God is good! While we’ve been busy fending off the blows from decades of rampant priest abuses, God has been quietly calling and preparing women for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. (What?!) And, in spite of persistent threats (and official decrees) of excommunication from Rome, these courageous and inspiring women have been answering the call. Halleluiah!
It all started with seven amazing women from around the world and two bishops on a riverboat in the Danube on June 29th, 2002 in a little town called Passau between Bavaria and Austria. When the Vatican was tipped off, they attempted to sue the owners of the boat to prevent the ceremony, but their attempt failed. More intrigue was in store when the hotel room of one of the three presiding bishops was mysteriously locked from the outside. He was unable to attend. But the ordination took place anyway as planned, complete with all the necessary rites and rituals. The women were ordained in true apostolic succession, a critical component to the validity of priesthood in the RC tradition. (Apostolic succession is the laying on of hands by a legitimately ordained bishop, a practice that the Church claims has been uninterrupted since the papacy of Peter the Apostle.) According to RC Canon Law, if the women had been ordained in any other manner, their ordinations would be invalid. Since they were valid ordinations, the Church can only stand on an archaic Canon Law which denies them recognition based on gender alone. (Is this even legal?)
After the original seven were ordained, they received a Papal “Admonition” to repent, which they declined. (Why, they say, is it valid for men to receive seven sacraments and women to receive only six? Why should we be exiled to serve in the priesthoods of other denominations, when we have served the Catholic Church so long and so well?) This response was answered with a Decree of Excommunication signed by twelve cardinals as well as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later installed as Pope Benedict. So if they are excommunicated (these and their approximately 100 successors), then…are they really Roman Catholic priests? I say yes. Absolutely.
I say yes, because, having viewed their substantial theological, pastoral, and spiritual certifications, their qualifications exceed many of the male priests already ordained. Having read the bios of over twenty RCWP’s, I can tell you they are also holy and humble. Because they are of course unpaid as ministers, they keep full-time jobs as teachers, nurses, counselors, and pastoral assistants. So they work twice as hard and they do it for free. (That’s what I call a vocation.) Some of them are even married and raising families. Theirs is an entirely new paradigm of priesthood. They do not want to be called Mother or Reverend, because they feel that they are here to serve the people—you and me—the Body of Christ. And because of that, they are only comfortable being called by their first names, Irene or Janice, Eileen, or Alice. They will not use titles that place themselves above the congregations they serve.
Ever the curious, I drove down to Princeton, NJ during Holy Week to have lunch with one of these inspiring women, Eileen DiFranco (recently quoted in the Newsweek article “What would Mary do?”). Eileen was ordained in 2006 in Pittsburgh. She celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday out of a United Methodist chapel in Philadelphia, because no Catholic church will give her access. Of her congregation—the St. Mary Magdalene Community Sanctuary of Peace—Eileen says, “We are a discipleship of equals that welcomes all of God’s children to a place where charity and love prevail.” Currently her congregation numbers in the fifties. Eileen, who spent seven years preparing for her ministry in the Lutheran Seminary of Philadelphia (because women are obviously not welcome in Catholic seminaries), was also threatened with excommunication by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, who called her a “public scandal.” I can tell you that she is not a scandal. Far from it. She, like the other womenpriests (they prefer one word), is humble, highly educated, intelligent, and hardworking with a profound devotion to Jesus Christ and to the Catholic priesthood.
One of these days, Rome will stop fearing women and start employing them. Their survival depends on it, don’t you think? If Rome doesn’t wake up though, well…now there are choices.