This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev. Željko Evetović and Rev. Ronny D’Cruz, Memorial of St Charles Borromeo at St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, 4 November 2023.
I’ve recently returned from the month-long Synod on Synodality in Rome. Much of the media buzz around that meeting was about whether it would commend the ordination of women to the Pope. It didn’t. But it’s an elephant in the cathedral that I can hardly ignore…
Ours is a society that glorifies sex while denying sexual difference, and so finds it hard to understand either priestly celibacy[i] or a male-only priesthood. People think men and women should be treated equally in the Church as elsewhere, and that women might even bring particular gifts to the clerical state. They have their point: too often women have suffered inequity or misogyny. So let me say clearly that I deplore sexism and unjust discrimination, and would not want to hurt any woman discerning her path to God.
Contemporary discourse about women and the Church commonly neglects their roles as wives, mothers and homemakers, teachers and catechists, nurses and other professionals, scientists and artists, politicians and scholars, consecrated religious and parish workers… The Archdiocese appreciates this enormous contribution, as does the Way. Women looks to us to help them juggle their various roles, economic hardships or relational difficulties. Poor, trafficked, abused, refugee, prostituted or widowed women need even more support. Handing out albs and stoles won’t help! Indeed, for many ordinary Catholic women talk of the diaconate may seem a great distraction: even were there 50,000 female deacons to match the male ones, this would represent less than one ten-thousandth of the world’s 700 million Catholic women.
In our archdiocese women are very much at “the decision-making table”: as principals of most of our 150 schools, CEOs of hospitals and nursing homes, leaders of two theologates and many ministries and departments. Women direct ecclesial movements such as the Neocatechumenal Way or are active on the diocesan curia, finance council and other committees, seminary and university faculties, and parish councils. Were there quotas, we’d have to sack several women leaders to pare their numbers back to 50%! It’s plain false to claim that lack of “access” to ordination precludes women from exercising authority in the Church.
Of course, more could be done to ensure opportunities for women’s leadership and service, and to valorise and support it appropriately. The Holy Father recently extended the lay ministries of acolyte, lector and catechist to women. Roles in consecrated life, parishes and movements should be promoted so more women might contribute to the Church’s contemplative and evangelical lives.
The “reservation” of holy orders to men raises important theological questions: What is the relevance of God being Father and Son, of His coming as man in Jesus, of Jesus choosing men as apostles, and of the apostles appointing only men as deacons and presbyters? Is the settled teaching of the Church and the recent popes, including Pope Francis, that holy orders are reserved by Christ to men and that the Church has no power to change that,[ii] erroneous? Is the honour given to the Virgin Mary, the Magdalene and other holy women of the New Testament, to the virgin martyrs, mystics, foundresses and others, diminished by their not being clergy?
What do we make of the fact that, while deaconesses assisted women in intimate situations such as baptism and sickness in some parts of the early Church, they were not ordained with the Rite of Deacons, or to the preceding minor orders, or to the priesthood? Should we abandon our theologies of the human person, of Christ’s relationship to the Church, and of priestly paternity?[iii]
If women can be deacons but not priests, what becomes of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the unity of the sacrament of orders? Or is the advent of women deacons intended to make women priests and bishops irresistible—as it proved for the Protestant churches? Were the Church to do a U-turn on all these matters, what would become of her teaching authority more generally? How would it affect relations with the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox? These are not merely emotional or sociological matters: they go to core beliefs about God, revelation, tradition, personhood, Church and ministry.
What does the ordination of these two men, Željko and Ronny, ask of them as men? It is our Catholic faith that God created humanity male and female, each sex with a distinctive ‘genius’ and complementary to the other.[iv] Jesus was “like His brothers in every way” but sin (Heb 2:14-18; 4:14-16; Gal 4:4-5; Fourth Eucharistic Prayer), and His priests must be conformed to Him, demonstrating a Christ-like masculinity. Bold, courageous, resolved, with that “perfect love [that] casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). Ready to serve others generously “like brothers”, as Paul counsels in our epistle (Rom 12:3-13), or like the good shepherd in today’s Gospel, laying down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11-16; cf. 15:13; 1Cor 13:4-8; Eph 5:25). Willing to take up the cross and follow Christ to Jerusalem and beyond (Mt 16:26; 20:18). Able to demonstrate a masculine strength and gentleness, intellect and affection, justice and compassion to a world deeply confused about sex and gender, but fearing ‘toxic masculinity’, machismo and chauvinism. In Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow opens with the bold statement: “Christianity is the only world religion with a chronic shortage of men.”[v] Ronny and Željko must help us get their brothers back to church! They must be living icons of Christ the brother of humanity.
They will be conformed to Christ as brothers, but also as husbands. Priestly celibacy is a nuptial gift, a gift of body and soul for the good of the Church as spouse. So, theirs must be a husband’s protectiveness of his ecclesial wife, a husband’s determination to provide. They must be living icons of Christ the husband of the Church.
At childbirth and baptism mothers give thanks for the safe delivery of their child, and fathers give thanks that they did not have to go through it themselves! But for priests the travail has just begun (Gal 4:19-20). To call these two men fathers is to highlight their role in siring a new generation of God’s People. Missionaries of the Neocatechumenal Way know we are all spiritual babies at the start of our journey, that we all need to be accompanied and catechised through many stages of initiation and maturation in faith. We are not philanderers, bringing spiritual children into the world at baptism and then abandoning them! We stick around for them, seeking to raise them to “maturity in Christ” (Eph 4:16). Our two new priests must teach, sanctify and lead God’s children from womb to tomb. They must be living icons of the Fatherhood of God.
