My friends, this past week the Church lost a wonderful man of God, Fr. Paul Nelson and I’d like to dedicate this homily to him. He was one of only two male priests in this diocese who when I announced my up-coming ordination eight years ago, sent congratulatory comments. Fr. Nelson gave encouragement and spoke in terms of gratitude for Robert and I listening to the Spirit and following in this path. Later when the bishop at that time, Bernard Harrington, at a priests’ gathering spoke disparagingly of me, Fr. Nelson moved among the groups of priests and spoke positively of the ways he knew me and that the bishop was wrong in his assault of me and Fr. Nelson told me of his action in another gathering we both were at soon after this event.
Through his 55 years as a priest, Paul Nelson was a model of goodness, strength and right-living, following in the footsteps of our brother Jesus. Those of us who attended Cotter High School in Winona during his tenure as principal recall his words to us time and time again as he tried to instill in the student body, in us as individuals, the importance of always living up to our humanity. “Have the intestinal fortitude to be men and women,” he proclaimed and followed it up by pounding on the podium for emphasis. It was this same intestinal fortitude that helped him to deal with his own personal addictions with truth and honesty. We could follow him because we knew he didn’t just talk about goodness, but emulated it in his own life. He had a winning smile that was always on his face and he welcomed all.
Over the years he counseled other women who felt the call to priestly ministry to pursue it within a Protestant denomination that ordained women and he assisted them in doing this—this was in the days before Roman Catholic Women Priests and other groups that ordained women within the Catholic family.
When I pursued certification with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, I needed episcopal endorsement as a layperson. In addition, I needed the recommendation of a priest in good standing in the diocese who would vouch for my character and catholicity. Even though he wasn’t my official pastor at the time, he was willing to stand up for me. All the priests who knew me at this time wouldn’t have stood by me, because I was already, 20+years ago, “rattling the cage” so to speak, within the Catholic church.
In a homily that Fr. Nelson did in the past for this 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, he began his comments reflecting on a song done by Bing Crosby and the Count Basie band, entitled, “Everything is Beautiful.” Within this seemingly light song, comes a line that calls each of us to task, “No one is as blind as the one who refuses to see.” I believe Fr. Nelson lived out his priestly ministry always trying to be aware of the truth and acting upon it.
I remember back in the days of Bishop John Vlazny when Fr. Nelson was rector at the Cathedral in Winona—there was an inclusive language group studying at the church, of which I was a part. Fr. Nelson printed up our study and findings about vertical (God) language and horizontal (people) language that made the connections between language and power—those with the words (male language) have the power. He thought, and rightly so, that the entire community had a right to know what we were discussing. The bishop disagreed. “No one is so blind as the one who refuses to see.”
Paul Nelson was open to a Vatican II Church that was bigger than the law—his Church was about love, mercy and compassion—everything that Pope Francis is advocating for today.
When people, you included, applaud me for my action in becoming ordained, I know that I stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before me to show me the way. Fr. Nelson was one of those. He did his advocating for change a bit on the sly and it often had to be somewhat undercover as I explained above so as not to lose his place in active ministry, which I understood. I had invited him to my ordination and he responded, “Kathy, I’d be there in a heartbeat, but I’d be defrocked before I got out of town!” So, for myself, having nothing really to lose, as I had no position of power, I could follow the Spirit and do as she asked.
Eighteen years ago, as I completed my Masters’ Degree in Pastoral Ministries at St. Mary’s University here in Winona, I was privileged to be chosen by my class to give the reflection at our closing liturgy. I reflected on the same readings that we are using today as it was at the same time. Not knowing what the readings were ahead of being chosen, I marveled at how the Spirit had chosen the perfect readings and saw to it that a woman would reflect on them.
First, we are given the wonderful reading from Isaiah today wherein he was really standing out as the prophet that he was, uplifting the feminine face of God. The Israelites are back from exile and Isaiah wants them to know how much their God loves them, has always loved them. What better, more enduring and nurturing image than of a mother feeding her young—this is true intimacy and the tenderness of the image is one that we must not miss. Exegetes tell us that the word given by God in Hebrew for “comfort and compassion” is “womb.” In other words, our God loves us as a mother loves the product of her womb. Isaiah unfolded this image in a patriarchal culture that was about power and control, much as today.
In all my years as a Catholic, this reading from Isaiah would have been used at least every three years in the Cycle of Readings and I had never heard any priest ever lift up this feminine image for God. Could we say that it wasn’t the focus of an entirely male clergy?—perhaps—I’ll leave that for you to decide. But I found myself marveling that the Spirit in her wisdom chose a woman to proclaim a message about the feminine side of our Great God.
The Gospel reading for that liturgy as for today from Luke spoke of the harvest being rich, but the workers few. Back 18 years ago, knowing me, I proclaimed to my colleagues and our families that there was an easy solution to the workers being few! Just as the Scriptures proclaimed the Feminine Face of God and Jesus’ words called for more workers for the harvest, it was clear the intent of our Loving God—it was time for our Church to affirm women in priestly ministry just as our God has always affirmed women. As Fr. Nelson lifted up, “No one is as blind as the one who refuses to see.”
I began this homily sharing about a man who has gone to his heavenly reward and I will conclude with something he once said to me in confession—“Kathy, you have a good heart!” To my friend, Fr. Paul Nelson, you too have a good heart—may your good heart rest always now in God’s good peace.