, Sonny, I always turn here." The second insight is from the poet Basho, who wrote, "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of those of old. I seek the things they sought." And the third story is from ancient monastic literature. Once upon a time, the story goes, a teacher traveled with great difficulty to a far away monastery because there was an old monastic there who had a reputation for asking very piercing spiritual questions. "Holy one," the teacher said, "give me a question that will renew my soul." "Ah, yes, then," the old monastic said, "your question is 'what do they need?'" The teacher wrestled with the question for days. But then, depressed, gave up and went back to the old monastic in disgust. "Holy one," the teacher said, "I came here because I'm tired and depressed and dry. I didn't come here to talk about my ministry. I came here to talk about my spiritual life. Please give me another question." "Ah, well, of course. Now I see," the old monastic said. "In that case, the right question for you is not 'what do they need? The right question for you is 'What do they really need?" The question haunts me. What do the people really need in a period when the sacraments are being lost in a sacramental church. But all approaches to the question — even the consciousness that there is a question to be asked conscientiously about the nature and meaning of priesthood — is being blocked, obstructed, denied, and suppressed. "What do they really need?" becomes a haunting refrain in me for more reasons than the philosophical. Up at the top of a Mexican mountain, up beyond miles of rutted road and wet, flowing clay, I toured an Indian village that was visited by a priest only once a year. But that was years ago. Now the mountain is just as high and the priest is fifteen years older. Five years ago, I spoke in an American parish of 6000 families. One of those new western phenomena known as "mega-churches" that is served by three priests. There is no priest shortage there, however, the priests want you to know, because the bishop has redefined the optimum ratio of priest to people from one to every 250 families to one priest to every 2000 families. In diocese after diocese, parishes are being merged, closed, turned into sacramental way stations, served by retired priests or married male deacons, both of which are designed to keep the church male, whether it is ministering or not. The number of priests is declining. The number of Catholics is increasing, the number of lay ministers being certified is rising in every academic system despite the fact that their services are being restricted, rejected or made redundant in parish after parish. And in the United States, there's a five year old girl who, when her parents answered her question about the absence of women priests in their parish with the flat explanation that "We don't have girl-priests in our church", thought for a minute and then responded sharply, "Then why do we go there?!" Clearly, the church is changing even while it reasserts its changelessness. It is a far cry from the dynamism of the early church in which Prisca, and Lydia, and Thecla, and Phoebe and hundreds of women like them, opened house churches, walked as disciples of Paul, "constrained him," the scripture says, to serve a given region, instructed people in the faith and ministered to the fledgling Christian communities with no apology, no argument, no tricky theological shell games about whether they were ministering in persona Christi or in nomine Christi. Clearly, both the question and the answer is clear: What do they really need? They need what they needed when the Temple became more important than the Torah. They need what they needed when the faith was more a vision than an institution.They need what they have always needed. They need Christian community, not patriarchal clericalism. They need the sacred, not the sexist. The people need more prophets, not more priests. They need discipleship, not canonical decrees. So what is to be done at a time like this? When what is sought, and what is possible are two different things? To what are we to give our energy when we are told no energy is wanted? The questions may sound new but the answer is an old one, an ancient one, a true one. The answer is discipleship. The temptation is to become weary in the apparently fruitless search for office. The call is to become recommitted to the essential, the ancient, the authentic demands of discipleship. But Christian discipleship is a very dangerous thing. It has put every person who ever accepted it at risk. It made every follower who ever took it seriously on alert for rejection, from Martin of Tours to John Henry Newman, from Mary McKillup to Dorothy Day. Discipleship cast every fragile new Christian community in tension with the times in which it grew. To be a Christian community meant to defy Roman imperialism, to stretch Judaism, to counter pagan values with Christian ones. It demanded very concrete presence; it took great courage, unending fortitude and clear public posture. Real discipleship meant the rejection of emperor worship, the foreswearing of animal sacrifice, the inclusion of Gentiles, the elimination of dietary laws, the disavowal of circumcision, — the acceptance of women — and the supplanting of law with love, of nationalism with universalism. Then, the following of Christ was not an excursion into the intellectual, the philosophical, the airy-fairy. It was not an