Glimpsing a Land beyond Limits

Why Catholic laywomen study theology

By Barbara R. Bodengraven

I would like to be able to say that my decision to pursue a graduate degree in theology as a middle-aged mother of two was determined solely in a moment of profound contemplation, a moment of prayerful insight, but that wouldn’t be the truth. It was determined, actually, during my third grade reading group in a moment of consternation and outright confusion. It was 1965. I was nine years old and attending Our Lady Help of Christians Grammar School in Newton, Massachusetts. I raised my small hand in the middle of Sister Paul Marie’s over-crowded classroom and asked one of the most basic of all liturgical questions.

“Why can’t girls help out at the altar, Sister?”

Paul Halloran stopped kicking the chair in front of mine and turned around to stare at me in dumb disbelief, his plaid clip-on tie askew. Sister pursed her lips before honoring me with a reply.

“It’s God’s way,” she said firmly. “Girls honor God by being good. Boys honor God by being good and being altar servers.”

What nine-year-old could argue with God speaking from the mouth of a woman encased in full nun regalia, whose waist was hung with a wooden rosary so large the beads were the size of gum balls? We resumed reading. The story, I remember, was not only ridiculous but dull as dishwater: boy and girl ride bikes to the church rectory. Girl wears matching orange knee-length coat and “beanie,” white ankle socks, sturdy brown shoes. Girl waits for boy while boy goes inside rectory to speak to pastor about becoming an altar server.

I began to separate from the story as soon as I glanced at the girl’s inappropriate bike-riding outfit. I rode my bike around our neighborhood all the time and wouldn’t have been caught dead in a get-up like that. I figured a grown man had written and illustrated the story and wouldn’t know that girls don’t ride bikes in skirts. He also wouldn’t have known that our school beanies lived at the bottom of our green drawstring book bags, never seeing the light of day until we were about to enter the schoolyard, at which time we’d whip out the small, circular woolen hats and clamp them on our heads as part of our school uniform.

My two older brothers were altar servers. One of them hid Playboy magazines under his mattress. The other one amassed piles of worn athletic socks under his bed for days on end, which sent forth a ripe odor throughout the entire upstairs. Both of them repeatedly got in trouble for various infractions. Suddenly, I was affronted by the very incongruity of it all, though I could not articulate it then. And there it was—the question that made me shoot my hand up in class and halt our foray into the world of third grade parochial literature. Why can’t girls help out at the altar, Sister?

In one 30-second exchange, a woman defined by her limits felt it was only her duty to introduce me to my mine. It was then that my first real moment of learning occurred. I used my own tools of judgment and personal experience to reject what a teacher had to say. It was truly one of my life’s most empowering, supreme moments. I didn’t know it then, but in that moment I had not just separated from the uninspiring story we were reading aloud, I had begun my critique of an all-male hierarchical construct of God’s church on earth. I knew something better to be true. I felt it in my bones.


At Weston Jesuit School of Theology I encountered other limits; the limits of my own intellectual understanding, to be sure. Theotokos. Christotokos. Homoiousios vs. Homoousios. “Who do you say that I am?” Sacramental theology. Christology and culture. The Arian controversy. Patripassianism. I tried to process all of this, wondering on many occasions if anyone else in any of my classes wanted to stand up in the middle of a lecture and ask the most obvious question of all, the reason why we all seemingly chose to study Christian theology in the first place: “What do any of our books and academic discussions have to do with Jesus Christ here and present among us now as we live and breathe in the twenty-first century?”

I have never been one for dillydallying. I want to cut to the chase. I want to know who Jesus is and I want to know—really know—why, on earth, he should love us so in all our frailty, fragility, and weakness. This is it—the question that propels me further into the deep. And how, on earth, are we supposed to amount to anything of substance and strength when we are beset by mortgages, elderly parents, errant children, and broken water heaters, not to mention broken hearts? If I am to believe a communiqué that came in at me out of the blue one late afternoon while I stood at the stove stirring spaghetti, it is that Jesus loves us, not despite our weaknesses and limits and imperfections, but because of them. There are absolutely no expectations of perfection—spiritual or otherwise. This was certainly contrary to what I had been taught as a young Catholic girl in the 1960s. We were, most assuredly, to try to achieve spiritual perfection in all our earthly endeavors and roles as caretakers and future mothers. But we were also told that because of our fallen state as sinners (not to mention our female chromosomes) we actually had no hope in heaven of ever achieving this end. We were doomed from the outset, told to achieve something that was, in fact, impossible for us—an odd and confusing dynamic, for sure.

