Susan Ringler believes she faithfully lived out the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church during her first five decades of life. She manifested it in Paz de Cristo social ministry to the East Valley poor, as a liturgy coordinator at St. Timothy’s parish in Mesa and through ecumenical work.
Until a couple of years ago, she held out hope that lay Catholics and women would gain roles of importance, but the church, she says, has turned hard-line and any dream of eking out more change from Vatican Council II of 40 years ago long faded.
So Ringler joined the independent United Catholic Church, which last Sunday ordained her as a deacon and put her in line to become a priest if she chooses. As a woman, she could hold neither role in the Roman Catholic Church.
"As a Roman Catholic woman, to think that you have a calling to a deeper ministry from God is almost blasphemy, and the guilt associated with that is huge," says the mother of three grown children who trained as a registered nurse. "It took me a long time to realize that my calling was from God." She says the affirmation she received from family, friends and others redoubled her desire to serve more deeply in ministry and assuaged "guilt that comes naturally to Catholics."
Ringler’s ordination took place at Guardian Angels Parish in Chandler, one of three United Catholic congregations of the Southwest Diocese of the national church, founded in 1996 and now counting 2,000 members in nearly 40 parishes mostly clustered around the country. It touts itself as ecumenical, inclusive and nonjudgmental — "a church home for the church’s homeless" (www.united-catholic -church.org).
She was ordained amid the Guardian Angels’ weekly Mass at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chandler. Early in the rite, Ringler lay facedown at the altar. A succession of people — her husband, Gary, a lawyer, daughters Leslie and Katie, four members of the parish and ordained leaders — took turns laying hands on Ringler’s bowed head. Later, the new deacon told the congregation that "I wanted the opportunity to serve. . . . I am thankful for my upbringing as a Roman Catholic."
Ringler spent eight years in psychiatric nursing and is now director of operations at Tempe Community Action Agency. She says her passion has always been reaching out to those in need.
In 1987, she was tapped by her then-pastor at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, Monsignor Dale Fushek, to develop a major outreach ministry to the East Valley’s homeless and poor in the tradition of Phoenix’s Andre House ministry. When Paz de Cristo food kitchen in Mesa served its first meal on Sept. 15, 1988, "we had more volunteers than people to serve," recalls Ringler, who was Paz’s executive director until 1995.
Today, the homeless program, with broad ecumenical support, serves more than 200 meals per night and provides a range of social services. Fighting neighborhood and political opposition to Paz de Cristo’s move to its site and winning Mesa’s approval was the highlight of her work there.
When she became cocoordinator of liturgy at St. Timothy’s, "it just blew me away," she says. For five years, until 2002, she had "the honor to work with one of the best liturgical churches in the country."
"I always was fascinated by liturgy. I went in not knowing anything," she says, but she found she was able to help shape it to resonate with women and the poor.
"I am one of those people who really truly believed for a long time that if you’ve got a position where you can be a voice for the voiceless, then you work within to make changes. The reaction I got from women who saw me up there was, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ They were so grateful seeing me up there telling those guys what to do." In that role, she says, she pushed the envelope to ensure that prayers included "the homeless and the hungry and all the social justice issues and talking about peace."
The parish’s priest, the Rev. Mary Christen, said Ringler’s call to service is "so clear. She is a powerful example. She listens, she talks about community."
Christen said that many other Catholic women "have trained and studied and are called to the ordained priesthood."
Ringler is the third female deacon in the United Catholic Church, said the Most Rev. William Christen, Southwest Diocese bishop, who ordained her. His wife, Mary, is one of three female priests, and there is a female bishop. "We have a lot of couples that left (the Roman Catholic Church) a long time ago because of divorce and remarriages," he says. "Now they have found a community where that doesn’t matter."