I have just returned from a day trip or rather a personal pilgrimage, to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. I had only been in Armagh once before, exactly 20 years ago. Having co-founded in 1993 in Ireland BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ), a movement for the ordination of women, I had set out to obtain a meeting with the cardinal primate of Ireland, Cahal Daly. It had taken many letters and phone calls over a year to finally get that meeting. It was a Valentine’s Day card which clinched it: “You have promised me a meeting, what about a date?” The encounter turned out to be immensely painful, for me in any case. What I didn’t know then was that cardinal Daly had been the Roman Catholic representative at the 1978 Lambeth Conference when he had reasserted that the Catholic position on the ordination of women was very well considered and not provisional. This was an effort to dissuade the Anglicans from following that path. He certainly imparted this to me very forcefully. Near the end of the meeting he dropped a bomb-shell. Knowing that I had a sense of vocation to the priesthood, he asked “What will you do if the pope declares infallibly that women will never be ordained?” I was stunned for I had not considered this possibility. “God has never abandoned me in the past, God will not in the future” I blurted out. “I admire your faith…” was his reply. Of course what the cardinal knew then, and which I didn’t know, was that the papal encyclical against the ordination of women was in preparation. Ordinatio Sacerdatolis was released two months later, on May 30th. Just short of infallible. Subsequent relations with Cardinal Daly were fraught. His clear message to me was: “Desist, it’s over” and he refused to accept a petition signed by 10,000 Irish Catholics. Later, his successor, cardinal Brady would refuse to meet :”Rome has spoken”. We had entered winter, and all was now frozen.
Time passed on, and there were many subsequent events and meetings with many more bishops, but the memory of that 1994 morning on the hill in Armagh remained indelibly with me. It had been a most bruising encounter with the ecclesiastical power, then at its height. I had felt the full force of its spiritual violence, and it had wounded me. For years I had known I would need to go back , to re-visit it. The opportunity finally came: I was the guest of a most gracious Church of Ireland priest, Grace Clunie. Grace is director of the Celtic Spirituality Centre in Armagh. As we stood in the sunshine to pray at the grave of Cardinal Daly besides St Patrick’s cathedral, I sensed that after all these years winter was truly over. “You laugh a lot” Grace commented at the end of the day. Twenty years ago I had wept my heart out. The place of devastation had become the place of Resurrection.
Soline Humbert (Vatinel)
Published in March 2014 issue of "Communion" of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research
Note: Ordinatio Sacerdatolis was signed on 22nd May, on the feast of Pentecost 1994