Blocked from serving their church, Catholic women push for female deacons

There is growing momentum to restore women to the diaconate, which would allow women to serve as Catholic chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other settings.

Casey Stanton, left, and the Rev. Mario Gomez raise up the prayers people have written down at the culmination of a parish retreat at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, North Carolina, in March 2020.

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Casey Stanton wanted to offer encouragement, love and healing to the inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where she served as a chaplain intern a few years ago.

But as a Catholic woman she could not represent her church there in any official capacity.

The state of North Carolina requires chaplains in its state prison system to be ordained. And the Catholic Church does not ordain women — neither as priests, nor as deacons.

Stanton, who is 35 and holds a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, is not seeking to become a priest, which canon law forbids. She would, however, jump at the chance to be ordained a deacon — a position that would allow her and other women to serve as Catholic chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other settings.

“I’d like to be able to represent the church in these places where I feel like we’re called to go,” Stanton said.

She tried the Veterans Affairs hospital next. But there too, she found a similar obstacle to full-time chaplaincy.

“I thought I could find some workaround,” she said.  Instead, she added, Catholic chaplaincy “felt like a dead-end.”

In April, Stanton co-founded Discerning Deacons, an organization that urges conversation in the Catholic Church around ordaining women deacons. Stanton hopes it might add to ongoing efforts on multiple continents to restore women to the ordained diaconate, which the church in its early centuries allowed.

On Monday (Sept. 13), a new commission set up by Pope Francis to study women in the diaconate began meeting for one week in Rome. It is the fourth group since the 1970s to discuss ordaining women deacons, and many are hoping they will release their recommendations publicly so the church can lay the groundwork for restoring the order.

Francis has repeatedly called for a greater female presence in church leadership, and while he has continued church teachings against women priests, he changed church law to allow women to be installed as lectors and acolytes.

Up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries. Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” He also names Priscilla and Aquila among other women given titles of “fellow workers.”

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reinstated the role of deacon for men. (It had previously reserved the diaconate as a transitional ministry for men studying to be priests) but not for women.

Partly due to the shortage of priests, there is growing momentum to restore women to the diaconate. At the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, a large number of bishops requested the permanent diaconate for women. Many are now hoping the next synod, which will culminate in Rome in 2023, will take up the issue again.

“If the church expresses its need, the Holy Father would have an easier time restoring women deacons,” said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and the foremost expert on women deacons in the Catholic Church.

The work of the deacon as defined by canon law is to minister to the people of God in word, liturgy and charity. Though not a paid position in most instances, it does require a person to undergo a course of study and a laying on of hands through ordination.

“Typically, the deacon manages the charity on behalf of the bishop or pastor in any given parish. That would include managing the food bank, taking care of the poor, visiting the sick,” said Zagano.

Deacons may also proclaim the Gospel, preach, witness marriages, baptize and conduct funeral services. They cannot lead a Mass, consecrate the Eucharist or hear confessions.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates there are about 19,000 male deacons in the United States today, a 1% drop from last year. Formation programs for deacons reported a 2% drop in enrollments. Perhaps most troubling, the share of deacon candidates in their 30s and 40s has declined to 22% in 2020, down from 44% in 2002, a June report found.

In some parts of the country, Catholic laywomen are already serving as administrators in lieu of priests, ​often as parish life coordinators, but without ordination.

“Right now, when you are a woman serving in any capacity, there’s often a cloud of suspicion hanging over your work, the sense that your work would be better done by a man or a priest,” said Anna Nussbaum Keating, a Catholic writer living in Colorado who supports restoring the diaconate for women. “There’s a sense she is inferior or maybe she’s there because she wants to change the church, versus understanding that there have always been women in ministry in the church and that their contributions are holy and valid and good.”

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 650,000 Americans, has only accentuated the need for more Catholic hospital chaplains as people died alone and without the comfort of a priest or a deacon during their final days.

On Sept. 3, the feast day of St. Phoebe, the group Discerning Deacons held a Zoom prayer service celebrating the legacy of the 1st-century saint with some 500 women from across the world. It included videotaped stories of women who were passionately called to serve the church and hurt by their inability to do so formally.

Documentary filmmakers Pilar Timpane and Andrea Patiño Contreras have filmed “Called to Serve” about some of the U.S. women now pushing the church for ordination as deacons. A longer documentary, with producer Christine Delp, is now in the works.

“We’re looking at the needs of the church today,” said Stanton, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. “Might including women in this order help further the church’s mission in the world?”

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Synod hears calls for ‘radical revision’ of Canon Law

by Sarah Mac Donald

The Church needs a thorough revision of canon law and a commission to oversee this revision should include lay people, one of the country’s top barristers, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws has said.

