Blinded by the light —Paul’s transformation and women’s ordination: a homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

--

Photo credit: “Woman silhouette kissing sun” by Antonio Guillem, Getty Images, CanvaPro

Readings from the Comprehensive Catholic Lectionary: Acts 25:1–2, 18–22a; 26:1, 9–17, 18d, 30–32; Wisdom 11:21–21:1; Peter 2:23–5:7–11; John 14:1–2, 4–9, 11–13a, 16–17a, 17c.

Today, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates World Day of Prayer for Vocations, first started by Pope Paul VI in 1964. The church was seeing a decline in men entering seminary and women entering convents, though nothing like we see today.

Some of us have ideas on revitalizing vocations, but that would mean a shift from patriarchy to gender equality. It would mean moving from a tradition of dictates and domination to conversation and collaboration. Sadly, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter in 1994, the year I turned 16, declaring “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.”

That’s interesting. In the Gospels today, Jesus said “Truly, I tell you the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact will do greater works than these because I am going back to our Loving God. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do” (Jn 14:12, 14, CCL).

But the Church has no authority to concede gender equality and women’s ordination? It’s too big to ask?

John Paul II thought so. He declared the church’s hands were tied because Jesus only had male apostles. Somehow Mary Magdalene’s role as apostle to the apostles slipped his mind. He also claimed that the “constant practice of the Church” has been only to ordain men. In reality, the early church was influentially developed by women benefactors and leaders. See Romans 16:1–7, where Paul describes Phoebe as a Deacon, Priscilla as a co-worker in Christ, and Junia as “outstanding among the apostles.” For any who are truly curious, historical theologian Jack Dick wrote an article addressing the historicity of these issues, and Gary Macy wrote a very detailed book called The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination.

In reality, the challenge facing the church is not one that can be solved by apologetics. We can’t explain our way through it or out of it. As Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Does the magisterium of the church really lack authority to change, or are the ones beholden to patriarchy scared to change? Fear can keep us from making many important changes in our lives. It is not an easy emotion to deal with. But Jesus encourages us:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled… you come to God by following me” (Jn 14:1, 6, CCL).

By what authority do we remain beholden to harmful traditions when new knowledge and experience show us that The Way, The Truth, and The Life are our future as a transformed people, not the white knuckled clinging to the past?

Does the Gospel call us to unquestioningly adhere to “the way it has always been”?

It’s certainly not what we find in Paul’s example.

Paul was embedded in the political authority of his day, and he used his life energy to defend it. He admitted that he openly persecuted Christians. “With authority from the head of priests, I not only locked up the holy people in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death… I was so furiously enraged at them that I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 16:10–11, CCL). By Paul’s own account, he wasn’t just passively opposed to people following Jesus, he was actively tyrannizing them.

Why? He was sure his oppressive actions were justified by righteousness until he was literally blinded by the light of Christ. Do you think he would have listened to anything more subtle?

In the beginning, Paul’s authority came from political powers. But after he had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, the source of authority for Paul changed, and he allowed it to change him. By what he saw, what he felt, what he heard, Paul was immersed in a new spirit and way of being. And he was willing to admit his own wrongdoings in a court of his peers, risking his own condemnation, rather than go against his new understanding of God’s will.*

If only certain Roman Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis could experience such transformation!

On this day of vocations, we can pray for the Roman Catholic ruling class to experience something so bright, so merciful, so deep that they finally see patriarchy is their golden calf, not their divine call. May all oppressors repent like Paul and become avid advocates for equality and justice. May the power of love rise within us all and guide all God’s people in collective discernment as a community of co-equals.

RCWP USA is deeply engaged in this work. Over the past three years, a trinity of priests has listened deeply to the values, priorities, histories, and hopes of all their 150+ sister priests to update our constitution. It was tedious, emotionally and cognitively demanding work. They studied founding documents, feedback from the last RCWP National Council of priests, considered the teachings of Vatican II, and they drafted each section of the renewed constitution with care.

