A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Vocation


Anyone who has felt the undertow-like pull of God’s call to ministry will tell you it’s exciting, it’s frightening, it’s awesome. But a Catholic woman can add another adjective to the whole experience—lonely. During the past two years I have been trying to come to terms with a vocation of my own. I think in my case the call is more a feeling. It was and still is instinctual. There was no moment of shining epiphany when I heard God’s voice booming from the deep. It was instead like a magnet that I tried to break from, first, because I was afraid, and second, because it just seemed pointless. Joining the Women’s Ordination Conference has changed all of that. It was there that I met brave women who responded to God’s invitation, who didn’t put it aside. They were open, honest, and strong about what God wanted them to do. So now I come forward in the first steps of my own discernment, which until now has been prayer and wondering where God is leading me.


A Catholic woman who is called to ministry embarks on a difficult road that a Catholic man will never travel. The first obstacle is that she has nowhere to turn. A Catholic man can approach a priest, can approach a seminary—and actually get answers. But where does a Catholic woman go? She is experiencing the same rumbling of God’s call that a Catholic man experiences. But the support of the faith community, which he has full access to, is not available to her. Her discernment exists in a vacuum. A Catholic man called to ministry does not know this isolation and the pain it causes. This is where I am now—wanting to serve God more directly and believing that She wants me to do the same. I can’t deny this message any longer. I can’t put this message aside any longer. Furthermore, and most importantly, I don’t want to put it aside any longer. I am called to ministry—plain, pure, and simple.


So where do I go from here? I know very well where I go from here. I move on to the next obstacle on this faith journey, the one every woman called to ministry must face, and the most painful one of all. Do I stay or do I leave? Here the story moves to another woman who has recently traveled this part of the road. Emily Malcoun is 27 years old, a graduate of Notre Dame University and Harvard School of Divinity. I’ve known Emily for about a year and will confidently affirm her passionate call to priesthood. Her invitation from God is unquestionable, her courage exceptional. One evening last September, the diocese invited men who were considering the priesthood to attend an evening of discussion, questions, and answers. Several members of the Women’s Ordination Conference showed up too. One of these was Emily. By now she had fully discerned her call, was active in an interfaith hospital chaplaincy—and wanted desperately to be ordained. I will never forget the tears in her eyes, the pain in her voice as she looked at the seminary and said, “It’s so close.” Then she went one step further and, with profound courage, approached Father Devlin to ask for admission. Clearly surprised and taken aback, Father Devlin told Emily he would pray that she would find what God was really asking of her. Emily responded, “I’m clear what God intends for me. That’s why I’m here. And I will also be praying that you may be open to what God may be asking of you. Why don’t we pray for each other?”


The decision to stay in the church or leave it is one of unprecedented pain. I can say with absolute certainty that all Catholic women who are called to ministry, first and foremost, love the Catholic church. Leaving it is like leaving home, never to return. Do Catholics—men and women—who support an all-male priesthood not understand that? Do they think we can simply walk out the door and leave something that we love, that is so much a part of who we are? I spoke with a priest  about this quagmire. He was somewhat sympathetic but replied that a woman who is called to priesthood might have to go elsewhere to fulfill that call. “Go elsewhere.” Those words rolled glibly off his tongue. Does he understand how painful “go elsewhere” is? I walked away wondering how well he loved the church he was serving.


Emily likened this painful wrestling with Catholicism to a marriage in which one spouse prevents the other from growing and becoming the person he or she wants to be. I liken my own pain to that of an adult who has been the victim of poor, misguided parenting. You’re really ticked off but you can’t—and won’t—turn your back.


I heard from Emily about a month ago. She had at that point unfortunately decided to take her vocation elsewhere. I say unfortunately because, while I’m happy for Emily, I’m very sorry for what our church is losing—and I’m sorrier for what God is losing. Emily was born and raised Catholic. Her vocation belongs here.


Having faced this difficult dilemma, having made the decision to leave and fulfill her calling in another denomination, one would think that a woman would finally have a sense of peace. At least that’s what I thought. Once again the story shifts, this time to another life-long Catholic who has asked to remain anonymous.  I met her (we’ll call her Mary) through the Internet. Our common bond of love of God, love of church, and longing to respond to God made for a lot of communication. At one point during our correspondence I told Mary that I envied her for the decision that she finally made to seek ordination in another denomination and for the sense of resolution that it brought. How naive I was. Listen to her response:


“It (her decision) is very bitter/sweet. Yes, I feel free. I no longer have to get upset because now I am allowed to be who I am. But I have paid a very high price. I love the Roman church with my whole heart and soul. I never wanted to leave it. I sobbed for at least five years before I did. So I too envy you because you are with the people I love. I truly celebrated my leap of faith that day (her day of ordination) and I know it was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s very lonely on this side of the cliff. What a blessing this Episcopal community is to me. By the end of each week, the feelings of grief about leaving begin to gang up on me. But then I get to stand at that altar and in the middle aisle to proclaim the Gospel, and I am uplifted again. God has blessed me with this experience to sustain me, I know.


I had no choice but to leave. It was killing me to stay. I do feel more alive now. And it hurts a lot. I think it’s called the cross.  We women are carrying a very heavy cross right now whether we leave or stay. My choice was both a cross and a resurrection. As I said, bittersweet.”


What a terrible sadness a Mary endures—to not be able to fulfill what God calls her to in the place that she calls home.


From the isolation of discernment, to the agony of whether to stay or go, to the frustration and anger if she stays or the grief and loss if she leaves—these are all crises unique to a Catholic woman simply because and only because she is a woman. A Catholic man’s road to priesthood will never be fraught with this kind of pain. And if the injury isn’t enough, the insult is there too. Catholic women called to ministry have been accused of being covetous power-seekers. We should examine our motives, we are called by Satan, and, unless we repent, we will burn in hell. I heard these slurs with my own ears. Odd how these accusations are never made against men.


I believe women will one day be ordained in our church. It can only be God’s grace that sustains that belief and that hope through all of my anguish and hurt. This is God’s truth and there is no power in human nature that can stop it. But my prayer is that it happens in time for me to have just one gospel, just one homily, so that Christ and I can finally have our own personal great AMEN.


But in case it doesn’t happen in time for us, let me make all of you here today privy to what would be the first sentence of my first homily: 


My sisters and brothers in Christ, I have found a wonderful Treasure and I want to share it with all of you.


Maria Marlowe, March 21, 2001