To meet a seemingly normal “soccer mom” who spent 20 hours a week trying to get her arms around the crucifix, so to speak, was a social turnoff.

I can’t rightly say what it was exactly that I was hoping to get out of my graduate theological education in terms of career paths and 401(k) plans. But why had I enrolled at Weston Jesuit? As one of my older brothers—former altar boy—said to me on a recent walk through Harvard Square: “Didn’t you get enough of that theology stuff as an undergrad at Boston College?” I was at a loss to explain to him, agnostic that he professes to be, that I think St. Ignatius was a genius, a master among all people here on earth, a touchstone to the Great Lord of all. I could not encapsulate, let alone articulate, the incredible transforming power of the Spiritual Exercises designed by St. Ignatius to draw us closer in relationship with God. I don’t mean the God who supposedly required that my brothers don “sissy” skirts and blouse-like tops to serve at the altar, or the God who would not allow me to cross the threshold of a church without a hat or veil on my head. Not that God. I mean the God who came to me in my kitchen 25 years ago and rescued me from myself. That God. The one who lives in the land beyond language.

“This has been a long time coming,” was all I could respond to my brother.

Financially, enrolling in graduate school to study theology has been a bit of a family conundrum. There is no religious order paying for my tuition as there was for so many of my classmates who signed on to study theology as part of their formation process and training to become ordained priests. Nor is there a parish supporting me in my endeavors. I was there on a greater leap of faith, so to speak, hopeful that my degree would translate into a purpose larger than myself. In the meantime, I tapped into my children’s college fund and worried about paying it back. On bad days when, as St. Ignatius would put it, the “enemy” assailed me with doubts and fears, I thought about throwing in the towel and returning to my “normal” and acceptable line of work as a communications professional. But then I remembered my conviction: We live in the face of the astounding reality of the Resurrection and are, for the most part, at a loss as to how to fully convey this. And so I carried on.

Normally, the mention of my studying theology was a conversation stopper. A dead end. An ice floe botching up the harbor. God is not a popular topic of conversation at either the grocery store checkout or the sidelines of a soccer tournament. To meet a seemingly normal “soccer mom” who spent 20 hours a week trying to get her arms around the crucifix, so to speak, was a social turnoff. There were times, however, when I confessed my life to someone and a real conversation ensued. One of our town’s librarians cornered me in the young adult fiction stacks one day.

“Did you say Weston Jesuit?” she asked, flabbergasted. “You’re not training to become a priest, are you?!”

“Not exactly,” I said. “Not in the way you mean. Unfortunately, the Church is not that enlightened—yet.”

“Well, let me tell you, the Church has some answering to do. Such foolishness about birth control. Such intolerance of other faiths. Not to mention the clergy sex scandals! I left the Church years ago. There’s nothing there for me now.”

The entire construct of the Catholic Church’s last 2,000 years of dogma and doctrine rained down on my head. I felt as though I had been caught fraternizing with the enemy. I shifted the stack of books I was carrying to my other hip.

“But,” I inserted, “the Church is not God. The Church is people trying to discover and say who God is. If you go home and write down your image of God, things will become a lot clearer. You’ll see that what you are rejecting is not God, but the limits and parameters put on God as you have understood and absorbed them through others, through the construct of a Church made up of frail, fragile, and imperfect people.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m too scared. I’m afraid of God.”

Later, when I recounted this conversation to one of my professors, he informed me that I had, indeed, served as “priest” in the encounter.

“Priest!” I said, taken aback. “I don’t think so. I was simply doing what I always try to do—meet people on their own level.”