arm-wrestling match with a tradition that was more history warped by culture than it was the spirit free of the system. It was real and immediate and cosmic. The problem with Christian discipleship is that instead of simply requiring a kind of academic or ascetic exercise — the implication of most kinds of "discipleship" — Christian discipleship requires a kind of living that is sure, eventually, to tumble a person from the banquet tables of prestigious boards and the reviewing stands of presidents, and the processions of ecclesiastical knighthood to the most suspect margins of both church and society. To follow Jesus, in other words, is to follow the one who turns the world upside down, even the religious world. It is a tipsy arrangement at the very least. People with high need for approval, social status, and public respectability need not apply. "Following Jesus" is a circuitous route that leads always and everywhere to places where a "nice" person would not go, to moments of integrity we would so much rather do without. The Christian carries a world-view that cries for fulfillment now. Christian discipleship is not preparation for the hereafter or an ecstatic distance from the present. Christian discipleship is the commitment to live a certain way now. To follow Christ is to set about fashioning a world where the standards into which we have been formed become the standards, we too often find, we must ultimately foreswear. Flag and fatherland, profit and power, chauvinism and sexism, clericalism and authoritarianism done in the name of Christ are not Christian virtues whatever the system that looks to them for legitimacy. Christian discipleship is about living in this world the way that Christ lived in his — touching lepers, raising donkeys from ditches on Sabbath days, questioning the unquestionable and — consorting with women! Discipleship implies a commitment to leave nets and homes, positions and securities, lordship and legalities to be now — in our own world — what Christ was for his: Healer and prophet, voice and heart, call and sign of the God whose design for this world is justice and love. The disciple hears the poor, and ministers to the Hagars of this world who having been used up by the establishment are then abandoned to find their way alone, unaccompanied through a patriarchal world, unnoticed in a patriarchal world, unwanted in a patriarchal world, but mightily, mightily patronized in a patriarchal world. Discipleship is prepared to fly in the face of a world bent only on maintaining its own ends whatever the cost. The price is a high one. Therese of Avila, John of the Cross, and Joan of Arc, were persecuted for opposing the hierarchy itself — and then, later, canonized. Discipleship cost Mary Ward her health, her reputation, and even a Catholic burial. Discipleship cost Martin Luther King his life. To the real disciple, to the true disciple, the problem is clear: The church must not only preach the gospel, but it must not obstruct it. It must be what it says. It must demonstrate what it teaches. It must be judged by its own standards. Religion that colludes with the dispossession of the poor or the enslavement of the other in the name of patriotism becomes just one more instrument of the state. Religion that blesses oppressive governments in the name of obedience to an authority that denies the authority of conscience makes itself an oppressor as well. Religion that goes mute in the face of massive militarization practiced in the name of national defense abandons the commitment to the God of love for the preservation of the civil religion. Religion that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures, that proclaims an ontology of equality but insists on an ecclesiology of superiority is out of sync with its best self and dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of church sanctioned slavery. The pauperization of women in the name of the sanctity and essentialism of motherhood flies in the face of the Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, contended with Pilate in the palace, chastised Peter to put away his sword and, despite the teaching of the day, cured the woman with the issues of blood and refused to allow his own apostles to silence the Samaritan women on whose account, Scripture tells us, "thousands believed that day." Indeed, Jesus shows us, when women lack jurisdiction, and church commissions lack women and even altar girls are barred in a Christian community that says they are permitted, the invisibility of women in the church threatens the very nature of the church. Obviously discipleship is not based on sexism, on civil quietism or on private piety. On the contrary. Discipleship confounds the "right reason" and "good sense" of patriarchy with right relationships and good heart. It pits the holy against the human. It pits the heart of Christ against the heartlessness of an eminently male oriented, male defined male controlled, world. To be a disciple in the model of Judith and Esther, of Deborah and Ruth, of Mary and Mary Magdalene means to find ourselves forgers of a world where the weak confound the strong. The disciple begins like the prophet Ruth to seek a world where the rich and the poor share the garden. The disciple sets out like the judge Deborah to shape a world where the last are made first and the first are last — starting with themselves. The disciple insists, as Jesus did, as the commander Judith did, on a world where women do