Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ministry of Prophetic Obedience: Don Cordero

Some readers of this blog have commented about the relationship between the women's ordination supporters and supporters of a married priesthood. I don't think any story symbolizes this connection quite as well as the lives of Juanita Cordero and her late husband and former Jesuit priest Don Cordero.

By Juanita Cordero
New Women, New Church
Spring 2008

My call to ministry began when I was about six years old. I vividly remember playing priest in our backyard. Those dreams were tucked away and after high school I entered the Sisters of the Holy Names in Los Gatos, Calif. where I remained for ten years. In 1969 I left and went to Phoenix, Ariz. to teach. What lay ahead of me was a mystery that would slowly unfold.

In 1971 I married Don Cordero, a former Jesuit and was immediately kicked out of teaching in the parish school. Needless to say neither of us had a job as Don too was told to pack his bags and leave his parish in Santa Clara. We managed to return to California and together raised a family of five children.

Music liturgies were very much a part of my call to ministry, so Don and I began one of the first music groups at the Mission Church at the University of Santa Clara (in California). Don led the group every three weeks while I played the bass and helped plan many liturgies. We also started a prayer group that lasted over thirty years. In 2000 Don was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

In 2003 Don and I visited his nephews in Chicago where we attended mass at an Episcopal church. There I met my first woman priest. She seemed so natural in presiding over the Eucharist. I again felt the call to the priesthood but I quickly dismissed it. Besides I was teaching full time at De Anza College and I was no spring chicken.

Then one afternoon Don began mentoring Victoria Rue who was preparing for diaconate ordination. Later, in 2005, Don and I traveled to the St. Lawrence Seaway for Victoria's ordination (this time to priesthood in the RCWP movement). He was the emcee, along with Victoria's partner, Kathryn Poethig. A few days before, Don had attended the gathering of Women's Ordination Worldwide in Ottawa and heard women theologians speak. That experience convinced him this movement was here to stay.

Just before that ordination, I had participated in the Witness Wagon, a bus trip that linked the women's movement with the movement for women's ordination. On the bus, I listened to the stories of women from around the world and realized that my call to priesthood was surfacing again. I would wake up in the middle of the night and keep saying, "no God this can't be happening. I'm too old for another life change." Later, the people in our prayer group encouraged me to answer that call. Don was less sure of the whole process until we sat down one night and talked. Afterwards he said, "I support you one hundred per cent." So I had some long conversations with God and said, "If You want me to do this, then I will write to Bishop Patricia Fresen and see what happens." Soon afterward, I was accepted into the Roman Catholic Womenpriests program.

Don had always wanted to be called back to the priesthood as a married priest, but when Victoria invited him to co-preside during Sunday Masses at San Jose State with her, he realized that he was being called back to serve others as a priest.

In 2006 Don began feeling the effects of his cancer spreading, but he didn't know that was what it was. That same year, I was ordained a deacon in Pittsburg with eleven other women. Soon after, Don and I started a home church, joined by Kathleen Kunster, who had been ordained a priest in Pittsburgh. We named our church the Magdala Community.

Don began six months of chemotherapy in January 2007. In the last of those chemotherapy months, on July 22, 2007, I was ordained a priest in Santa Barbara. Don was really there for me at my ordination. We had both been up all night, though he was very sick at that time. By then the cancer had spread to his bones. On September 15, 2007 I celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. Don was very weak, but he insisted on giving the homily. It was also our 36th wedding anniversary.

Thanksgiving Day 2007, Don officiated at the marriage of our third daughter Rebecca. The day before we had gone to Kaiser for a blood transfusion just so he could have the strength to go through the ceremony.

December 1st was the last time Don worshipped with us at the Magdala Community. I knew it was going to be his last liturgy. Everyone individually anointed him with oil. When all had blessed and anointed him, Don suddenly sat straight up and with determination and utter fragility gave everyone his last blessing.

He died a week later.

On January 5, 2008, I presided at Don's funeral Mass. I had made Don promise two things: that he not die alone (which he didn't, the three girls and I were present) and that he give me a sign after he died. The day of the funeral, we were standing waiting to process into the church and a huge thunderbolt hit. I turned around and said, "Thank you, Don."

Walking Together: Woman Priest and Married Priest
By Victoria Rue
New Women, New Church
Spring 2008

As a woman preparing for priesthood, Don was my mentor. Bill Manseau of CORPUS had linked us up after the first male married priest he had assigned me had died suddenly before we had had a chance to meet. Don later said, "hope this is not a cycle!" But in retrospect, perhaps it was meant to be that way, to walk with Don in his dying, as did so many others who loved this philosophical, charismatic, quirky, spontaneous, breaker of all decorum, married priest.

Don and I met almost every Wednesday for a year and a half. The planned hour always went longer because we would get to talking, laughing, enjoying the spark that happened between us. Juanita would sometimes join us too. How amazed I was when I found out that Juanita had been in the same religious order I had entered for one brief year of my life. It's like that at the Cordero house—a place of connectivity.

I remember at the first meeting with Don, after I'd sent him my statement written to Bishops Christine Mayr Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster about why I wanted to be ordained. Don chuckled as he turned the four pages, smiled, and said, "I didn't really get why you wanted to be ordained until page 3! That's where you said 'I want to consecrate my life to God.' That's it, Victoria. That's the real stuff right there."

At one meeting Don said, "You know, they'll try to invalidate you. We've got be assertive with the validity of your ordination. So if the diocese or anyone repudiates it, you could say right back to them—how do you know my ordination is not valid? Have you talked to God?" That was quintessential Don, cutting to the quick, but always with humor.

Another day we discussed the sacrament of reconciliation. Don said, "As a priest you'll communicate the goodness of the person. Compassion. Not pious-isms. Like the Buddha, compassionate with no judgments, because forgiveness is fundamental to human beings." Another time, "One thing I've learned, you can't be a priest 24 hours a day. It's too much. You've got to give your-self some time off too." So true, Don.

And then I remember the day he wanted me to "practice" the Mass with him. He had given me a Sacramentary as a gift. We'd gone back to the house. We got out the bread and wine. He showed me how to navigate the "priestly manual." But as I began, I kept stopping, "Don, this language does not fit in my mouth! It's all exclusive language!"

"Yeah, I know," he said. "Change it as you go along." So I did. Later he cautioned, "But, really, Victoria, if you look you'll find some very, very beautiful prayers in there."

As a married priest, Don knew how to hold the old with the new; he knew the tension of the past and a future yet to be realized.

As our meetings multiplied and our friendship deepened, it was clear to me that with-out contemporary models, I was inventing my priesthood, but for Don he was re-inventing his own.

As an astronomer, Don always looked to the immensity of the cosmos for philosophical reflection. Now he is the stardust of which he marveled.

And this woman priest, in every sacrament at which I preside, feels the guidance of her mentor and hears his faith-filled laughter, as she continues to hold in tension the tradition and the not yet, right now.

Photo of the Corderos shamelessly "borrowed" from the Cordero Family Web site.

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