beautiful heresy

In 1994, Pope John Paul II, in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, declared finally that: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In other words, the pope, the arbiter of Catholic doctrine, spoke definitively against women who felt they were called to leadership in the church as priests. Furthermore, he expected all faithful Catholics to do the same. His reasoning has been much criticized. He based his judgment on three ideas – namely that Jesus had chosen only males, that the church has traditionally only chosen males and that teaching authority has always taught that men and women have differing roles in the church, hardly the stuff of logic. The first assumes that whomever Jesus chose should be followed to the letter, regardless of the culture of the times. In my thinking, this means that no black man can ever be a priest and certainly no gay man because which apostles had those traits? The second and third rely on a major fallacy – that the church has never changed tradition or teaching, something belied by the fact that married priests were welcome until the Council of Elvira in 305 CE and that the Latin mass was made optional during the Second Vatican Council. The simple fact is that the church has no good reason to deny women spiritual leadership other than because it is an institution so steeped in patriarchy that to do so would call into question a dozen other teachings.

Many women throughout time have felt called to leadership within the Catholic Church and despite the orders of John Paul II to banish such thoughts, are today acting on this calling, being ordained and even leading small congregations. It began in Germany in 2002 when a sympathetic male bishop ordained seven women on the Danube. Being ordained by a bishop ensured that the apostolic succession was observed. Several of the Danube Seven, as they are called, became bishops themselves and continued ordaining women. The work of advocating for women priests is carried on by Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Curious as I am about both women’s leadership and theology, I discovered Emmaus Inclusive Catholic Community of Edmonton  through the RCWP site and today I paid them a visit. I wanted to participate in a truly inclusive, feminist spiritual experience as well as ask them some questions of my own.

The small congregation sits around a dining room table.
The small congregation sits around a dining room table.

The community is very small and meets at the home of their priest Ruth Wasylenka in Sherwood Park. I was met at the door by Lori, the woman I had emailed to get details about the service. Lori is a very athletic looking woman who also writes a series about religion for the local paper. I soon met the other congregants who arrived and seated themselves around the dining room table which was set with hymnals and a homemade order of service at each place. I was immediately struck by how cozy and friendly the atmosphere was and briefly wondered if this was how the house churches of antiquity felt. I made myself useful in the kitchen cutting far too much cake for the fellowship after the service as I got to know everyone. We were a group of about six, all women save one. One woman played the guitar for us as others set up a side table for the eucharist.

I got a chance right away to talk to the members about their beliefs and how they might differ from the orthodox Catholic Church. I was curious about a notice I’d seen on their website about the Alberta March for Life. I asked about it, wondering how the Emmaus community reconciled feminism and women’s freedom with the anti choice stance. Ruth explained that the group believed in the necessity of contraception in society but that they disagreed with contraception that some have called “abortifacients”. Despite the definitive science that shows that contraception does not cause abortion, the Emmaus community holds that it does and therefore takes the more orthodox church’s stance. Needless to say, this means that this particular church at least does not believe in a woman’s freedom to choose abortion. I admit that I was a little disappointed, not just as a woman but because pro choice work is such a strong component of my spirituality that I felt like I had erected a mental barrier by asking about it. I did not mention my own work because I was there to learn about them, not insert myself or my own beliefs. But still I was a little confused about the feminism of the church and why it ended at reproductive autonomy. No doubt I’ll get a chance to ask those questions later. As for feeling a spiritual barrier, I needn’t have worried.

Once we began, the service was much like any other mass in terms of structure but what really struck me was the inclusivity. This house church lives up to its name. Not only does Ruth perform same-sex marriages but they have rewritten the mass to be gender inclusive. God is never referred to as “him”, mankind becomes “humankind” and even “kingdom” is transformed into “kin-dom”. When saying the Lord’s prayer (Lord, though gendered, is kept), it begins, Our Father-Mother, who is in heaven”. The normal sermon, which sometimes seems to take up most of the service in some churches, was at Emmaus a brief few lines delivered by Ruth after which the floor was opened for discussion. It’s a very different experience, to be sure, one in which I, as a woman, felt more at home. I was made very welcome during the whole experience but was particularly touched when a member asked if I’d like to deliver one of the readings. I had thought that because I was not a Catholic that I would not be able to take on any role but that of observer. He passed me the notebook and I read out a psalm in my best voice as a thank you.

Simple communion, Emmaus style.
Simple communion, Emmaus style.

Another thing I thought was off-limits was communion. In the Catholic church, communion is reserved for those in good standing with the church, which hardly describes me. This makes sense on one level in that the taking of communion symbolizes a communality based on belief. However, some find this exclusivity to be negative and a detraction from what I like to call human communion – the coming together of all of broken humanity to share and celebrate the gift of our lives. I am not sure if that is exactly how the Emmaus community would put it but they do practice open communion, allowing anyone to participate. This reminded me very much of an episcopalian service I used to attend sometimes back in Richmond, Virginia. St. Stephen’s Church has a celtic service in which all are invited to participate, not only in communion but in leadership roles, even those who are not Christian or even theist. So I felt right at home being offered the cup and the bread.

I found the entire Emmaus experience to be beautiful in its radical simplicity. Sitting around the priest’s dining room table with only five other people, the lovely guitar music played by one member and the congenial talk around that same table afterward as we shared lemon cookies and coffee. It felt more like a spiritual community than the larger, more impersonal, rote services one is used to in the Catholic church. I will definitely be returning to keep up with my new friends and enjoy our human communion.


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