As they completed each section, they opened it up to the entire body of priests to read, pray with, comment, and discuss. They held forums, 1:1 discussions, and engaged in critical conversations over every single word and sentence until they discerned clarity. No voice went unnoticed, no thought too unimportant for their serious consideration. They met weekly for three years discerning, discussing, revising, and communicating with the greater RCWP community. And now, after we just held our nationwide gathering to review the final section, the fully revised constitution will go to a vote for ratification by the full RCWP membership.

I have never before participated in any project so thoroughly committed to representation, inclusion, and collective trust. And that means dealing with conflict, because we cannot achieve anything whole without listening for the dissents, the confusions, the worries that arise when we encounter new ideas or are asked to accept a big change. This is one of the most beautiful gifts of RCWP to me. There is a commitment to the labor of love that allows us to speak our feelings, questions, and experiences — to challenge and be challenged — but with a sense of mutuality and conviction that we love and need one another, and working through the hard stuff is worth it.

But to work through the hard stuff, we have to set aside our fears and firm ideas and engage in a process of mutuality and trust. We have to breathe through our differences and listen with open hearts and minds as a community of equals, and we have to risk being challenged and changed by the spirit of wisdom and truth that rises among us. This is the strength of RCWP. It is the Roman Catholic concept of ‘sensus fidei’ — the sense of the faithful — in action.

I pray for the Pope’s Synod of Synodality, and I celebrate that for the first time in the history of the institutional Catholic Church, women will have votes, though still a limited minority. This is a step toward inclusion, though only by a fraction, and I pray many more follow. May the leaders not be afraid of equality, mutuality, and change…

In the meantime, we continue to gather as friends and family in Christ, nurturing one another, and working through the hard stuff as we are called and able. May people of all genders called to priesthood feel nudged by the Spirit to continue their discernment, and may RCWP shine like a light that helps others pause on their journeys to see new possibilities and become apostles for diversity, equity, and inclusion within our churches and communities.

*Post-homiletic notes: Paul’s conversion is a powerful one, but modern readers need to be extremely cautious with themes within this scene as they also bear the twisted roots of anti-semitism. When Paul stops persecuting Jesus’ followers, he begins a fervent crusade to convert his own people (other Judeans) to believe in Jesus. This doesn’t go over well, and for many reasons! Jewish tradition never promised resurrection, and there were very specific things that Judeans expected of a messiah: “He will be a descendant of King David, gain sovereignty over the land of Israel, gather the Jews there from the four corners of the earth, restore them to full observance of Torah law, and, as a grand finale, bring peace to the whole world” (Jewish Virtual Library). For those who accept the lineage of Mary, Jesus checked the first box, but satisfied none of the other stated requirements! As miraculous as a resurrection is — and as meaningful as Christians find it — it was not what the people of Israel understood as messiah, and so many of them rejected the claim. Not to mention, Jesus was not the first Jew to claim messianic status, nor was he the last! Bar Kobcha led a revolt against Rome in 132 CE, though he also failed the claim as mashiach when Rome again prevailed. Jesus was not the only ‘failed’ messiah as far as Judaism goes, but he was the only to carry on a legacy so powerful that, as Christ, he became the heart of a new religion and key of salvation for billions of people outside Judaism.

While Paul succeeded in carrying forward Jesus’ teachings to the Gentiles, he did not succeed in converting most Judeans. This is where Judaism and Christianity diverge, and it was not a gentle divergence. Judeans (who didn’t become known as Jews until centuries later) were already being persecuted heavily by Rome, and when Paul’s zeal for converting his fellow Judeans failed, writers like Luke-Acts suggest that it was because they were under the power of Satan (26:18). Since our own holy texts both proclaim Jesus as messiah while simultaneously criticizing Ioudaios (greek work for Judeans, often translated as “Jews” in many Bibles), Christians have been guilty of using them as justification to commit horrific crimes against Jews throughout time. While this is too big a topic to explore and resolve in a footnote, the unread sections of Acts surrounding our reading today are rife with language that fuels anti-Jewish biases, and it is too important to not mention. Here are a couple resources for engaging deeply with scripture while minding the gaps and problems that contribute to anti-Judaism:

--

--

Angela Nevitt Meyer
Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community

Catholic priest (RCWP) all about Love & Belonging | Reproductive Dignity | 🌈 | Evolving Church | Healing Work | She/her