The dream of egalitarian priesthood is being lived within a Catholic, if not Roman, context at a parish in Rochester, N.Y., where the Revs. Mary Ramerman and Denise Donato along with Jim Callan, a former diocesan priest, serve a "full service" Catholic community. Spiritus Christi was formed by parishioners who left Corpus Christi Parish in 1998 after a highly publicized, protracted tug of war with the hierarchy over women's liturgical roles and ministry to gay and lesbian parishioners. Today Spiritus Christi holds three weekend Masses plus daily Mass, enrolls 250 children in faith formation classes, sponsors a variety of community ministries, and hosts two dozen weddings a year, both gay and straight. Each a married mother of three, Ramerman and Donato bring their family experience to their pastoral work.
Women's experience of being called to priesthood is often layered with spiritual and emotional tension. Donato, for example, struggled for a decade with her call, which came clearly, she said, during an Ignatian retreat in 1987.
"For many years I kept thinking there was something wrong with me," Donato said. "I thought I had some inflated sense of self. I wondered why God would call me. I felt like if the church said women aren't called to be priests then I must be mistaken. I really needed to grapple with that before I could have courage to take my own next steps." Those included pursuing a master's of divinity degree. Finally in 1997, Donato, then on staff at Corpus Christi, wrote to Bishop Matthew Clark to ask him for ordination. Though he was "warm and inviting, he said, no, he could not do that," she said.
Ramerman could be the poster priest for women's ordination; approachable and confident, she says she loves celebrating Mass, preparing homilies, counseling parishioners and making hospital visits.
After Callan was removed from Corpus Christi as pastor, explained Ramerman, "even though I wasn't the assigned leader from the diocese, people saw me as the leader. I think I realized probably for the first time [that] the possibility of ministry in the church is a privilege doled out by men to women. If you are working for a benevolent pastor who is comfortable with women, you can do a lot of things: preach, visit the hospital, et cetera, but if that pastor changes, all of a sudden you can be told your only job is to carry the little water vessel up to the sanctuary."
She was eventually ordained before thousands of parishioners and invited guests in 2001 at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester by Bishop Peter Hickman of the Ecumenical Catholic diocese; Donato was ordained in 2003.
"The sad part for me," said Ramerman, "is that as women we love the spirituality of the church but we love it so much that we allow the abuse of women to go on. . I might have a good place here but this is not what is going on around the church."