Speaking as part of a panel on the theme, Insisting on Sharing Authority at this week’s Root and Branch lay-led synod, the Scottish lawyer, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords said a radical revision of canon law should be a “key call” from the synod.

She said a commission to oversee reform should “systematically go through the structures of the canon law and make them appropriate to the 21st century” and it should sit in public as it heard evidence.

Describing herself as “a firm believer in reform”, she said: “I really feel that we have to persuade the current leadership [in the Church] that they must cede power in order to survive.”

Elsewhere in the discussion, Baroness Kennedy called for an end to mandatory clerical celibacy. “I feel very strongly that you have to have abandon the business of celibacy.” She told the online discussion that clerical celibacy had been “one of the root problems in so many of the issues that we are talking about” and needed to be dealt with “first and foremost”.

“People are sexual beings. Some might choose to be celibate, and so be it. But there should be a possibility to follow a vocation even if you are a married person, male or female.”

She also called on the Church to deal with its “hostility to homosexuality”.

She said: “We have to stop being so preoccupied and fetishistic about sex within the Church and start concerning ourselves with the suffering of the world.

“Our knowledge of humanity has developed, and science has helped us to understand sexuality so much better.”

Recalling the passing of the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland in 2015, Baroness Kennedy said that despite the Church having had such a dominant role in terms of power and authority, the people of Ireland by a majority voted for gay marriage. “It was because Catholic grandmothers and Catholic mothers and fathers said why should our child not have the same right to be with the person they love as our other child.”

She believed that there are “so many good things about the teachings of the church” which had given her a value system.

“The hierarchy has to be persuaded that this [reform] is about sustainability. The Catholic Church is not going to survive if it does not address these issues because the young are just not going to engage.”

Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the need for a global template of values against which every legal system should be measured, including canon law, she asked: “Why has the Catholic Church not embraced it properly, particularly with regard to due process, the idea of access to justice – where was the access to justice for the many victims of sexual abuse within the Church?”

She said Church failures on abuse and moving people on who had committed crimes was one of the reasons so many people are now alienated from the Church.

“They do not see the Catholic Church adhering to that whole framework of human rights, rule of law, and respect for due process, access to justice, and the treatment of people as being equal before the law.”

She also hit out at the Church’s willingness to accommodate Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s desire to marry in a Catholic Church, which she had raised with Cardinal Nichols.

“People were very distressed, and I would say disappointed when they saw the ease with which the prime minister, who is not known for his sobriety when it comes to relationships with women, was able to have a marriage in the Catholic Church, despite the fact of being twice divorced.”

Recalling a conversation with a cab driver in Glasgow whose marriage had failed and who had remarried a catholic, he had told her of his pain at being unable to receive communion and feeling excommunicated.

“These are the things that are such a scar on the Church, and on all the people who still think of themselves as being Catholics, and who want to be able to take up the sacraments, to be a participant, to belong to this family. And yet, they are not able to do so.”

She had told the Cardinal: “Your communications strategy on saying everybody is equal before canon law is not working. You need to do something about that.”

The discussion on Wednesday was chaired by Virginia Saldanha, executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Women’s Desk.

It heard contributions also from Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, Executive Director at the Wijngaards Institute, and broadcaster, writer and public speaker, Christina Rees, a member of the general synod of the Church of England.

Complete Article HERE!

Fr Mychal Judge, the Saint of 9/11, and his enduring message of compassion

From the midst of hate, war, and violence, Father Mychal Judge’s message points us to another possible path for us as human beings.

Dr. Tom Moulton and his spouse Brendan Fay flank Father Mychal Judge in a favorite photo.

By Brendan Fay

We stood by Father Mychal Judge’s grave in the Franciscan plot in the cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey. The sky was as blue on that September 11 morning 20 years ago. We prayed and sang the prayer of St. Francis. Make me a channel of your peace. 

Me, Frank, and Sam, each of us touched and brought together by Father Mychal Judge. We prayed, we sang, we told our 9/11 stories to each other, and gave thanks for the gift of Father Mychal.

Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York. There was room for us all. To each he met, from the streets of New York to the White House, he was a man of tender compassion.

From Flight 800 to the AIDS crisis, from firefighters recovering from severe burns or families in grief at funerals, Mychal was a source of hope and healing in the midst of personal pain and national tragedy.

On September 10, 2001, at the rededication blessing of Engine 73 Ladder 42 in the Bronx, he spoke his final homily: “You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of another, you get on that rig, you go out to do the job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig, no matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God’s calling you to, but he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”

The world came to know Father Mychal Judge from his death at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That was a day of profound darkness for the human family, a day of terror and fear, injustice and death.

Yet out of the pit of death and darkness, a light beamed in the iconic image of Father Mychal being carried by firefighters and rescuers. Identified as victim 0001, FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge became a face of courage, sacrifice, profound hope, of compassion.