On campus, I sought out other laywomen in my classes—something that was not difficult since, during my four years of enrollment, laywomen accounted for an astonishing 30 percent of the students at Weston Jesuit.

“Something remarkable has been happening in the Church,” Professor Kevin Burke, S.J., said effusively one day in my “Ethics, Economics, and Liberation” course, wherein we spent a semester examining the effects of a free-market economy on community and culture. “This school was 100 percent white male, generally 25 years old or younger just 30 years ago. Almost all were American, mostly middle class. We had names like Burke and Locke, or Smith. Or Locksmith.”

Those of us who were native English-speakers laughed.

“Take a look around the room now,” he said. “Amazing.”

We swung our eyes to the sides of the room and back around front. We were lay students mixed in with religious. Some of us had gray hair. Some had no hair at all. Several of us had dark complexions, and some had Asian features. We were from China, Peru, Japan, Canada, sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Kansas, and the Bronx. Approximately half of us in the class were women.

In many classes we tended to break out into discussion groups, careful to mix up half and half—half lay and half religious. We needed to hear what the other had to say. We realized we couldn’t perform any future ministry effectively without it. In one small group discussion we inevitably fell away from the topic at hand and into a discussion on the pedophile/priest sex scandal—news that had just broken into public awareness during the second year of my studies at Weston Jesuit. We could barely bring ourselves to discuss it, but we couldn’t not talk about it either. We sighed. We shifted in our seats. We tried to choose our words carefully, but I know I offended two young Franciscan friars when I lashed out in frustration.

“None of this would have happened if women were included at the table,” I said. “No woman ever would have said that that despicable, criminal, and outrageous behavior was tacitly acceptable. None.”

So much for restraint. The discussion veered off to the topic of precisely why women are not at the ordained priestly table. There was no doubt as to my position on the topic. The proliferation of God’s Kingdom has been limited—stymied even—all in the name of preserving tradition, I said, a tradition, I pointed out, that just happened to arise from other, earlier humans’ culture and context. Tradition hasn’t always been tradition. It was not revered as tradition at the beginning. It was actually new interpretation at one point in time. How about if we do it again? Let’s interpret Christ’s love for us in a way that can express that love to a greater degree, to more and more people exponentially. Isn’t the entire point of church to manifest and make known the salvific and liberating love of God? Why would we want to hinder that in any way by limiting ordained ministry to only half the members of the human race? By the time our discussion ended, I was worn out from all the exclamation points jumping around in my brain.


I was amazed by the fortitude and faith of the women I met at Weston Jesuit. Some of them traveled to the school’s small Cambridge campus from as far away as Japan and Ukraine. There were other women—like me—who ran kids to the dentist and trumpet lessons and clipped coupons for the local Stop & Shop in between rising at 4 am to ride the bus lines into Boston from Cape Cod or the northern reaches of Maine and New Hampshire. Still others—again, like me—worked jobs 20 and 30 hours per week while cramming for exams, reading theological tomes and treatises as they rode the subway. Many of us had given up other careers, and all of us sacrificed leisure time, dipped into savings accounts, compromised family togetherness to have the privilege of studying theology with Weston Jesuit’s brilliant faculty.

The fact that there continues to be so many Catholic women going to such lengths to be educated theologically does not surprise Rebecca Fullan, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School last June with a master of theological studies degree.

Some Catholic women hope to attain sanctioned ordained priesthood one day. Tears form in their eyes as they speak about their aspirations. They are not sure they will live that long.

“There’s such a weird dichotomy in the Church,” she said. “Women’s experience is so devalued, yet we are so central to what’s going on. At my home parish in Syracuse, New York, the majority of Eucharistic ministers and lectors are, in fact, faithful and dedicated women. Growing up, I never understood the invisible line that kept women from achieving ordination. In fact, when I was young, my mother asked me who my favorite priest was, and I said ‘Sister Linda.’ To me she was priestly, even without an official ordination. She was a terrific speaker at Mass and full of the love of God.”

