This testimony is taken from Zur Priesterin berufen (“Called to be a Women Priest”), ed. by Ida Raming, Gertrud Jansen, Iris Müller and Mechtilde Neuendorff, Druck und Verlagshaus Thaur (Krumerweg 9, A-6065 Thaur, Austria) 1998, pp. 190 – 200. Translation by Mary Dittrich.
“And this woman, a daughter of Abraham – – – was it not right to untie her bonds – -?” (Lk 13,16)
I was born in Swickau, Saxony, in 1951. As far as I remember, as a little girl I was quite at ease with myself and the family world. Especially close were my ties to me grandmother, a very devout woman. She told the inquiring, inquisitive child of a God who lets children be protected by his angels. Totally trusting of this protection, I felt brave enough at the ages of three and four to set off on “enterprises” in the town which had my worried family conducting search parties. When I was rescued in the nick of time before being run over by a bus, that proved to me the existence of guardian angels. And it was another proof when, after earnest prayers, my lost dolls’ clothes were hanging on the doorhandle of the house. Yes, I lived under the wing of this great God, to whom my grandparents prayed the Rosary every day.
This harmony was rudely shattered by my father’s flight. Just after Christmas he suddenly disappeared, and in their fear nobody answered my questions. For nearly a year I, a six and seven year old, was uneasy and sad, and I gradually realised that his God lets his children suffer too. Didn’t he do just that with his son, Jesus of Nazareth?
Hungrily I absorbed all that the catechetist told us about this Jesus during the afternoon RI class. And even at that time I gathered that this faith, which comforted me, wanted something from me: I believed I must bear witness before my atheist classmates and that meant, for instance, being the only one in the class who was not a “Young Pioneer”. So I became an outsider early on. Once my mother had managed to flee via Berlin to West Germany with us two children, my younger brother and myself, and we were reunited with my father in a small village in Lower Saxony, I felt with my eight years that in the new reality of life there was no longer that “Guardian Angel security”, despite all the fervent nocturnal prayers that remained unanswered.
In that period of first doubts I experienced an uncommon “comfort”, which became my mission. A dear nun from Glücksburg, who looked after me during a convalescence, prophesied: “You’ll do honour to your name!” Despite all the negative experiences later on whenever I spoke of my religious journey, I have treasured these words of encouragement – – until today.
My name laid a duty on me, and so at first I plunged especially keenly into the preparation of my First Communion. I wanted, come what may, to prove myself worthy, and soon I was our parish priest’s pet pupil. My heart was afire for this Jesus as friend and “Bridegroom”; I wanted to be as pure as Maria Goretti and I was in despair when I again “sinned”. I almost became a confession junkie; nowadays I see in this education towards confession and purity, the nucleus of certain of my ailments.
The “worthy” reception of the Eucharist was in a way the first step on my road at that time to piety.
As my parents turned down my longing to be sent to a school run by nuns and I carried on in a state school, I tried there to stand up for my religion as being one of a tiny bunch of Catholic girls. For instance, I insisted on my own R I (which at that time was often missing in the diaspora) and on Mass attendance. Especially on the longer school trips I must have got on the nerves of my class teacher. For example, on a three week visit to Rome I claimed personal freedom so as to gain the indulgences at the time available in Roman churches. Typically for one going through puberty, I was torn hither and thither between my background education in fidelity to Church and catechism, and fresh doubts aroused by the large dose of classical literature I was then gobbling up.
Active work in our parish community was for me a matter of course. I should have loved to be an altar girl, but I had to be content with leading prayers, and being a reader and group leader. In my youth I became increasingly critical of the parish priest. To the dismay of my parents I walked out several times on his sermons as their “ideology of suffering” seemed to me to lack human dignity. Or I refused point blank to attend Mass, which brought down my father’s punishments. For instance, I had to learn by heart Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs poems in the “Geistliche Jahr”.
My struggle with faith became the essence of my life. I had within me the nun’s words, and it became clear to me that I would prefer the spiritual path. That was reinforced by the Second Vatican Council, in which I invested great expectations towards the end of my school days.
But more and more queries piled up within me. In many a talk did I seek an answer to what burnt inside me – – my calling? What calling was open to women in the Catholic Church? My parents were already aghast at my wish to study theology after my school leaving exams and dragged me to various “people with experience”, who of course advised me to steer clear of theology. One of these, I remember, was a professor, now dead. “If you study theology, you’ll fail and experience suffering – – ” Such well meaning warnings even then led me to suspect that there must be something amiss with a Church that can offer its women – with a calling – nothing but suffering!
