Sisters and Fathers

A friend’s five-year-old daughter was recently giving her mom a bad time about going to church. The issue? The lack of women priests. Here is a cleaned up IM exchange between Pam (the Mom) and Elfie (the daughter). Pam’s husband is Jerry. Note: The names and identifying marks have been altered for the sake of privacy. 

PAM: So Elfie asked me today, "Why are there no women priests? I have never met one, yet. Why is Sister Louise, Sister Louise...but Father David is FATHER David?" Crap. She’s 5 years old and is already asking church questions I don't know how to answer!

I told her that somewhere along the way it became a tradition for men to become fathers, brothers and priests, while women became mothers, sisters, and nuns. She said, "Well, I get that part. I mean, they are men and we are women. But why do the men stand up front while Sister Louise hangs out in the back of the church, unless there is a special reason for her to go up front?" I said, "I think it is the way the tradition has gone for a very long time, and maybe people just accept it as normal out of habit. Maybe some day it will be different."  I could see her thinking, yeah, if I have anything to say about it, it'll be different.

I am wondering if I will have a conscientious objector on Sunday. I suddenly feel a bit weary. I just got off the phone with Jerry and we agreed that we want her to be to go to church, even if she feels strongly about this. She can always decide later that this church doesn't meet her needs. Or, maybe she can be a positive force for change some day....who knows? I would be very interested to know as much as I can, tho, about what the church's line of reasoning is. Of course, I have struggled with this, but came to some adult decisions about how I will handle my beliefs. A little more complicated when you have a smart kid with strong feelings, a sense of justice and equality (good girl), and the somewhat black-and-white reasoning of a child. I do feel a bit better after praying on it a bit. Thanks for anything you can share with me...

CC: There are reasons. Not great reasons, nor reasons I agree with, but I'll try to share them.

First of all, commend Elfie for having a sense of justice! It is God-given, and part of the normal equipment that all people have as part of being human. Some people don't understand what it means to be fair. She does. Congratulations!

PAM: Yay on her, right? I am so proud of her! I didn't tell my mother what she said, because my mother refers to women desiring priesthood as “wymynpreests.” My mother -- who fought and struggled her whole life to be taken seriously in the workplace and was a product of womens' lib and Gloria Steinem. Wow.

CC: “Wow,” indeed! I may slip into a dad-talking-to-daughter voice as I explain. But don’t think I’m talking like this to you – I am just using words that I would use with Elfie.

Try to get Elfie to understand that the church is very large and very old. When new ideas come up (like women being priests) it can take a long time for the whole church to accept them, especially when it means changing something that people have been used to for hundreds or thousands of years. People have to talk to each about it, think and pray about it, listen to their consciences, and then work hard to persuade others. This is frustrating, but very important. Right now, the idea of women being priests is very new. It was not even something anyone thought of just 50 years ago.

But remember that women were not even allowed to vote in our country just 100 years ago! It took over 50 years of fighting and arguing to persuade men that women should be able to vote. And only 50 years ago, it was weird to have women doctors and lawyers. It is still weird to some people. Just 50 years ago, it was OK to make dark-skinned people use a separate water fountain to drink from, and they could not sit in the front of a bus, or watch a movie in the same part of the theater as light-skinned people. But people like Elfie thought this was wrong, said something about it, and got things to change.

The Church is a little the same and a little different. We also need to argue and fight for a long time to make changes. Often, the old way of doing things has been around for so long, that priests and bishops have come up with all kinds of reasons why the old way makes sense. And once a bishop gets an idea in his head, it’s awfully hard to get him to change.

We also have to convince people from all over he world - not just in our own country. People from other parts of the world think America’s ideas are pretty wild. People from other countries can also be more comfortable with traditions – doing things the same way for many years – and are suspicious when people want to change quickly. Even though many Americans are used to changing, it will take Catholics in other parts of the world some extra time to catch up. The Church does not change right away just because some Americans think it should.

You asked why young men can be called FATHER while women, even old women like Sister Louise, are called SISTER, and not MOTHER.