As Catholic laywomen, what are our career options upon graduation? We can work in pastoral ministry, hospital chaplaincies, campus ministry, as teachers, missionaries, or lay administrators. And many women do work successfully in just such enriching ministries. However, for Harvard Divinity doctoral student Pearl Maria Barros, options that don’t include the possibility of full and valid participation in all the sacraments of the Church feel unnecessarily and arbitrarily limiting.

“To be a woman in the Catholic Church is to be caught between stagnant tradition and an enriched personal experience of faith, while attempting to build the Kingdom of God through a unique vocation and a myriad of ministries,” she wrote recently in a blog designed for and by young Catholic women. “Being a Catholic woman is a constant challenge to bring the Gospel not only to God’s people, but also to a hierarchical and patriarchal institution.”

According to Patricia Clock, who received a master of divinity degree in 2004 from Weston Jesuit and is serving as a pastoral associate at a parish on Boston’s South Shore, stumbling blocks to women’s ministry in the Church do not originate only within the hierarchy. Plenty of limitations are expressed by parishioners themselves, some of whom are entrenched in archaic and outdated notions about lay and ordained ministry, particularly if the lay minister is a woman.

“Even when I am performing ministerial tasks sanctioned by canon law and the hierarchy as such, people in the pews are questioning the validity of my ministry,” said Clock. “In the absence of a priest, when I put on an alb to preside at a communion service that includes the Eucharist—consecrated by a priest at a previous liturgy—some people see me as a ‘priest pretender’ and walk out mid-service. I have no call to ordained priesthood and certainly don’t ever pretend to be other than what I am, but I would like to be able to live out my ministry without being rebuffed. More importantly, I want to be a conduit for the Holy Spirit, not an obstacle.”

Some Catholic women actively do hope to attain sanctioned ordained priesthood one day, and I am always eager to hear what these women have to say. I understand when I see tears form in their eyes as they speak about their aspirations. They are not sure they will live that long. They are not sure they will ever get the chance to be who they want to be or feel called to be. We ask ourselves how a church that purports to claim social justice as one of its main teachings and tenets can continue to disallow ordination for women, especially in light of the growing priest shortage. There are those who would tell us that we simply don’t understand the “complexities” behind this issue, but in the end it all boils down to one thing: as females, we are our bodies. There is no escaping the limits imposed on us by other people’s perceptions of our sexuality.

Fullan recalled an experience she had at a conference for Catholic youth in Steubenville, Ohio, during her high school years. “At one point, the girls were separated from the boys for a ‘chastity talk,'” she said. “We were told about how valuable and sacred our sexual natures were to God’s creation and the Church as a whole. But then, when we left to attend what the organizers called a special ‘women’s’ Mass, there were several male priests officiating. Not one woman was serving at the altar. How is it we can be so holy and sacred in one respect, but not holy and sacred enough to preside at Mass? Everything they had just told me about how valuable and important my sexuality was in relation to God’s creation was undercut by the reality of that ‘women’s’ Mass.”

There is, of course, always the option of leaving the Roman Catholic Church to join another Christian denomination in order to engage in ordained ministry, and many women have taken this drastic course of action. Many, also, have not. As Barros said, “Who would I be without being Catholic? Being Catholic is not some sort of temporary club membership. It is a way of life.”

But for Viki Borkowski Pretti, who received her master of divinity degree in 2004 from Weston Jesuit and is scheduled to be ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in June 2009, and a priest in January 2010, leaving the Catholic Church was unavoidable.

“I was a daily communicant, as devout a Catholic as you could find,” she said. “For decades I participated in any and all ministries, but it wasn’t enough. I knew in my heart and soul that God was continuing to call me to a priest’s ministry of word and sacrament. I kept trying to avoid the call to ordination because it was, in fact, very painful and difficult. For me, I knew it would entail leaving the Church. It’s very hard to acknowledge a call to ordination when you’re within a church context that tells you you can’t possibly have one.”