what heretofore has been acceptable only for men simply because men said so! To the disciple who follows in the shadow of Esther, as much the savior of her people as Moses was of his, the reign of God, the welcome of the outcast, the reverence of the other, the respect for creation, becomes a foreign land made home. "Come follow me" becomes an anthem of public proclamation from which no one — no one — is excluded and for which no risk is too great. Discipleship, we know from the life of the Christ whom we follow, is not membership in a clerical social club called a church. That is not an ordination that the truly ordained can abide. Discipleship is not an intellectual exercise of assent to a body of doctrine. Discipleship is an attitude of mind, a quality of soul, a way of living that is not political but which has serious political implications, that may not be officially ecclesiastical but which in the end will change the church that is more ecclesiastical than communal. Discipleship changes things because it simply cannot ignore things as they are, it refuses anything and everything that defies the will of God for humanity... No matter how sensible, no matter how rational, no matter how common, no matter how obvious, no matter how historically patriarchal, no matter how often it has been called "the will of God" by those who purport to determine what that is. The disciple takes public issue with the values of a world that advantages only those who are already advantaged. The disciple takes aim at institutions that call themselves "freeing" but which keep half the people of the world in bondage. The disciple takes umbrage at systems that are more bent on keeping "those kind of people" — improper people, that is — out of them than they are in welcoming all people into them. True discipleship takes the side always, always, always of the poor despite the power of the rich. Not because the poor are more virtuous than the rich but because the God of love wills for them what the rich ignore for them. Discipleship cuts a reckless path through corporation types like Herod, through institution types like the Pharisees, through system types like the money-changers and through chauvinist types like apostles who want to send women away. Discipleship stands bare naked in the middle of the world's marketplace and, in the name of Jesus, cries aloud all the cries of the world until someone, somewhere hears and responds to the poorest of the poor, the lowest of the low, the most outcast of the rejected. Anything else — all the pomp, all the gold lace and red silk, all the rituals in the world — the gospels attest, is certainly mediocre and surely bogus discipleship. It is one thing, then, for an individual to summon the courage it takes to stand alone in the eye of a storm called "the real world." It is another thing entirely to see the church itself be anything less than the living Christ. Why? Because the church of Jesus Christ is not called to priesthood; the church of Christ is called to discipleship. To see a church of Christ deny the poor and the outcast their due, institute the very systems in itself that it despises in society, is to see no church at all. It is at best religion reduced to one more social institution designed to comfort the comfortable but not to challenge the chains that bind most of humanity — all of its women — to the cross. In this kind of church, the gospel has been long reduced to the catechism. In this kind of church, prophecy dies and justice whimpers and the truth becomes too dim for searching to see. Today, as never before in history, perhaps, the world and therefore the church within it, is being stretched to the breaking point by life situations that, if for no other reason than their immensity are shaking the globe to its foundations. New life questions emerge with startling impact and relentless persistence. And the greatest of them all is the woman's question. Women are most of the poor, most of the refugees, most of the uneducated, most of the beaten, most of the rejected of the world. Even in the church where educated, dedicated, committed women are ignored even in the pronouns of the Mass! Where is the presence of Jesus to the homeless woman, to the beggar woman, to the abandoned woman, to the woman alone, to the woman whose questions, cries and life experience have no place in the systems of the world and no place in the church either? Except of course to be defined as a second kind of human nature, not quite as competent, not quite as valued, not quite as human, not quite as graced by God as men? What does the theology of discipleship demand here? What does the theology of a priestly people imply here? Are women simply half a disciple of Christ? To be half commissioned, half noticed, and half valued? In the light of these situations, there are, consequently, questions in the Christian community today that cannot be massaged by footnotes nor obscured by theological jargon nor made palatable by the retreat to "faith." On the contrary, before these issues, the footnotes falter, church language serves only to heighten the question, faith itself demands the question. The discipleship of women is the question that is not going to go away. Indeed, the discipleship of the church in regard to women is the question that will, in the long run, prove the church itself. In the woman's question the church is facing one of its most serious challenges to discipleship since the emergence of the