The Church has some reasons for priests being men. And many people agree with them!

The number one reason that only men can be priests is that Jesus was a man. When he came down from heaven, God decided to became a boy, and not a girl. Some people think this tells us something important about the way God thinks about men and women. That men can be leaders in church, but that women cannot.

Second, Jesus picked only men to be his Apostles, his group of twelve special followers. Later on, the Church taught that these men were really the first bishops, picked by Jesus himself to lead his Church. As they grew old, these bishops passed down their holy power to younger men. That's the way it has been for 2000 years: men passing down the Apostles’ power to other men. The bishops of today can trace their own powers to the Apostles who knew Jesus.

Third, the priest at Mass is understood as being "alter Christus." This is a special term, in a special church language called Latin. It means that when a priest says Mass, it is like Jesus himself saying the Mass. People would have a hard time seeing a woman priest and thinking she is taking Christ's place!

But more and more people don't think these are good reasons. And very smart and very prayerful people who love the Church have very good arguments against each of these ideas.

Why did God choose to born as a boy instead of a girl? That might make sense if God loved boys and men better than he likes girls and women. But God loves everyone the same. May God was born as a boy because God knew that women in Jesus’s time  -- especially poor women -- were not able to have a job outside their home. If Jesus had a been a girl, it would have been very hard to work at home – cooking and sewing and cleaning – and then to walk around the country preaching and teaching and healing. The people of Jesus’s time would not have allowed this, and would not have listened to anything that she said. But God wanted very much for people to hear Jesus’s message, so God came to us as a boy, who grew up to be a man.

But how about the Twelve Apostles, who were all men? First, the 12 apostles are part of a larger group of Jesus’s followers known as disciples. And there were at least 72 disciples! Disciple means "student," so anyone (a man, a woman or a child) who tried to understand Jesus was automatically a disciple.

There were women disciples as well as men disciples. Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) was one. She loved to hear Jesus teach so much that she forgot to do her housework! And Jesus thought this was fine. Mary Magdalene was another disciple. After Jesus healed her, she followed him as he taught. She is even called the "Disciple to the Disciples"  -- a very important title! She was the first person to Jesus on Easter Sunday. After she saw him and talked to him, she ran to tell the other disciples that Jesus was alive. She must have been very special if Jesus appeared to her even before he appeared to his men followers!

There is also a complicated reason that some people think that having men Apostles does not mean we must only have men priests. It has to do with the difference between being a “disciple (any one of dozens of Jesus’s followers) and an Apostle, often called "The Twelve" in stories about Jesus. It seems to be true that Jesus chose only men to be part of The Twelve. But that might be because Jesus was trying to make a point without using words. He wanted people to think of him as a creating a brand new family of God. Now in stories that people in Jesus’s time knew, there was a man named Jacob (and nicknamed "Israel") who was the father of his country. Jacob had twelve sons who were the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus wanted to make people think of him as a new Jacob, a new father of his country. And to do this, Jesus gathered 12 men to remind people of the twelve sons of Jacob. It was a little like Jesus was putting on a play. His point of the play was not that only men should run his Church, but that Jesus was the father of a new family of God.

And finally, there are many people who do not believe that only men can be "alter Christus" – a person who reminds people of Jesus when they say Mass. These people say that a priest who is mean or lazy or stupid doesn't make them think of Jesus, even if the priest is a man! They say that it is not the “man” part of priests that makes them think of Jesus, but how good they are and how much they help people. And that women can be as good and as helpful as men. And if that’s true, then having women priests should not be such a big problem.

Now, Pam, your job is to figure out which parts of this Elfie can understand!

Last thing: many things in the Church have stayed the same over time, but the Church has changed as well. When good people (like Saint Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa) challenge the Church, they often make people think differently. And when people think differently, and keep working at it, the Church will eventually hear them.

PAM: BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you. This gives me so much to think about and talk about with Elfie and all the kids! Thank you so very much for your time, your care, and your love.