There are Catholic women who claim that they have, indeed, been validly ordained by Catholic bishops (and thus have received their holy orders through the required apostolic succession), but who are forbidden to preside at the Eucharist or perform ordained ministerial tasks within the purview of the institutional church. The Vatican decreed last May that all women participating in such ordinations would be excommunicated (denied the sacraments and barred from sharing in acts of public worship). To live out their call, these women, in effect, go underground, presiding at the Eucharist in alternative Catholic faith communities—many of which use worship space at Protestant churches.

Jean Marchant, who holds a master of divinity degree from Weston Jesuit as well as a doctorate from the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Indiana, with 26 years of ministerial experience in the Church, is one of approximately 30 women in this country who has been, as she explains, “validly ordained” by a Catholic bishop. (According to Marchant, to avoid repercussions—excommunication from the Church, for example—the name of the male bishop who ordained the original women priests several years ago will not be publicly released until his death.)

“I felt called to ordination all my life,” she said. “My vision was always to stay within the institutional church and push the boundaries. But when I worked in a professional ministerial capacity for the Archdiocese of Boston, I realized that the call for women’s ordination would never come from the top down. I realized then that many male priests are actually supportive of women’s ordination, but they simply won’t put their own ministry on the line for this issue.”

My favorite days at Weston Jesuit were always Wednesdays, when we gathered together for noon liturgies. On occasion, we were able to hear the insights of women Weston Jesuit professors, scholars of the Church—professors such as Francine Cardman; Margaret Guider, O.S.F.; Catherine Mooney; and Janice Farnham, R.J.M.—as they “reflected” on the Gospel. When women—religious or lay—and lay and nonordained religious men publicly speak during the Mass following the Gospel readings, it cannot be called an official “homily,” but is referred to as a “reflection.” I imagine a hand picking up a quill pen and carefully dipping it into an inkwell: The nonordained and women—not capable or holy enough or insightful enough or spiritually developed enough to deliver a homily. I envision masculine script with bold strokes and thick lines, embossed with an official gold seal. There is always someone, somewhere, eager to give form to limits. My faith leads me to reflect that Jesus Christ knew the limits of human constructs better than anyone. His time on earth was about redefining relationships and breaking molds. In parable after parable, we are asked to look beyond what we know and accept as our understanding of the world and to embrace a larger vision. My understanding of what Jesus had to say is that there are no limits to knowing and loving God.

I have come to understand that Christians cannot hope to recite catechism mindlessly, as I did in my early years—as if truth, in all its infinite mystery, were the multiplication tables—and invoke a faith that will survive the vicissitudes of life. We must learn to invite Jesus into our experience. More often than not, that learning comes by way of suffering, when we bump into our own limits of imagination and understanding and curiosity, when we simply cannot find our own way out of whatever it is that has befallen us. The miracle lies in the fact that, from our narrow human minds and great chaos of human experience, we can perceive the divine presence at all. Most of the time we can only gasp—sometimes from sorrow and suffering, other times from joy and astonishment—and point toward the immense and awe-inspiring possibilities of God with us.


I had a sort of vision one day eight or nine years ago when I was living in Kansas and spending an afternoon folding laundry. Oprah—yet again—on television, holding forth about weight loss programs and inviting members of her studio audience to share their personal struggles with the bathroom scale. I was in the middle of sorting through one last basketful of socks and underwear when, without warning, someone changed the channel of my interior television screen. I puzzled over the peculiar nature of my vision and finally shared it with my spiritual director the next week.

“Father Callahan,” I said. “You won’t believe this.”

“Try me.”

“It was laundry day. Oprah. Daytime TV. My mind going blank.” I set the scene.


“Suddenly, I was walking in the back door of a church jam–packed with people. There was a palpable feeling of disappointment among them, a feeling of abandonment, sorrow, dejection even. A restlessness. ‘What’s the matter with everybody?’ I called out over their heads. ‘What’s wrong?’ As I continued walking down the main aisle, someone at the end of one of the packed pews turned to look at me and said, ‘There is no priest.’ ‘Whaddyamean?’ I asked, dumbfounded. ‘There’s no one to say Mass,’ said someone. ‘Well, look at all of you here!’ I said. ‘Every one of you is a believer! One of you step forward to say Mass.’

