The Sheep At The Fence


I originally heard the story of the sheep at the fence from an American man who had been to Ireland on business. While he was there, Sean, one of the local men, invited the American to spend Saturday with Sean’s family and enjoy a home-cooked supper. Shortly after the American arrived, Sean’s daughter came into the room saying, “Papa, I saw a sheep with its head poking through the fence. It was looking at me very strangely.”

“Ah. He likely found some tasty grass to nibble on just this side of the fence. Don’t mind him. He’ll find his way home.” he replied and sent her off to play.

A little while later, his daughter came back into the room. Again she said to her father, “Papa, that sheep is still looking at me from the fence.”

“Not to worry. It’s just one of our neighbor’s flock and is a likely just very curious fellow.” He sent her off to help her mother in the kitchen.

They all sat down to supper and after they had finished eating, the children cleared the table and started the dishes. The daughter returned a third time, insistent that the same sheep was still looking at her through the fence. Intrigued, Sean finally decided that perhaps he needed to take a closer look at this nosy sheep. Looking out the window, he saw nothing odd about the sheep. He figured maybe he should take a walk and as he drew closer he realized something was wrong. The sheep didn’t make a sound or even try to run away. When he got right up to it, he could see what they hadn’t been able to see from afar: the sheep was stuck in the fence. Worse, the poor thing had been completely devoured where it stood and only the head and front leg remained intact.

This story came back to me as we headed into Lent. Lately, I’ve found myself speaking far more openly about women’s ordination and my inability to reconcile my experiences of God with the teaching of the Catholic Church. That struggle isn’t a new one.  It dates back to the days before my First Communion.  I can still show you the spot on which I was standing when the nuns explained to my shocked and horrified little self that girls would never be priests. But such things are not spoken of good Catholic circles. As I’ve finally given up any pretense of acceptance, I’ve heard privately from other Catholic women faced with the same struggle. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all of them. “Have you ever been able to have an honest conversation about this with any priest in the Church? Because I tried and they shut me down immediately. I was told is these are the rules. Follow them.”


Seriously guys, can’t we do better than that?

I know these are the rules. I get it. But please realize that if the best answer the shepherds can come up with is, These are the rules. there are a lot of sheep who are going to stay stuck in the fence. They’re going to stare back at pulpit with empty eyes, looking for all the world like they’re part of the flock when in reality they’ve been eaten alive by a myriad of doubts and emotions until they end up spiritually dead. If the Catholic priests are to be the shepherds Pope Francis is asking them to be, if they are really going to smell like their sheep – all of their sheep – they need to take a little walk along the fence line and figure out how to help the ones who find themselves caught in the fence. Either find a way to guide them safely and fully into your pasture or find a way to turn them loose so they are free to find safety in another one.

Why do I keep writing about what I see in the Catholic Church? Because I hear things that some priests never will simply because I’m a woman and I’m more out than in now. That makes me a safe sounding board. I hope by bouncing back what I’m hearing, maybe, just maybe, it will open up the floor for a more honest conversation about women’s ordination. No, the rules won’t change but maybe given an honest conversation, some of those women who find themselves caught in the fence will either find their way back in or gracefully find their way out. A true shepherd would rather see his sheep safe in another pasture than dead in the fence. After all, a good shepherd can always recover a lost sheep.

Who Cares?

Who cares…

I wonder that some days. Actually, I wonder that a lot of days. I scroll through Twitter and Facebook. I interact with people I know very well and many I don’t know at all. For almost seven years now, I have kept this blog, not always as faithfully as I would have liked but I’m human and I do the best I can. I’ve shared my ups, my downs, my doubts, my fears, my hopes, my mountaintops, my valleys and my deserts. So what?  Who cares? I’m one woman. I’m no saint. I have no answers to life’s great questions.

And yet, I continue to write. I continue to share my life with not only with those I know well but with those I know not at all.  Why? Because to quote the poet Sylvia Path, “I write only because there is a voice inside me that will not be still.”  I continue to write and to share even when I come under attack.  Why? In the words of comedian Ron White, “I had the right to remain silent. I did not have the ability.”

No really, I don’t. I’m still sifting through my long Twitter exchange with Fr Paul last weekend.  Why not just shut the laptop and walk away?  Why get sucked into a debate with someone with far better credentials than my own?  Why continue to publicly argue about my personal life?  With someone who has no bearing on my life whatsoever?

Because it’s not just me.

I am not the only one.

And somebody needs to speak up.

The funny thing is I had spent last Friday and part of Saturday morning rereading my writings, both public and private, about my struggles over the past year or so. I was preparing to meet with my spiritual director that coming Monday and it has long been my habit to review where I am spiritually and emotionally before those sessions. So when the debate started, I already knew precisely where I stood. I know. I know. Fr Paul will be howling heresy and pride and God only knows what else.

