by Miriam Therese Winter.
New York: Crossroad, 2001, 260 pp., $19.95, hardcover.
Reviewed by Beth Ramos
The black brocade looked stunning. It was the perfect dress for a night such as this. She slipped silently out of the house into December darkness, so she would not have to explain to her parents why she was in her party clothes leaving home at such an hour. (p. 9)
This is not the opening of a newly discovered novel by Charlotte Bronte. This story, as romantic as Jane Eyre, is true; and the love story it tells—between a woman, her God, and her Church—is as poignant.
The backdrop of Ludmila’s story is the story of her faith-filled, optimistic parents, who, in 1924, left their small hometown to begin their married life in the city of Brno. They were drawn by the promise of the new republic, Czechoslovakia (a republic only since 1918), with its many jobs and cultural activities. Ludmila’s father was a hard working and idealistic man who taught his children to learn all they could and to live from their goodness. Her mother managed a household of twenty people (fifteen children, four parents and an auntie) with humor and grace that seemed to flow directly from the Holy Spirit.
In 1964, Ludmila began living out the giftedness of her parents as the vicar-general of the Koinotes Community, the underground church of Czechoslovakia.
The leader of the underground church was Felix Maria Davidek. Felix had grown up in a home very different from that of Ludmila. His mother was ill, and his father, a tax collector in Brno, was apparently absent. It was under the guidance of his mother’s doctor and his grandfather that Felix became an avid student, but it may have been the influence of Ludmila’s family that led him to the priesthood. Ludmila’s brothers studied piano with Felix’s mother, and he and they became good friends. In fact, Felix considered Ludmila’s home his second home, her father his second father.
He was an impassioned man who, from the beginning of his seminary studies, had difficulty with the official church. At first, his immediate superiors called his study of medicine inappropriate, because being a doctor seemed inappropriate for a priest. Later, in 1950, soon after he ignored a direct order from his Bishop to stop teaching in the Underground Catholic University that he had established, he was arrested by the Communist Party.
During his fourteen-year imprisonment, Felix Davidek celebrated the Eucharist with his brother prisoners, using teaspoons for chalices and bread crumbs for hosts. The injustice of the gender bias prohibiting women’s ordination was tangible to him one day as he was walking down along the wall separating the men’s prison from the women’s. He realized that the women had no access to the nourishment that comes from the Sacraments because they had no priests. So he shouted the words of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (“I absolve you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), knowing that it would be received by his sisters on the other side He also knew that he would be put into solitary confinement. This became a pattern for him until his release from prison in 1964.
In the interim, the Vatican had forbidden attendance at the state run seminary because the only priests there were loyal to the state. Davidek asked Ludmila to help him contact the men who had left the seminary when this order had been given, and to assist him in helping the church.
In the years that Felix was in prison Ludmila had almost entered a convent, almost got married, and in her own way had been ministering to everyone she could. She heard in his request for help the voice of the Spirit giving her the opportunity to do what she had committed her life to when she was a child—to bring the people to God and God to the people. Mature, intelligent, and cautious, she gave a provisional yes. The two agreed to work together for three months and then reevaluate, but the re-evaluation never really happened. Within days, she knew that she too would give her life for this work, and the partnership she entered with Davidek was to last until his death in 1988.
A Woman’s Ordination
On December 28, 1970, Ludmila Javorova was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop Felix Davidek and served as a secret priest in the Czechoslovakia underground church until the Iron Curtain fell in 1990. The most complicated suspense novel cannot touch the intrigue with which these two priests, one male and one female, had to live their lives. Nothing they did was documented, but everything was done within the structure of the laws of the church. The network they established included 19 bishops. As Bishop, Davidek himself ordained 68 priests, including Ludmila’s father and her brother.
The ordinations of these two men, because they were married, and Ludmila’s, because she is a woman, are not recognized by Rome. And out of respect for the Church she will not practice her priesthood. This is what she says about her decision:
I cannot say I do not accept the prohibition I have been given, because I do accept it. … They were speaking legally on the basis of church law. … But the sacrament also has a sacral aspect. … When we speak from this perspective, nobody can tell be that my priest hood does not exist, even if they say that these two aspects cannot exist apart from each other, but only in harmony [my emphasis])… In the history of salvation God accepts things at certain times that are not permitted at other times. God permitted my ordination. (p. 241)
When I read these words, I let go of a long deep breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. “Oh, Ludmila,” I sighed. “But they do exist in harmony, and you are the song they sing.” And then I chuckled. The Singer and the Song is the title of a memoir by the book’s author, Miriam Therese Winter. “God is the singer,” Miriam Therese tells us in her memoir, “and we are the song.”
It was the melody of the Spirit within my own life that I heard as I read Ludmila’s story.
I grew up in a town so small that our church was the town hall and the priest a missionary. I remember counting the candles on the altar when I was five years old because two meant it was a “low” mass and I would just have to listen, but six candles meant it was a Holy Day and I could sing! I remember leaving the church after my first Penance (Confession) feeling that I was best friends with God. And the next day, when I received my First Holy Communion, I was a princess in God’s kingdom. I also remember realizing when I was 10 that because I was female, I couldn’t be Pope or President and the next most powerful thing I could do was to become a parent. My desire to be “powerful” came from my confidence that God wanted me to bring God’s graces into the world, and I seek to fulfill that commitment as a wife and mother, and through my avocation as a family life educator.
There are times when I am very angry with the injustice of the gender bias within the Roman Catholic Church that doesn’t allow me to do all that I do and be priest too, and I fully expected to find this anger reinforced by Ludmila’s story. Instead, I understood (gasp) and appreciated (gasp again!) the dilemma presented to most members of the universal church by her priesthood. My sense is that she wanted to keep her priesthood hidden because she didn’t want “the rug pulled out from under people’s faith,” a very valid ministerial concern. But when it became public, she accepted that also as God’s grace. Ludmila’s story is the story of a priesthood without pretense, one without authority but not without power. She never celebrated a public mass, and very few people knew she was ordained; but her prayer life changed because she knew she was praying as a priest. When she celebrated the Eucharist, she invited the blessed Mother and other Saints to be with her, so even though it looked like she was alone she was in Communion with the eternal, universal church. As she went about her daily life, people who felt they couldn’t go to a priest would talk to her and go away feeling reconciled with their lives and their God, and she felt that God was directing her priesthood.
Perhaps the humility and commitment with which Ludmila lives out the prohibition to practice her priesthood, even in secret, is an extension of God’s direction. Perhaps the fact that she tried to keep her priesthood hidden and could not is an extension of God’s direction too. Jesus said that the Kingdom is now and not yet. Perhaps the time for Women Priests in the Roman Catholic Church is now and not yet also. Perhaps now that a woman has publicly claimed her priesthood, we will recognize ourselves within her story. Perhaps we will find each other and then, one day, like the walls of Jericho, and the Wall in Berlin, the wall between the men and women of the Roman Catholic Church will just come tumbling down.
© 2001 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of EEWC Update, Volume 25, number 2.