On 9/11, he embodied the prayer of his father St. Francis. “Where there is sadness let me sow hope, where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is darkness only light.”

On 9/11, as most New Yorkers fled the World Trade Center, Father Mychal rushed towards the site with other first responders the brave men and women of the FDNY, EMS, NYPD. This was his calling as Franciscan, FDNY chaplain, to go to the place of human tragedy, pain, suffering, and anguish and be present with comfort and healing.

Father Mychal Judge. (Getty Images)
Father Mychal Judge.

Father Mychal was well known in New York for his ministry with the homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, the LGBT community, and others marginalized by society. He was a compassionate witness for peace and non-violence in Belfast and in Jerusalem.

While filming for a documentary about Mychal, I visited Stormont just outside Belfast. I sat with Patricia Lewsley, former commissioner for children and young people in Northern Ireland, who recalled her meetings and conversations about conflict resolution and reconciliation with Mychal and NYPD Detective Steven McDonald during their peace pilgrimage to Belfast in 1999.

For the Irish, he was one of our own. And how he loved the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. When he was declared Irishman of the Year he called us. “Brendan I want you and Tom there and be sure to get on the dance floor.”

That’s who he was, a bridge person helping people cross divides and distance and bringing us together to celebrate the good of life.

He was a familiar face in New York AA meetings and counseled many like himself struggling with addictions. He was 23 years sober when he was buried. At retreats together, after evening prayers, we would sit up till all hours with Mychal leading the session of folk songs and Clancy Brothers Irish ballads.

For the Catholic LGBT community, he was one with us as well as our priest providing sacraments. We called on him during the darkness of the AIDS crisis. When exiled and excluded by society and the institutional church, he provided compassion and sacraments in our living rooms and community centers.

Father Mychal on the march with his AIDS ministry.
Father Mychal on the march with his AIDS ministry.

It wasn’t long after I arrived from Ireland to study at St. John’s that I met Mychal as he was one of the priests who presided at the weekly Mass for Dignity NY, a group for LGBT Catholics.

This was the middle of the AIDS crisis. I reached out to Mychal when asked for help by a family needing a priest to lead funeral prayers for two brothers who died from AIDS.

Mychal was selectively open about being gay with friars and friends he could trust and people whom he could help by coming out such as parents supporting their child in a world of ignorance and prejudice. In his diary, he wrote, “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.”

He would become a huge supporter of groups working for change. He wrote the checks to AIDS Interfaith NY, to the Parents group PFLAG, to St. Pats for All.

On Skillman Avenue, at that first parade in March 2000, he showed up in his Franciscan. He said a prayer of thanks for the blessings of the day and the welcome for all especially the Irish LGBT group Lavender and Green Alliance. He then walked with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center contingent. He also spent time saying hello with Mary Somoza and her daughter Anastasia.

While proud of being Irish and a much-beloved Catholic priest, he was disheartened by anti-gay prejudice in the church and Irish community, which he called “high levels of madness.”

While researching Father Mychal’s story, people sent me copies of his letters and notes. He was a great letter writer. He would stay up till all hours of the night writing notes and cards – to say thank you, to send a word of comfort, of encouragement in sobriety, to celebrate a new job, the arrival of a new baby, the new home, newfound love.

People remember Mychal’s love, his big-heartedness, and his sense of humor if you got too serious. That was our Mychal Judge.

On this 9/11 20th anniversary, Father Mychal Judge, even in his death, sends a message. From the midst of hate, war, and violence, he points us to another possible path for us as human beings.

Like him and all who gave their lives that day, we too can choose the path of compassion and tenderness. Mychal challenges us to shun the path of violence and engage in the hard work of peacemaking, finding friendship and new ways to live well our brief lives together.

Complete Article HERE!

The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist.

The elevation of Greg Epstein, author of “Good Without God,” reflects a broader trend of young people who increasingly identify as spiritual but religiously nonaffiliated.

Greg Epstein has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005.

By Emma Goldberg

The Puritan colonists who settled in New England in the 1630s had a nagging concern about the churches they were building: How would they ensure that the clergymen would be literate? Their answer was Harvard University, a school that was established to educate the ministry and adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It was named after a pastor, John Harvard, and it would be more than 70 years before the school had a president who was not a clergyman.

Nearly four centuries later, Harvard’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes on the job this week.

Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.

To Mr. Epstein’s fellow campus chaplains, at least, the notion of being led by an atheist is not as counterintuitive as it might sound; his election was unanimous.