But here’s the rub. I have heard privately from many other women over the past year or so. Some wholeheartedly disagree with me. Some have found peace and wish that I could as well. Some are deeply distressed over the Catholic Church’s teachings. Some consider leaving or already have left. Some stay and continue to struggle, feeling dishonest and disconnected. I don’t try to sway anyone to one way of thinking or another. That is not my place. We all have to wrestle with God in our own way. And let’s face it, He always wins in the end. But the thing that bothers me so deeply is when I hear women say they have no one to turn to, no one to have an honest, open, heartfelt, non-judgmental conversation with about this subject. That is because the attitude expressed by Fr Paul above is the attitude of many in the Catholic Church, ordained and laity.  Who cares? Church teaching is church teaching is church teaching is church teaching. So suck it up Buttercup. Tow the line and shut your yap. Or else…

It seems like someone should care. So I ask, and not for the first time, How do you shepherd women if you won’t hear them?  How do help them find healing when you won’t see the wounds? How do you know what their experiences are if you don’t listen, really, truly listen with a deep and honest empathy? How do you guide women who are too afraid to really say what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing in their relationship with their God?

In many ways, the relationship between individuals and their church is like a marriage. Any marriage has many moving parts, but any good marriage has a solid foundation of trust and love. If one partner cannot speak honestly out of fear of repercussions, trust fades rapidly. As trust fades, the relationship begins to falter.

One cannot truly love without trust. Without trust and without love, the relationship will fail.

So who cares what one individual says?

Who cares if one woman leaves the Catholic Church?

Will you care when two women leave?

Will you care when five women leave?

Will you care when twenty women leave?

When will you care?

Because if there is going to be a real, loving relationship between the Catholic Church and her people, somebody has to care enough to have the conversation.

Will You Hear?


It started with a blog post entitled ‘Ringing Hollow’, which in a moment of sheer brazenness, I not only tweeted the link to but also tagged the Pope himself. The tweet lead to a response from some who saw it. The response lead to a conversation. And then in that one conversation, a nun told me she was seeking new ways to engage the unchurched and unbelievers. It was worded, to my sensitive eyes, as though they were one and the same. I replied with the tweet that started some incredible new connections:

Many unchurched strongly believe in God but not in the churches. Churches have become more about moral codes than love & mercy.

Since that made it’s way around the Twitterverse, I’ve found myself in some amazing conversations with Catholic priests, sisters, deacons and lay ministers and some of other Christian denominations as well. And I keep thinking to myself, these are the ones who should be running the churches. These are the ones who don’t dismiss what they don’t understand. They ask. They listen. I mean they really listen. And while we may not always agree in the end, we have found much common ground. I walk away feeling heard. They walk away understanding some of the issues facing those abandoning the pews. I can’t tell you how much it has eased my pain just to know someone cares enough to even make the effort to try to understand.

But sadly they’re not all like that and I have a few words for those who have only harsh admonitions for ones like me. For just five minutes, for the love of God, please just hear me. After that, go ahead and argue. Call me what you will. Disregard me if you dare. But make sure you’ve actually heard me. Not because I alone matter much, but because I am the voice of many who will never dare to speak up. They will drift quietly away and leave you wondering why your churches are empty.

An Open Letter To The Church:

You speak much but listen little. How can hear me if you don’t listen?
You say we have enough commonality in Jesus. On that I agree.
But if you really believe that, why must I be a cookie cutter of you?
His house is quite big enough for all of us.
I say I feel frustrated by the inconsistency between the total acceptance and love that Jesus taught and what has been cherry-picked to be crafted into strongly enforced laws.
You tell me I don’t see the big picture.
I say divorced people need to be openly welcomed, that not all marriages are sacramental and some needed to end. To find honest sacramental love after a divorce would be an incredible blessing but it shouldn’t be a choice between church and spouse.
You tell me you storm heaven to protect the institution of marriage.
I wonder if you know Jesus unlocked the gates of heaven 2000 years ago and hears my whispers just as much as He hears your racket.
I wonder too if you have forgotten that marriage is more than an institution. It is about very real human beings, and some of them happen to be gay.
I say as a woman I feel sidelined and rejected.
You tell me to go read books written by men that explain my place.
I say women should be ordained, not to be equals to men but to bring balance to them.
You call me a heretic before I can finish my sentence.
I say I feel hurt.
You say go elsewhere.
I say I’ll go elsewhere.
You say I’m sulking.
You say things are changing.
But I no longer listen to what you say.
Did you ever stop to think that maybe I didn’t want to go? That more than anything I only wanted to be accepted, loved and heard.
So now I’ll say this, and hope that you hear me:

I no longer feel safe or nurtured in that which was home. My wounds are too deep. I need time alone with the only One who can heal them. What lays beyond that, I don’t know. Please don’t say I’ve lost my way because I didn’t take your road home. My Shepherd knows the path He’s asked me to walk. You may not recognize it. You don’t have to. I do and little by little He shows me. Truly, it’s a blessing that He shows me so little. If I saw the whole road, I’d likely run screaming back into my assigned pew, duck my head and beg Him to choose someone else.

And if you don’t care what a nobody troublemaker like me has to say, that’s okay. But maybe listen to Fr. Mark who so wisely said,
‘People get lost when love gets trumped.’