“That’s when several rows of people standing in the pews turned around to look at me. ‘You say it,’ they said in unison. ‘You celebrate Mass.’ That’s where my vision ended. I was stunned into silence, stopped sorting socks, turned off Oprah, sat down suddenly on the edge of my bed. Father, I’ve never entertained notions of becoming an ordained priest. What do you make of this?”

“That you are baptized.”


“You are baptized; part of the community of the faithful. You have a place.”

“What place exactly? Based on what? Being baptized as a baby at the insistence of my parents when I couldn’t even say my ABC’s? I’ve never thought about the priesthood for me—ever. God can’t possibly be choosing me to work for this change.”

It is astounding that there is any communication between the human and the divine at all, given the fact that we all insist that God must accommodate our particular realities, theologies, and limits.

What a ridiculous conjecture. Who was I to be saying what God wants of me? Does God want something of me? I am stumped every time God enters the conversation. I don’t know how to talk about God. There are no words I can string together that would ever fully express the reality. The woefully insufficient tool of language fails me every time. God lives in the land beyond language, in the land beyond limits. It is astounding that there is any communication between the human and divine at all, given the fact that we all insist that God must accommodate our particular realities, our particular theologies, our particular limits.

“I don’t understand how any sort of footage like that could have run through my mind,” I finished lamely.

“Do you pray?” Father Callahan asked me after a moment of silence.

“You know I do.”

“All right then. You never know where prayer will take you.”


I love the celebration of the mass. I always have. I have always felt the presence of Jesus there at the Eucharist. It was not anything the Sisters of Saint Joseph needed to make me memorize from our Baltimore Catechism flash cards. At first, I remember being afraid of what I saw, what I knew to be true, but gradually I got used to it, and finally I acknowledged it to myself when I was in third or fourth grade. Jesus is here, I thought, one Sunday while kneeling in the pew, waiting for my turn to file up for Communion. Certainly, no adult ever inquired if I knew Jesus was there. None of the nuns who taught me grammar school were particularly interested in the religious imagination of children, of what we kids had to say about our religious experience. They were too busy teaching us the multiplication tables and the difference between grace and sanctifying grace.


In a dark and damp church 25 years ago, when my new young husband and I were living in Bologna, Italy, I was on my usual Sunday afternoon tourist rounds of the city’s numerous churches, sitting quietly in the back of one church and studying the gilt-edged Stations of the Cross. A tiny elderly woman dressed completely in black came through the enormous double doors. Immediately, she crossed herself and hurried to the side of the church where a life-sized crucifix hung in dramatic display. It was instantaneous adoration and supplication. I had never seen anything like it. She fell to her knees at once, speaking quickly and repeatedly in a loud whisper. Prayers burst forth from her entire vibrating form. Finally, she stood and began kissing and caressing the life-sized feet of Jesus hanging there. Over and over, bowing and kissing, while all the time murmuring supplications.

I was stunned and felt that I should remove myself from such an intimate display of love and prayer. I didn’t know how to get up and leave without her hearing me. But it was over almost as quickly as it had begun. The kissing stopped. The blessing and caressing and bowing ceased. She made her way up the aisle past where I was sitting, never giving me a glance. My presence had not mattered to her in the least. Her energy and electricity followed her down the aisle and out the big ancient doors of the church.

Quietly I slipped through the empty pews and went to stand at the base of the crucifix. The tops of Jesus’ feet were completely worn down, shiny and smooth from the repeated caressing of so many similar supplications. I reached out to place my own hands there, hushed and humbled by what I had just witnessed, by this life-sized replica of his bare and bleeding feet worn smooth by so many human hands, by so many soft and pleading lips.

Editor’s note: Weston Jesuit School of Theology merged with Boston College as of June 2008, forming Boston College’s new School of Theology and Ministry in Brighton, Massachusetts.

Barbara R. Bodengraven graduated with a master of theological studies degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 2005.

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