The Priests We Seek Are Already Working Among Us

Janine Denomme was deeply respected in her church and her community in Chicago. For years, she served her local parish as a lay preacher, church musician, parish council member, spiritual director and religion teacher. She held a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, taught at a number of Catholic colleges, and, later, was the director of youth programs at a Chicago gay and lesbian center. She was an out lesbian in a loving, committed relationship.

Mercy Sr. Margaret McBride has more than 34 years of experience in health care management. Most recently, she served as vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, a prominent Catholic hospital in Phoenix, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1895. McBride was the highest-ranking Mercy sister on the staff, and a member of the hospital’s ethics committee.

Denomme had a lifelong struggle with the church that she loved and her belief that God was calling her to the priesthood. After years of discernment, Denomme decided to pursue ordination in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests community. In April 2009, while preparing to be ordained, Denomme, at the age of 45, learned that she had terminal colorectal cancer. She battled the disease with extraordinary grace, and, as a final act of ministry, kept a powerful journal recounting her illness, treatment, and movement toward death. She was ordained in April 2010. With only a few weeks to live, her dying wish was to have her funeral Mass held at St. Gertrude, the parish she loved and served for years.

McBride was considered the moral conscience of St. Joseph’s. As her colleague Dr. John Garvie wrote, she worked “tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying. … She always made sure we understood that we’re here to help the less fortunate.” In late 2009, McBride and the ethics committee were faced with an extraordinary moral dilemma. A 27-year-old mother of four children was in deteriorating condition with a pulmonary disorder. She was 11 weeks pregnant, and doctors concluded that she would likely die if she carried her pregnancy to term. After study and deliberation, McBride and the ethics committee gave their consent for the pregnancy to be terminated in order to save the life of the mother.

During the second week of May 2010, Denomme was denied a Catholic funeral Mass in her home parish by the Chicago archdiocese, and the bishop of Phoenix said that McBride had incurred automatic excommunication. A week later, Denomme passed away at her home surrounded by loved ones, forced to have her final liturgy in a neighboring Methodist church. McBride was reassigned to another part of the hospital “to focus on a number of new strategic initiatives.”

While the institutional church maintains a system that supports abuses of power and protects abusers of people, true ministers like Denomme and McBride are denied the opportunity to participate in the sacramental life that they themselves incarnated each day in their work. Both were cruelly banished from the church that they served with exceptional devotion, integrity and love. Their banishment is further proof that the institutional church is cutting itself off from the life-giving, authentic church that continues to flourish inside and outside of its walls.

Women like Denomme and McBride are too intelligent and faithful to the Gospel to believe that these condemnations have separated them from the love of God. The real losers here are the members of the institutional church, who have denied themselves the blessing of being in communion with these women. Because women like them are exactly the kind of spiritual leaders that those living in 21st century need for moral guidance and religious inspiration.

McBride was the moral center of a hospital, teaching not only compassionate care, but guiding people through the toughest ethical decisions that all of us, regardless of religious commitment, must face eventually. Denomme was a model of courage and goodness to countless people. She reached out to young gay, lesbian and transgendered people who otherwise might have been forced into homelessness or turned to suicide. And, in her death, she left behind a series of spiritual reflections on the Web site that will be a source of strength and comfort to all of us who struggle with illness.

Women like Denomme and McBride exemplify the kind of spiritual leadership that both older and newer generations of seekers crave. Even if Denomme hadn’t become a Roman Catholic Womanpriest and McBride weren’t a Sister of Mercy, they would still have been fully answering God’s calling and would have been no less ministers of word and sacrament.

My greatest comfort is that Denomme and McBride did not work in a vacuum. They are only two of the countless women and men who are doing the work of justice and compassion throughout our world. While the institutional church crumbles under its own weight of faithless, desperate acts of self-preservation, these women and men are modeling the work to which God calls us, by serving in hospitals, prisons, shelters, schools, community centers and anywhere else God seeks to be made present.

These servant leaders are the keys to the future of the church. Free from the trappings of clericalism, these women and men will guide new generations in understanding what it means to bring about the very life of God in a broken world. This is spiritual leadership that will truly speak to newer generations of people, who are less compelled by parish structures and traditional religious devotions.

New generations will need much more from religious leadership than dispensers of sacraments. They will need people who are incarnating sacramental life. Those whose transformative actions will challenge our moral convictions, and whose healing, justice-seeking work will guide us in making meaning in an increasingly empty, violent world. Older generations have been hungering for this kind of leadership for a long time. Together we need to realize that the priests we seek are already working among us.

The lives of Denomme and McBride signal the need for progressive Catholics to truly broaden their understanding of the priesthood. Though the hierarchy is often blamed for clericalism, laypeople are often trapped in this narrow vision of the servant of God, too. Our eyes have been forced open to see the moral decay and deceit behind a large part of the clerical structure, and much energy is being spent in calling the institutional church’s leadership to accountability and transparency. But we must open our eyes even wider now, and see who our real priests are. We need to give our energy to supporting these women and men, and to honor fully this church that the institutional church is leaving behind.

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