“Maybe in a more conservative university climate there might be a question like ‘What the heck are they doing at Harvard, having a humanist be the president of the chaplains?’” said Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard. “But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”

The dozens of students whom Mr. Epstein mentors have found a source of meaning in the school’s organization of humanists, atheists and agnostics, reflecting a broader trend of young people across the United States who increasingly identify as spiritual but religiously nonaffiliated. That trend might be especially salient at Harvard; a Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2019 found that those students were two times more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic than 18-year-olds in the general population.

“Greg’s leadership isn’t about theology,” said Charlotte Nickerson, 20, an electrical engineering student. “It’s about cooperation between people of different faiths and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.”

The Harvard chaplains play an outsize role on campus, touching hundreds of students’ lives whether through Mass offered by the Catholic Student Center or Shabbat dinners at Harvard Hillel. Its leader reports directly to the office of the university president.

To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, especially as it gains more recognition from the university, comes as affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to teach a campus with traditional religious roots about humanism.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”

Mr. Epstein’s work includes hosting dinners for undergraduates where conversation goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He previously ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met in Harvard Square for weekly services that centered on secular sermons. In 2018 he closed that down to focus his time on building campus relationships, including at M.I.T., where he is also a chaplain. Mr. Epstein frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.

“Greg is irreverent and good at diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson said, recalling a time he joked that if her summer internship got too stressful she could always get fired — then she would have a good story to share.

Some of the students drawn to Mr. Epstein’s secular community are religious refugees, people raised in observant households who arrive at college seeking spiritual meaning in a less rigid form.

Adelle Goldenberg, 22, grew up in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where she recalls being told that she could not attend college. In preschool, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was simple: a bride. It was the only thing she could envision for a girl like herself. When she turned 19, she applied to Harvard in secret and fled the community.

Once at Harvard, she was wary of assuming any religious label, but she still yearned to find people wrestling with issues deeper than academic achievement. She started attending meetings of the humanist group and discovered in Mr. Epstein a form of mentorship that felt almost like having a secular rabbi, she said.

“When the pandemic hit I was like, ‘Greg, do you have time to talk about the meaning of life,’” Ms. Goldenberg recalled. “He showed me that it’s possible to find community outside a traditional religious context, that you can have the value-add religion has provided for centuries, which is that it’s there when things seem chaotic.”

Ms. Goldenberg reflected anew on how unlikely her path had been when her mother asked to see the university yearbook: “I told her, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it,’” Ms. Goldenberg said. “It says I was co-president of the Harvard Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics. And you can see my shoulders.”

Nonreligiosity is on the rise far beyond the confines of Harvard; it is the fastest growing religious preference in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 20 percent of the country identifies as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious — called the “nones” — including four in 10 millennials.

The reasons that more young Americans are disaffiliating in the world’s most religious developed country are varied. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith attributes the trend partly to the growing alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right, a decline of trust in institutions, growing skepticism of religion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a shift away from traditional family structures that centered on churchgoing.

Mr. Epstein’s community has tapped into the growing desire for meaning without faith in God. “Being able to find values and rituals but not having to believe in magic, that’s a powerful thing,” said A.J. Kumar, who served as the president of a Harvard humanist graduate student group that Mr. Epstein advised.

Other Harvard chaplains have applauded Mr. Epstein’s efforts to provide a campus home for those who are religiously unattached, skeptical but still searching. Some said his selection to lead the group, following its previous Jewish leader, seemed obvious.

“Greg was the first choice of a committee that was made up of a Lutheran, a Christian Scientist, an evangelical Christian and a Bahá’í,” said the Rev. Kathleen Reed, a Lutheran chaplain who chaired the nominating committee. “We’re presenting to the university a vision of how the world could work when diverse traditions focus on how to be good humans and neighbors.”

And for some members of Harvard’s humanist and atheist community, exploring humanism has brought with it a richer understanding of faith.

Ms. Nickerson grew up in a working-class Catholic household where she struggled to connect with rituals like Mass. But during her freshman year at Harvard, she found herself capable of long, lively conversations with her devout grandmother. Ms. Nickerson realized that her involvement with Harvard humanism had given her the language to understand her grandmother’s theology.

Last spring, the two were tending roses and daylilies in the family garden when they got on the topic of surrender. Ms. Nickerson’s grandmother reflected on the aspects of her life that were in God’s hands; Ms. Nickerson agreed that it was important to recognize all the events beyond human control, though she does not believe there is a deity involved. Ms. Nickerson then shared a Buddhist parable that she had learned from the humanist club, which her grandmother later passed on to her Bible study group.

“We understood the idea of surrender in a similar way even though one of those explanations came with God and the other didn’t,” Ms. Nickerson said. “I find I’m more fluid in my spiritual conversations now.”

Complete Article HERE!

The First Report

As an investigative reporter, Jason Berry exposed the church’s systematic cover-up of sexual abuse. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.