A recent article by Brigid Sweeney highlighted many aspects of the archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative that will affect the Chicago area’s Catholics. Based on my 31 years as a diocesan priest in Chicago, I strongly embrace both the role of an empowered laity and Pope Francis’ indication that he will consider allowing women to be ordained as deacons.
Pope Francis’ monumental first step in convening a commission to study the topic of female deacons gives me a lot of hope for the possibility of female ordination. I didn’t think I would see this in my lifetime, but this pope is breathing so much new life into the church. Much of that new life comes from expanded roles for women.
Look at what’s happening in our country. A major political party has nominated a woman as its presidential candidate. Women are pushing for opportunities in corporate America and for ways to redefine gender roles in their own families. Throughout my three decades as a priest, including in my current assignment as the pastor and only full-time resident at Holy Family, a 4,300-family parish in Inverness, I’ve worked mostly with women. They’re smart, they’re faith-filled, they’re compassionate and they’ve been prayerfully formed in ministry for decades. They get things done.
The renewal that Archbishop Blase Cupich calls for includes adjustments to the roles of deacons, priests and pastors.
Some Catholics argue that Jesus was a man, that Jesus called only men to be apostles and that the priesthood should therefore be open only to men. But the whole idea of priesthood is also rooted in the 12 tribes of Israel; one tribe, the Levites, completed the religious rituals. If we were to uphold that literal understanding of priestly identity, it would be akin to arguing that only Irish people can be priests even though the church has Italian people, Polish people, Irish people, Ugandan people and so on.
Jesus himself empowered women in a manner that went far beyond what other men did at that time. We just celebrated the Feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22. A month earlier, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to put her on par with the male apostles and to mark women as the church’s first evangelizers. Mary Magdalene made a powerful difference in the Catholic Church, and scores of female religious and lay workers in Chicago and around the world continue to do so today.
I also personally urge the hierarchy of the church that I love to examine the issue of priestly celibacy in the same manner in which it views the promise of poverty. In the Catholic Church, religious order priests, nuns and brothers take a vow of poverty. As a diocesan priest, I do not. There is room for both. I believe the same mindset can be applied to celibacy. I have always thought the first thing we should do is turn to priests who have left the priesthood and married. Let them come back.
I support the idea of a multitrack diaconate. Right now, there’s only one curriculum for permanent deacon preparation that culminates in weekend volunteer work at a parish. I believe deacons should be prepared for varied levels of involvement. Some could continue to serve as weekend assistants, preaching and performing baptisms and weddings while maintaining full-time employment outside the church. Others could assume full-time parish staff positions. Still others could play a hybrid role: He (or she) might still hold a full-time job but could also take on parish responsibilities that extend beyond weekend duties, such as running the marriage prep course, a grief group or a retreat program.
A final thought on timing and change: I appreciate the similarities between the Catholic Church and large corporations to such an extent that I’ve welcomed seasoned business professionals to Holy Family’s staff who have profoundly impacted our parish operations. However, I also embrace the significant differences. Many corporations operate on three- and five-year plans. The Catholic Church operates much more slowly, because it conducts a worldwide conversation. With every major change, you have to look back, and check and recheck: Is this true to what Jesus Christ started? It’s not easy and it’s not fast. The classic example is that of Galileo. It took the Catholic Church 350 years to reverse its 1633 condemnation of him for proving that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take us quite so long to reconsider the qualifications of ordained ministry.
Rev. Terry Keehan is pastor of Holy Family in northwest suburban Inverness. He previously served as pastor of St. Matthias and Transfiguration parishes in Lincoln Square and was a vocation director for the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1987 to 1996. Before entering the seminary, Keehan worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative in Chicago.
CCI Editor’s Note: Fr. Keehan needs to brush up on Catholic doctrine.
APOSTOLIC LETTER ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS OF JOHN PAUL II TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON RESERVING PRIESTLY ORDINATION TO MEN ALONE – 1994
Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.