My wish to study theology and be available to others had developed consistently for me since my childhood. My school friends understood it, but my parents still found it impossible. How could a girl do such a thing? Further, in my family there was already enough failed theologians. However, the parental efforts to dissuade me failed. I stuck to my guns.
A priest friend from the former German Democratic Republic had advised me to choose Münster for my studies, as excellent theologians taught there, I worked till the semester started so as to have money, and in October 1969 set off for Münster, a totally unknown city. I don’t know how I summoned up the courage. I just felt sure I was doing the right thing.
Full of enthusiasm I plunged into theology. I found exegesis especially important. To me, the faculty and the body of students seemed to be one by community, and at first I saw no difference between the so-called clerics and laypersons. But I was soon to be enlightened. I was a little woman student who had to earn money on the side as an unskilled worker, and I experienced the “luxury” of the candidates to the priesthood, who were looked after in special accommodation and for instance given special coaching for lectures by Karl Rahner and Johann Baptist Metz. I thought that unjust. And so, together with women friends I made use of acquaintance with future priests so as to profit by this coaching, in other words by better training.
At that time most Catholics still had no consciousness of injustice in the situation of women in the Church. Feminist theology was still almost unknown in Germany, and we women were at first happy indeed to be accepted as students of theology, so called lay theologians. The profession of parish and pastoral worker had not yet developed.
In about my third semester, I again went through a major faith crisis. I have mentioned already that externally there was no great distinction between laywomen and clerics, and so it was quite natural that relationships developed between female and male theology students, with no attention at all being paid to celibacy law. The fresh spirit of the Council led us to believe in a new, undogmatic Church, so that the celibacy problem was held not to exist until personal decisions were called for. Some of the men stood by their women and abandoned their clerical path. Others just left the women to deal with their own problems. I was deeply moved by the grief of these women, and stood by them as best I could; many of the inhuman rules of this Roman Church were beyond my understanding. I looked for spiritual support in questions besetting me, and instead of help I came on a double standard that weighed on me – just do not let any of this be known.
When in this situation I met the man I was to marry, who was ready to renounce his clerical status, his consistency impressed me enormously. At the time I did not yet know his true motives; these I learnt in the course of a painful joint history.
I had understood what a humiliating role women can play in the Roman Catholic Church, and no longer sought comfort from clerical counsellors, but in the Bible itself. And here I found it. How unbelievably liberatingly and encouragingly this Jesus of Nazareth had stood against patriarchal structures relating to woman! His word: “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham – – was it not right to untie her bonds on the Sabbath day?” applied to me too, the little theology student, now really and truly aflame for the message of this man, who gave upright walking and dignity to the twisted woman.
I myself was to experience many a distortion – – –
First of all, I found as my examination theme the liberating attitude of Jesus to the women in his vicinity as reported in particular by the evangelist Luke, and in comparison the ambivalence of Paul. At the time I did not yet know that the pastoral letters are post Pauline. I had to get approval for this subject, which came from within me. I started work, and this led to meeting Ida Raming, who was working on the legal equality of women in the Roman Catholic Church. Taking her and Iris Müller as examples, I could see how hurtfully qualified women were treated if they did not toe the line.
After a Catholic upbringing with its anti-sexuality and the dearth of successful role models, I had no idea and no experience of what love and marriage really mean, and made that decision which was to have serious consequences. If I could not follow my call to the priesthood, my way, so it seemed, was to marry a priest. And he was still “a priest forever”, as stated in the Papal laicisation document, even if he might no longer exercise his functions. Did we now not have the chance jointly to build up a kind of partnership, as it were a new priestly service?
Not for many years did I realise that the community of interest had been an illusion.
In meantime I just saw myself as a “good” Catholic wife in the procession of those wives who existed only “in” and “through” their husbands. And if difficulties arose, according to the classical model that was surely my fault, and I had better double my input into the family and the school – – That led almost to self-abnegation.
My horizons went on shrinking, rather as with the picture of the crippled woman. I submitted, and sacrificed myself, according to the theology I had once rebelled against, but which in the meantime. I had internalised.
The common suffering just got worse. Instead of helping others, I was desperate for help myself. I had relinquished my own theological feminist ideas, my strength sapped by the kind of marriage my husband and I were living.
