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Who is a saint?

Pope John Paul and President Bill Clinton
Pope John Paul and President Bill Clinton
The recent fast-track beatification of Pope John Paul II has got me thinking about saints.

Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church has canonized at least 12 kings and 60 popes. But I’m always a little leery when people who had high positions in life are given high positions in death. It seems too much like a kind of insider trading.

My favorite image of a saint is a photograph of Therese of Lisieux, who later became known as the Little Flower.

It was taken in the 1890s when she was a Carmelite nun, but she’s not in habit. Instead, she’s dressed in an attractively amateurish costume as Joan of Arc for one of the religious plays she wrote for the enjoyment and edification of the sisters in her convent.

T -106With her long hair (a wig) and direct gaze, she looks like any young woman in her early twenties. Like my daughter. Like the women I see on the el on their way to work.

Like Janine Denomme.

The same spirit

Janine was about 20 years older than Therese, and her hair was short. But, when I looked at Janine, I saw the same spirit — a kind of alive-ness and approach-ability.

Janine once talked about joining me and the other guys from the parish for our weekly men’s basketball game. She never did. But I’m sure she would have held her own.

We were both on the parish council at St. Gertrude Church on the Far North Side of Chicago. She played a prominent role in our Good Friday liturgy two years in a row. She was a pillar of the parish.

But, when she died, we were told by the Chicago archdiocesan officials that we couldn’t host her funeral.

When she died, word came down from the powers-that-be that Janine had forfeited her right to a Catholic burial because, a month or so before, she had been ordained a priest by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, which has ordained more than 100 women worldwide.

Severed her ties?

Essentially, what Cardinal Francis George and his aides told us was that, by accepting what they considered a bogus ordination, Janine had severed her ties with the Catholic Church. She had turned her back on the church.

But that was completely opposite Janine’s intention.

In accepting ordination, she was looking to get even more closely involved with the work of the church faithful than she had been able to do as a lay person. She loved the church. She was committed to the church, even though, as a lesbian, she had been wounded by the comments of some high-ranking clerics.

I know that church leaders in Rome and across the globe are adamantly against the idea — or even the discussion of the idea — of women priests. Consider how Pope Benedict XVI slapped down Australian Bishop William Morris, forcing him into an early retirement, for suggesting in a 2006 pastoral letter that females should be ordained. What heresy!

Yet, I’m one of a growing number of Catholics of both genders who know that women would make great priests.

They’ve made great rabbis and ministers and pastors in other faiths. They’ve made great doctors, public officials, firefighters, college professors, judges, editors, CEOs and cops in the secular world. And, just 50 years ago, these were vocations and jobs closed to women.

They’ve made the world a better place. And women could make the church a better place as priests, bishops, cardinals and, even, someday, popes.

Right turns and U-turns

Despite the Vatican hard line against women priests, the history of the Catholic Church is filled with right-turns and U-turns theologically speaking.

Back in grade school, the Mercy nuns taught me that, essentially, Catholics were the only ones who were going to be able to get into heaven. The others — Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Congregationalists, Baptists and the rest — well, they were heading to the other place.

Then came Vatican Council II, and we were taught that people can follow many paths to God.

I know — I know — that, at some future date, women will be ordained as Catholic priests.

The human understanding of what constitutes appropriate work for women and men has evolved so far that, as long as the Catholic Church continues to ban females from ordination, it will fall further and further out of step.

Throughout its history, though, the church has shown that it will adjust its thinking to fit new human understandings. Call it the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Yes, the early church saw Peter, James and John as priests. But, at some point sooner or later, there will be a recognition among church leaders that many of the women of the early era, such as Mary Magdalene, were just as significant.

A kind of martyr

Janine Denomme
Janine Denomme
When Janine Denomme died, she was a kind of martyr.

Just days before her death, she got word that the archdiocese wouldn’t let her funeral take place at St. Gertrude. To the pain of her cancer was added the emotional pain of her exclusion from her faith family.

Nonetheless, as these things go, Cardinal George’s refusal to let Janine be buried from our parish brought greater attention to her priesthood. Newspaper readers and those who heard about Janine in other ways found out that she was willing to pursue her vocation as a priest, even to the extent of blocked from the religious family she loved.

Her decision to put faith above the “law” as presently promulgated was a shining example to us all — a vibrant light of hope.

Someday, when the Vatican starts ordaining women, the church and the world will have Janine and other women like her to thank. They put their religious lives on the line. Janine risked — and lost — her religious home.

Is John Paul II a saint? I don’t know.

Was Janine a saint? She sure was.

Patrick T. Reardon

This essay was written in 2011. A somewhat different version of it was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 22, 2011. Still another version appears in the book An Irrepressible Hope from ACTA press.

1 Comment

  • Nancy Katz
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:20 am

    Thank you!

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