Anointing his spiritual children’s ears and mouths at Baptism, the priestly father seeks to enable them to hear all God has revealed and proclaim it in word and deed. He calls them back for Confirmation and Communion, Absolution and Anointing, Matrimony or Orders. He forms them by evangelisation and catechesis, prayer and worship, pastoral care and witness. He joins the parents and godparents at Baptism promising to raise the child in the faith of the Church. And so we call him “Father”.
Ronny, my son, from a Catholic upbringing in Goa, you pursued a career in food technology that brought you to Australia for post-graduate. You say that at that time you followed your own ideas and desires, but could make no sense of sin, suffering and death. As you drifted away from God, He pursued you into your darkness. He brought you to rely less on yourself and more on His Son, to examine the meaning of life with those on the Neocatechumenal Way, and to hear your calling at World Youth Day. Yours has been described as a journey from cynic to servant, and today you say YES to being conformed to Christ forever as a spiritual father.
My son Željko, you grew up in Serbia without benefit of religion. You were a national boxing champion, a soldier and a secular young man. But you received a call—a phone call—from your own father, exhorting you to seek Baptism. You now believe this was the seed of your priestly vocation. But you still had to learn virtue amidst the upheaval, violence and corruption of civil war and the substance abuse culture. Members of the Way announced God’s mercy to your restless heart, watering that seed that had been planted in you. You entrusted yourself to Word, Sacrament and Community on a journey from pugilist to priest. Now you, too, stand ready to offer your all—body and soul, heart and mind—for the service of God and His people.
Soon, Željko and Ronny, you will discover what a privilege it is to be called Father, even by people older than your parents. Christ came as the new Adam, as spiritual father of the human race. He made the Church for Himself as bride and for humanity as mother. When you do those things most central to your priesthood, you will stand in persona Christi, in the person of that new Adam (cf. 1Cor 15:45-50). You, too, will be brother, husband and father to humanity. And you will be entrusted with some part of God’s household needing your priestly brotherhood, husbandry, fathering. “Who is the faithful and wise servant whom the Master puts in charge of his household, to feed them at the proper time?” Jesus asks. “Blessed is that servant whom the Master finds doing so when he comes.” (Mt 24:45)
[i] See “Homily for the Ritual Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev. Richard Sofatzis and Rev. Matthew Lukaszewicz,” 11 September 2023 https://www.sydneycatholic.org/homilies/2023/homily-for-the-ritual-mass-of-ordination-to-the-priesthood-ofrev-richard-sofatzis-and-matthew-lukaszewicz/
[ii] Pope Pius XII, Sacramentum Ordinis: Apostolic Constitution on the Sacred Orders of Deacon, Priest and Bishop (1947); St Paul VI, Response to a Letter of the Archbishop of Canterbury (1975); Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insignores: Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (1976); St John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (1994); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Response to dubium concerning the Teaching contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1995); International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2004); Pope Francis, General Audience, 26 March 2014; Phillip Pullella, “Pope reaffirms ban on women priests,” Reuters 6 April 2012; Joshua McElwee, “Pope Francis confirms finality of ban on ordaining women priests,” National Catholic Reporter 1 November 2016; Zelda Caldwell, “Pope Francis explains to America Magazine why women cannot be ordained priests,” Catholic News Agency 28 November 2022; Hannah Brockhaus, “Pope Francis on women deacons: ‘Holy Orders is reserved for men’,” Catholic News Agency 25 October 2023; Pope Francis, El Pastor: Desafíos, razones y reflexiones sobre su pontificado (Ediciones B, 2023) https://www.foxnews.com/world/pope-francis-reaffirms-priesthood-reserved-men-cannot-be-changed-include-women.
[iii] On the theological reasons for a male-only priesthood (and diaconate) see: Benedict Ashley, Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation (CUA Press, 1996); Henri deLubac, The Motherhood of the Church (Ignatius, 1982); Simon Gaine, “Ordination to the priesthood: ‘That the one who acts in the person of Christ the Head must needs be male but need not be a Jew’,” New Blackfriars 83:975 (May 2002), 212-31; Scott Hahn, Many Are Called: Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood (Image, 2010); Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption (Ignatius, 1988); Geoffrey Kirk, Without Precedent: Scripture, Tradition and the Ordination of women (Wipf & Stock, 2016); Thomas Lane, The Catholic Priesthood: Biblical Foundations (Emmaus, 2016); Guy Mansini, “On affirming a Dominical intention of a male priesthood,” The Thomist 61:2 (Apr 1997), 301-16; Francis Martin, The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1994); Marc Ouellet, Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy (EWTN, 2019); Gerard Müller, Priesthood and Diaconate: The Recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders from the Perspective of Creation Theology and Christology (Ignatius, 2002); Alex Reichel, Priest and Bride: Why Men Only are Made Priests (Sydney: St Francis, 2000); Important works by Sara Butler include: “The priest as sacrament of Christ the bridegroom,” Worship 66:6 (Nov 1992), 498-517; “Priestly identity: Sacrament of Christ the head,” Worship 70:4 (July 1996), 290-306; “Women’s ordination and the development of doctrine,” The Thomist 61 (Oct 1997), 501-24; The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church (Hillenbrand Books, 2006).
[iv] Gen 1:27-28; St John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem: Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women (1988); Letter to Women (1995); Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline, 2006).
[v] David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).