By Cassidy Klein
Kori Pacyniak, a deacon at Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community (MMACC), looks at a room full of congregants during Pentecost Sunday liturgy and asked, “Do we preach the Gospel in a way that queer youth can hear it?”
It is a question that remains at the forefront of Pacyniak’s ministry as a transgender and nonbinary member of the clergy. Pacyniak was ordained earlier this month through the Roman Catholic Women Priest (RCWP) organization after years of struggling to come to terms with their faith identity and gender identity.
“I often refer to it as the wilderness, the in-between,” Pacyniak said. “Both in terms of faith identities and gender identities, I was really trying hard to fit into boxes that just didn’t fit.”
Catholic ordination was one of those boxes for Pacyniak, who was raised in a Polish Catholic family and felt called to the priesthood from a young age.
“I was 8 years old, and my grandmother asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’” Pacyniak said. “I said I want to be a priest, and she said, ‘well, only boys can become priests.’ I said, ‘well maybe I want to be a boy.’ Because in my mind that’s how things worked.”
In high school and college, Pacyniak became involved with progressive Catholic movements and continued to wrestle with the call to priesthood. They decided to go to seminary in 2007 to pursue a Master of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School with a focus on queer theology to further discern if God was calling them to something.
“I spent a lot of time drifting in and out of the church,” said Pacyniak. “Seminary was a crisis of faith, a crisis of identity. I ended up Episcopalian for while. As someone who was queer and trans and called to the priesthood, it felt like there was no room for me in the Catholic Church.”
When Pacyniak first heard about the RCWP movement during their undergrad, the organization had just begun ordaining women. The first female ordinations happened in Germany in 2002 on a boat on the Danube River. Two Catholic male bishops ordained seven women that day. Those women, and the ones after, have continued to ordain women to the priesthood, claiming to be in full apostolic succession with the Church of Rome. There are now over 260 people ordained through RCWP across the world.
Jane Via, a RCWP priest and bishop who founded MMACC in 2005 and is one of the pioneers of the RCWP movement in the U.S., started the community with the intention of ministering to marginalized Catholics in San Diego. MMACC, she said, is “for driven-away Catholics, for divorced and remarried Catholics, for LGBTQ Catholics, and for Catholics who can no longer worship with integrity in the canonical church.”
Via and other MMACC members, who meet at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Serra Mesa, have always been intentional about using inclusive language and non-gender terms for God. Via helped create inclusive worship aides that are now used all over the country. She and another member also rearranged the lectionary to include all major stories about women in the Bible to be read on Sundays and feast days.
“LGBTQ Catholics started coming [to MMACC] from the beginning,” Via said. “That was another reason for making sure our language about God was inclusive.”
When Pacyniak read about a pastoral job offer at MMACC, they applied and were hired in January 2017. Pacyniak decided to pursue ordination through RCWP after many conversations about whether the organization was women-only.
“[I did not know] of anyone who was openly trans or openly nonbinary [in RCWP],” Pacyniak said. “At first, I presented myself more female and was like, I’ll just deal with this because this is the job I have. Then trying to make sure I could be out as nonbinary, as trans in this organization and still go through the process.”
Being visible as a trans and nonbinary clergy member is a way Pacyniak hopes to be an example to the trans and faith communities. Pacyniak is working to expand MMACC’s ministry to trans Catholics and trans youth in San Diego and will soon set up a spiritual and pastoral support group for trans youth and their families.
“For me, ministry is about serving those on the margins,” Pacyniak said. “As someone who has felt on the margins for a lot of my life, that’s where ministry has to be for me.”
Pacyniak and Via said that all are welcome at MMACC.
“Whoever you are, you are welcome here, no exceptions,” Pacyniak said. “[MMACC] is very come-as-you-are. It’s a place where you can bring your doubts, your frustrations, and your anger.”
The wilderness and uncertainty, though it has been full of struggle, is where Pacyniak feels the “wild love of the Holy Spirit dwell.”
“My own identity as nonbinary has made that middle space in the wilderness more accessible,” Pacyniak continued. “God calls people into the wilderness, sometimes as a test or trial, but also as a time of flourishing. It can be both life-giving and dangerous at the same time. It really has made it so that I cannot exist in a world of black and white.”
As Pacyniak continues to minister and eventually pursue priestly ordination, they are focusing on remaining present and attentive to the radical presence of God in all things and all people.
“[I’m continuing to] learn to be in that wilderness where nothing is given and nothing is concrete,” said Pacyniak. “It’s a little bit like the psalm verse, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ I had to learn to be in the moment, and not be rushing towards an end. To just be in the journey.”
Pacyniak finished their homily on Pentecost Sunday reminding congregants to “translate God’s love into their lives.” To Pacyniak, that translation of love goes beyond comprehension, straight into the thick of the wilderness. The Bible verse Jeremiah 1:5 is one of Pacyniak’s favorites because it reminds them of their known-ness by God in times of deep uncertainty.
“The first time I really remember hearing that verse, I was in the middle of seminary, and I was coming out to my parents as trans, leaving the Catholic Church,” Pacyniak said. “I had no idea which way was up. Just to hear that verse, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. I know the plans I have for you.’ I was just like, great, I’m glad someone knows what’s going on. Someone has a plan.”
MMACC meets every Sunday at 5 p.m. for liturgy at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 2696 Melbourne Drive. Learn more at mmacc.org.
— Cassidy Klein can be reached at Cassidy@sdcnn.com.