Counting Their Blessings
Eucharistic Ceremony Highlights Local Women Ordained as Priests
Priest Andrea Johnson of Annapolis, dressed in a white robe, the red swirls on her sash rippling like water, lifts a goblet of wine to offer Holy Communion at the Stony Run Friends meetinghouse in North Baltimore on Nov. 12. Behind her, Deacon Gloria Carpeneto of Catonsville offers grape juice and gluten-free rice cakes to those on restricted diets.
Ordinary gestures, but an extraordinary stand--not only because the Roman Catholic Church forbids women to offer the Eucharist, but because these women want nothing less than to reform the structure of the church. Timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in downtown Baltimore, Johnson, her peers, and about 45 supporters chose the bishops' meeting as a symbolically appropriate moment to demonstrate their inclusive vision of Catholicism.
"Discrimination, hierarchical power, and exclusion are being challenged here today," Carpeneto says in her homily.
These women envision a Catholic Church in which the laity have a say in who leads them and in which the leadership is held accountable for its actions, says Bridget Mary Meehan, national spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The national group performs female ordinations and it hosted the Nov. 12 liturgy along with the Women's Ordination Conference.
"We are not afraid," Meehan says. "The energy has taken us to a new place."
Johnson was ordained by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests last July, in New York, at the same time Carpeneto was ordained as a deacon.
In the vast ocean of Roman Catholicism, these female priests are a tiny drop. Womenpriests have ordained 24 female priests in the United States, and 25 more are in the pipeline; meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops counts more than 40,000 officially sanctioned male priests.
No matter that canon law 1024 forbids the ordination of women, or that Pope John Paul II shut down discussion about women priests in 1995, these women stake their claim to growing a female priesthood on a tradition that goes back to the earliest church. At the Stony Run liturgy, Womenpriests gave out polished stones of stained glass containing mustard seeds to symbolize the growth they expect from small beginnings.
For the first eight centuries of its existence, the early Christian church ordained women as priests and deacons, Meehan says. Biblical women, such as Lydia, ran house churches, and many first- and second-century Christian gravestones designate women as deacons. It was only much later, after the ninth century, that women were shut out of power.
"The scholarship supports us," Meehan says. "We not only know from the archeological evidence, but we know from the writings of popes and bishops that women in the early church were priests."
The women presiding at the Stony Run Eucharist were ordained by Bishop Patricia Fresen, who was herself ordained in 2005 by three male bishops in good standing with the pope, whose identities will only be revealed after their deaths, according to Meehan. Bishops who ordain women, or anyone else, without papal approval risk excommunication for violating sacred discipline. The new women priests, however, trace their succession back to Peter, the apostle Jesus named the rock of the church, and deem their illegal ordinations valid.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy does not agree. "Women can not be ordained to the priesthood," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. "There's a long and constant tradition in this area."
"It's a bit of a misnomer for them to call themselves Roman Catholics," says Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, which gathers data on the Catholic Church. "They're not recognized by the official Roman Catholic Church."
The women are no longer trying to gain Vatican approval. "We're not complaining, we're modeling," Meehan says. The law forbidding female ordination is discriminatory, and church tradition allows for holy disobedience in the face of injustice, she says. She quotes St. Thomas Aquinas to back up her assertion: "I would rather die excommunicated than violate my conscience."
Womenpriests further maintains that the true Roman Catholic Church is not located solely in the Vatican: It is in the grass-roots body of millions upon millions of believers, many of whom are disaffected by how the power structure covered up clergy sex abuse and who are clamoring for a new direction.
"It's a groundswell of change that will eventually work its way to the Vatican," says Teri Rizzo of Baltimore, who attended the liturgy.
Not only has Womenpriests been ordaining women for the past two years, but the group has accepted gay men, married men, and a man with a physical disability--none of whom would have been considered for the vocation--as candidates for ordination
There's also a practical need that Rizzo and Meehan argue will force open the priesthood. Since 1965, according to the data compiled by CARA, the number of U.S. priests has declined from 58,632 in 1965 to 41,449 in 2007, while during the same period the number of U.S. Catholics increased from 45.6 million to 64.4 million.
"We're a Eucharistic people and when there are not enough priests we're going to lose the Eucharist on a daily basis," Rizzo says. "The Eucharist is so crucial to our identity."
Meehan says that Catholics will react as churches threaten to shut their doors. "People would rather have a married priest, male or female, than close their parish," she says.
Peg Devine of Philadelphia says she started becoming disillusioned with the Roman Catholic Church after her eighth-grade daughter got in trouble at her Catholic elementary school for writing on a school locker. The parish monsignor demanded her expulsion for the act, though the girl had never been in trouble before. Devine says after the Catholic priest sex-abuse scandals broke out in Philadelphia, she decided that something was so amiss with the church hierarchy that she could not go back.
"They aren't doing this right," she says, explaining that she couldn't believe a monsignor would try to expel her daughter for writing on a locker, while overlooking sex abuse by priests in the diocese.
The Catholic Church's sex scandals have undermined the authority of the traditional hierarchy in the eyes of many faithful, not just the Devines. A recent CARA poll shows that 42 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the scandals have damaged the authority of priests and bishops a great deal, up five percentage points from 2003.
Peg Devine and her husband tried an Episcopal church, but it didn't feel right. Then they found the Community of St. Mary Magdalene in Drexel Hill, outside of Philadelphia, a congregation of about 25 led by Eileen DiFranco, ordained a priest under the auspices of Womenpriests in July 2006.
Her family has come home to the Catholicism they loved, Peg Devine says, but wielded with a gentler, more democratic hand. "Just the small things, like Eileen taking the Eucharist last . . . demonstrated humility," she says.
For Meehan, who is also an ordained priest, it's foolish for the Catholic Church hierarchy to deny the obvious conclusion. "[Catholics] are ready for women priests," she says. "When people experience women as priests it's accepted immediately and intuitively as right."
The church's hierarchy doesn't agree. According to CARA, most Catholics aren't even thinking about the issue of women priests. And the first seven women priests ordained on the Danube in 2002 were excommunicated from the church. Since then, no other women priests have been. However, DiFranco says she found a statement by her cardinal on the internet announcing that her actions had been reported to the pope.
Meehan dismisses the excommunications. Once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic, she says. "We are passionately Roman Catholic Church," she says. "What can they do, burn us at the stake?"
Joan of Arc, who was burned to death for heresy in 1431, is a role model for the group. A few decades after her death, the church declared Joan an innocent martyr and, in 1920, made her a saint. The women priests hope the church has a similar change of heart about them and welcome dialogue.
Mary Bunting of Baltimore, who supports the movement, doesn't expect to see the official acceptance of women priests in her lifetime. But it's a beginning, she says, and it's happening. "We're planting a seed of a tree that we will never be able to sit under," Bunting says. "But somebody has to plant it."
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