What My Grandma’s Death Last Month Has to Do with Women Becoming Priests

My grandmother and me at Christmas a couple years ago

Today is my Momo’s, my grandmother's birthday and so I remember her with great grief and fondness. I was with her and watched her as her life neared its end just last month on September 4th.

It was a profound experience. One that I will be unpacking and playing through again and again for a while. All I can say of it right now is that death is weird; it doesn’t feel real. I think she’s still here even though I know that she’s not.

She was 80. She lived many years, and we all know death happens. But the reality of it is so so sad, all the same. The realization that I’ll never hug my grandma again or hear her laugh is crushing.

Someday I might write more eloquently about death and grief, but right now I want to reflect on women, priesthood, and the Catholic Church. I hear you saying "wait, how is this related to the death of your grandma?"

Well, in the midst of all the despair of being with my dying grandmother, I was watching amazing women take great care of her and my family. Nurses at Mercy Hospital in Canton, Ohio cared for my grandmother and also laughed at my crazy family’s jokes as we created our own comedic relief. One nurse facilitated Momo’s dialysis, and then took her hands remarking “cold hands; warm heart” in the deepest of caring. When Momo went into the highest level of sepsis, another nurse took a lot of time to explain to my mom and me what that meant. When it came time to meet with the hospice nurse, she was such a good sport and laughed when my irreverent-humored grandfather asked her about her age, and called her an, I quote, “old broad” when she replied “42.”

In those two days that felt like years, I saw so many young women doctors, women my age, attending to patients in their white coats. It made me so proud.

I was at the foot of my grandmother’s deathbed when I saw a self-assured, middle-aged doctor across the hall jaunting in and out of a patient’s room in the Cardiac Unit. She was a boss; I could tell. I imagined what her career would have been like, going to med school, and being in a field where her title, “doctor” still elicits a masculine face in most people’s imagination.

In that moment I thought, “I want to walk with purpose like her. I want to go in and out of patients’ rooms like a boss.” My self replied, “You don’t have the skill to be a doctor, but you could go in out of patients’ rooms like that as a priest.”

Whoa, what?! Where’d that come from?!!!

Priesthood. Hmm. It felt true. “Yes, I could do that.”

Now, I’m not proclaiming that I have a call to the priesthood. I don’t know that ordination is my lot in life not only given that I’m “Catholicish,” question my belief in Jesus, and oh yeah...I’m a woman with a vagina and that somehow incapacitates any ability I have to perform priestly duties in the great, Roman Catholic Church. But also, I don’t know if the whole ordination thing is what God wants for me. Just the word ordination gives me an “Uhhh, I don’t think that’s for me” kind of feeling. But I’d probably give it more thought if it was even a possibility for me.

Regardless, I resonate with the words of St. Therese of Liseux: “I feel in me the vocation of a priest.” What I mean by that is I feel and embrace my ability and desire to serve people in the way priests are meant to. I have the talent, the charism. I cannot serve people in hospitals the way doctors do, because I have no talent for or inclination towards medicine; however, I know and have seen my great ability to be present with, have compassion for, and empathize with human beings in their human needs. I feel in me the call to be with people in birth, marriage, sickness, death, confusion, joy, the day-to-day, and so on.

I share this to emphasize the fact that the ability and desire to spiritually lead is the prerequisite to be a spiritual leader rather than possessing genitalia deemed worthy of ordination by a religious institution. I’ve met a couple ordained priests who might have had the male prerequisite, but it turned out that they weren’t great priests, just dicks.

It would be ridiculous to tell someone, “I see you have the ability and talent to be a doctor, but you can’t save lives because below the waist we need ______ organ.” Oh right, women have been told that. Misogyny: the age-old reason maannyyy women haven’t been able to exercise their charism to be doctors or CEOs or President of the United States or priests.

But we can, we do, and we will.

I know I have this call to be a spiritual leader, because sometimes my talent surprises me. It’s like it’s coming from somewhere else; it’s not my own, but I am a vessel for it. And I believe that this experience is God working through me. At my grandmother’s funeral, I wrote and gave the eulogy. I had the confidence of 200 mediocre white men when I told my mom, “I want to write the eulogy. I know I can do this and do it well.”

When I wrote it, all the stories and feelings my family had been laughing about and sharing about my Momo that past week poured out onto the page. I barely had to think, because I was so aligned and tuned in to the task. When I stepped forward to offer the eulogy to my family, my grandma, and those who attended the funeral, I had the thought, “I was born to do this.”

And I know that I really was, because there was not a dry eye in that Church after I spoke about the kind of woman my Momo was and what she meant to us. This was a service that I could offer, and it meant so much to my family and the people that received it. The funeral director whispered to me as we processed out of the Church, “I’ve been doing this for many years, and that, by far, was the best eulogy I’ve heard.” My aunts and uncles requested copies to keepsake. My uncle said my grandmother would have been proud. Another funeral home employee joked that I should write his eulogy. A week after the funeral, my grandpa called to tell me that he had gone to his Italian business club meeting, and his friends remarked on how great the eulogy was and “that made him feel really good.” My grandpa called again just this past weekend, and said he had read the eulogy again; he said I put into words everything that he would have wanted to say about my grandma.

As ego-boosting as all the praise is and was, it is indicative of a service I could bring forth because of the person God created me to be. The eulogy I gave was as good and meaningful as any male priest’s homily, and I even proclaimed it from the same pulpit in the same Catholic Church. Yet, my future homilies will have to be shared with the world in other ways, because the Sunday pulpit is reserved for men-only. This is a poverty and privation for myself and my sisters who have a message to offer, and it is especially a poverty and privation for the people who need to receive it.

My heart is far from being done grieving. I know many tears are in store for me today, because my Momo, my dear grandmother and my favorite person has passed on to another place instead of celebrating her 81st birthday. But I have the most gratitude to you Momo for the way you lived and the way you died: courageous, joyous, and peaceful. You gave me and our family such an indescribable gift in the way you left this earth, and I am carrying it with me. I’m adjusting to this new way of knowing you and communicating with you, and I’m missing your earthly life. But I know in my bones that you are still with me. As often as I came to you for guidance about life when you were here, I will be coming to you every day for guidance now. Give me the strength to love like you did.


©2018 by Rachel Schmidt