For a long time I was up to my neck in an unceasing struggle to survive. Only slowly did I comprehend the pathological structure of the tie between me and my priest-husband. The difficult process of discernment lasted about 15 years. For me it was surely a significant purification. What still distresses me is that I have let it weigh on my three children, not intentionally but in fact. They have not known a sheltered childhood; they are the children of divorce, with all the negative effects till the present day.
My hope is that we shall be freed from these fetters by a loving and humane God, freed and raised up like the twisted woman, and thus made whole.
And so I am on the way. With my remaining strength I work in my “fromm” (Transl: see p1) way for a brother-and-sisterly, solidarity-minded Church, in which nobody will be discriminated against for their sex, and in which charismas can develop fully. I get courage for this from, among other matters, the People’s Church movement “We are Church”. After years of resignation I am experiencing in the alliance with similarly minded women and men an enthusiasm for a renewed Church like after the close of the Second Vatican Council.
My own life story is the main driving force in what I am now doing; I know what it leads to, for instance, when a timorous and insecure man gets clerically overrated, or when a woman is repeatedly pressed into a mould, marginalised and treated as a pathological case.
Why should efforts to secure reforms not spring inter alia from personal dismay?
But my own source is my faith in this motherly, saving, mysterious God, who became human in Jesus of Nazareth.
And while I myself have had direct experience of exclusion and oppression, I believe it is high time to put and end to injustice in the Roman Catholic Church and open ordained ministry to women. An initial step, long prepared, would be the diaconate for women.
We women can no longer accept that the reality of our lives, our spirituality, our knowledge and our creativity are often rejected and disallowed in this Church. The sufferings of our sisters over the centuries until the present day should be our constant spur. The female side of God must no longer stay hidden. The “fullness of life” is to be experienced only in the full opening out of maleness and femininity. Is that not a wonderful spur towards overcoming fears and changing rigid hierarchical official structures?
We Catholic women in particular ought to amalgamate our strengths in sisterly solidarity and raise the roof! And it would be a good thing if we had male support.
At the First European Women’s Synod in Austria in 1996 I found more encouragement to “walk upright”. There we women were urged to “empower ourselves” towards what we feel called to. Action will bring about change.
And so at the Synod I discovered a special emblem, the Purple Stole. Since then, together with other women, I make abundantly clear the sinful subordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. We demand conversion to a redemptive coexistence of the sexes in church and society.
Only by working for the realisation of my dream of an intact Church, in which people can meet one another free from fear, do I derive the strength to witness in hope and joy to the Good News, and that especially in my profession. With every little step I feel the fetters dissolving, how I myself find healing, how I am slowly being straightened up by my belief in the love of God.
I pray that this source of strength will allow me to hold out against all the troubles, enmities and disappointments over the slowness of Church reforms.
It’s hard for me to have patience, and holding my breath will be another test for my present wish, which is for me, a “failure”, to exercise my vocation to the diaconate.
Whether I can bring to an self-renewing Permanent Diaconate my experience and capabilities, and how my personal and so far unlived gifts are appreciated by this Church, the Ruach will reveal to me.
Follow Up Up to the Bishops’ Conference in Fulda in September 1997, the “Purple Stole” campaign had heard from more than a hundred women wishing to assume the function of priest or deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
As our letter requesting the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference to accept these declarations of preparedness elicited no answer, we set up a hundred coloured, life size cardboard women with purple stoles in the Cathedral precincts as a very visible sign. The covering motto was: “We’re not made of cardboard”.
The bishops refused even to take note of our vocations as gifts to the Church. Even the cardboard women seemed to frighten most of them.
I myself started off with the illusion that I would be able to hand over a further petition. Not a hope: the woman was restrained, and held fast by three policemen. This picture is engraved in me: like clerical pomp and power apparatus is decisive in fending off women, and as in the parable of the unjust judge (Lk 18, 1-8). pleas are at first not heard. But just as in Jesus’ promise in this parable that god will grant speedy justice to the chosen if they cry to him day and night, after a long wait the petition was accepted by the personal secretary of the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference.
Again in the smiles of two auxiliary bishops, and in the handshake of one of them, human regard came through. In that I see inter alia an element in building a bridge to a fraternal, solidarity within the Church.
I would like to conclude with a further sign of hope: At the international meetings of People of the Church in Rome on 11 October 1997 – 35 years after the launching of the Second Vatican Council – men and women from 16 nations wore the Purple Stole at the communal Mass, some of them in highly artistic hand worked versions.
Within just one year this idea has spread worldwide. For that I am deeply grateful. Let’s go on trusting the divine Ruach – – –
Maria Angelika Fromm – 1997