slavery question when we argued, then too, that slavery was the will of God for some people. The major question facing Christians today, perhaps, is what does discipleship mean in a church that doesn't want women anywhere except in the pews. If discipleship is reduced to maleness, what does that do to the rest of the Christian dispensation. If only men can really live discipleship to the fullest, what is the use of a woman aspiring to discipleship at all? What does it mean for the women themselves who are faced with rejection, devaluation and a debatable theology based on the remnants of a bad biology theologized. What do we do when a church proclaims the equality of women but builds itself on structures that assure their inequality. What as well does the rejection of women at the highest levels of the church mean for men who claim to be enlightened but continue to support the very system that mocks half the human race? What does it mean for the church that claims to be a follower of the Jesus who healed on the sabbath, who pulled asses out of ditches on the Sabbath and raised women from the dead and contended with the teachers of the faith — mandatum or no mandatum, definitive documents or no definitive documents. And finally what does it mean for a society badly in need of a cosmic worldview on the morning of a global age? The answers are discouragingly clear on all counts. Christian discipleship is not simply in danger of being stunted. Discipleship has, in fact, become the enemy. Who we do not want to admit to full, official, legitimated discipleship, something the church itself teaches is required of us all, has become at least as problematic for the integrity of the church as the exclusion of women from the offices of the church that shape its theology and minister to its people. Women are beginning to wonder if discipleship has anything to do with them at all. And therein lies the contemporary question of discipleship. Some consider faithfulness to the gospel to mean doing what we have always done. Others find faithfulness only in being what we have always been. The distinction is crucial. The distinction is also essential to the understanding of discipleship in the modern church. When "the tradition" becomes synonymous with "the system" and maintaining the system becomes more important than maintaining the spirit of the tradition, discipleship shrivels and becomes at best "obedience" or "fidelity" to the past but not deep-down commitment to the presence of the living Christ confronting the leprosies of the age. Discipleship presumes from each of us — from the church itself — that same kind of reckless, open, receiving, giving love that Jesus brought to the blind on the roads of Galilee, to the body of a dead girl, to the plea of the woman with the issue of blood. Society called the blind sinful, a female child useless, a menstruating woman unclean, all of them marginal to the system, condemned to the fringes of life, excluded from the center of the synagogue, barred from the heart of the Temple. But Jesus takes each of them to himself, despite the laws, regardless of the culture, notwithstanding the disapproval of the spiritual notables of the area and fills them with himself and sends them as himself out to the highways and byways of the entire world. To be disciples of Jesus means that we must do the same. There are some things, it seems, that brook no rationalizing for the sake of institutional niceties. Discipleship infers, implies, requires no less than the confirming, ordaining, love of Jesus for everyone, everywhere regardless of who would dare to take upon themselves the audacious right to draw limits around the love of God. Discipleship and faith are of a piece. To say that we believe that God loves the poor, judges in their behalf, wills their deliverance but do nothing ourselves to free the poor, to hear their pleas, to lift their burdens, to act in their behalf is an empty faith indeed. To say that God is love and not ourselves love as God loves may well be church but it is not Christianity. To proclaim a theology of equality — to say that all persons are equal in God's sight and at the same time to maintain a theology of inequality, a spirituality of domination in the name of God that says that women have no place in the dominion of the church and the development of doctrine is to live a lie. But if discipleship is the following of Jesus, beyond all bounds, at all costs, for the bringing of the reign of God, for the establishment of right relationships, then to ground a woman's calling to follow Christ to her inability to look like Jesus obstructs the very thing the church is founded to do. It obstructs a woman's ability to follow Christ to the full to give her life for the others, to bless and preach and sacrifice and build community "in his name" — as the documents on priesthood say that a priestly people must. And it does it for the sake of religion and in defiance of the gospel itself. How can a church such as this call convincingly to the world in the name of justice to practice a justice it does not practice itself. How is it that the church can call other institutions to deal with women as full human beings made in the image of God when their humanity is precisely what the church itself holds against them. In the name of God. It is a philosophical question of immense proportions. It is the question which, like slavery, brings the church to the test. for the church to be present to the woman's question, to minister to it, to be disciple to it, the church must itself become converted to the issue, in fact, the church must become converted by the issue. Men who do not take the woman's issue seriously may be priests but they cannot possibly be disciples. They cannot possibly be "other Christs": Not the Christ born of a woman. Not the Christ who commissioned women to preach him. Not the Christ who took faculties from a woman at Cana. Not the Christ who sent women to preach resurrection to apostles who would not believe it. Not the Christ who sent the Holy Spirit on Mary the woman as well as on Peter the man. Not the Christ who announced his messiahship as clearly to the Samaritan woman as to the rock that shattered. If this is the Jesus whom we as Christians, as church, are to follow, then the discipleship of the church is now mightily in question. Indeed, the poet Basho writes,: "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of those of old. I seek the things they sought." Discipleship depends on our bringing the will of god for humankind to the questions of this age as Jesus did to his. As long as tradition is used to mean following in the footsteps of our past rather than seeking to maintain the spirit of the Christ in the present, then it is unlikely that we will preserve more than the shell of the church. The consciousness of the universalism of humanity across differences has become the thread that binds the world together in a global age. What was once a hierarchy of humankind is coming to be seen for what it is: the oppression of humankind. To most of the world, the colonization of women is as unacceptable now as the colonial oppression of Africa, the crusades against Turks, the enslavement of Blacks and the decimation of Indians in the name of God. In Asia, Buddhist women are demanding ordination and the right to make the sacred Mandalas. In India, women are beginning to do the sacred dances and light the sacred fires. In Judaism, women study Torah and carry the scrolls and read the scriptures and lead the congregations. Only in the most backward, most legalistic, most primitive of cultures are women made invisible, made useless, made less than fully human, less than fully spiritual. The humanization of the human race is upon us. The only question for the church is whether the humanization of the human race will lead as well to the Christianization of the Christian church. Otherwise, discipleship will die and the integrity of the church with it. We must take discipleship seriously or we shall leave the church of the future with functionaries but without disciples. The fact is that Christianity lives in Christians, not in books, not in documents called 'definitive' to hide the fact that they are at best time-bound. Not in platitudes about "special vocations," not in old errors dignified as "tradition." The new fact of life is that discipleship to women and the discipleship of women is key to the discipleship of the rest of the church. The questions are clear. The answer is obscure and uncertain but crucial to the future of a church that claims to be eternal. A group such as this, you, at a time such as this — a priestly people in a priestless period — must keep the total vision clearly in mind. But we must also keep the tasks of the present clearly in hand: And the task of the present is not preparation for ordination in a church that either doubts — or fears — the power of the truth to persuade and so denies the right to discuss the festering question of whether or not women can participate in the sacrament of orders. That would be premature, at best, if not downright damaging. No, the task of the present in a time such as this is to use every organization to which we belong to develop the theology of the church to a point of critical mass. We need a group free of mandatums that will organize seminars, hold public debates in the style of the great medieval disputations on the full humanity of Indians, hold teach-ins, sponsor publications, write books and gather discussion groups around the topics of the infallibility of infallibility and the sensus fidelium. The task of the present is surely for groups like this to question the clear exclusion of women from the restoration of the permanent diaconate — an official manner of discipleship that has theology, history, ritual, liturgy and tradition, firmly, fully and clearly on its side. It's time to bring into the light of day the discussions that lurk behind every church door, in every seeking heart. If, as Vatican II says, priesthood requires preaching, sacrifice and community building, then the preaching, shaping, and vision of a new notion of priest and deacon — whatever the cost to ourselves — may be the greatest priestly service of them all right now. So we must keep turning, turning, turning in the direction of discipleship — as women always have… But differently now. For as Basho says, We do not seek to follow in the footsteps of those of old. We seek the things they sought. We don't seek to do what they really need. We need much more than that. We need now to do what they really, really need.

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is a sister of Mount St. Benedict's Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. She serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. She is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and Beliefnet and a best-selling author of more than 30 books.