Cover story - Women priests

Issue Date: January 27, 2006 - Reuters/Chris Wattie

Nine women to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests and deacons lay on the floor during a ceremony on a boat in international waters on the St. Lawrence Seaway near Gananoque, Ontario, July 25.

Some women seeking ordination won't wait for church's OK

After 'illicit but valid' ceremony, they find ways to serve


Bishops may wag their fingers and threaten excommunication, but Catholic  women called to ordination feel their time has come. In a gentle protest action  at the US. bishops' meeting in Washington Nov. 14, members of  Women's Ordination Conference delivered a large bouquet of roses to the  bishops, with postcards bearing the names of 80 American women interested in  ordination and the name of each one's bishop. The roses are a symbol of  St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day it was, who also felt  called to priesthood, said participants.

These women say they don't want to abolish the global church; they simply want to reform it. Some will continue to wait for official Vatican approval of women priests, while they support those seeking ordination now  through emerging candidate formation programs such as the German-based  Weiheämter für Frauen and its North American counterpart, Roman  Catholic Womenpriests. And they're organizing alternative ordinations,  such as the so-called "floating ordinations," which they call  "illicit but valid," held in 2002 on the Danube River between Germany  and Austria, and last summer on the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada. Those so  ordained now minister in a variety of contexts, some informal and others quite  traditional, save for lack of approval by church authorities.

Celine Goessl, 70, a Sister of Mercy of the Holy Cross from Birch Run,  Mich., said she's felt called to ordination since she was in high school  but won't pursue it "until Rome says I can," because she  doesn't want to put her superiors in a position that would pit them  against church hierarchy. In 1971 she wrote to her bishop asking for ordination  to the diaconate.

"I got a scathing letter telling me not to ask 'stupid'  questions that I knew he could not fulfill," she said. In 1975 Goessl attended the inaugural meeting in Detroit of the Women's Ordination  Conference, the locus for the women's ordination movement in the United  States; she currently serves on its board.

"At that time we were an enthusiastic bunch and we thought  women's ordination was just around the corner. It's probably good  that it wasn't because we have grown over the years and matured. We see a  renewed concept of what a priestly servanthood really means, and what the need  is," said Goessl. The rallying cry in the women's ordination movement  is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's concept of a "discipleship of  equals," an idea that would effectively abolish the clerical caste in the  current Roman Catholic hierarchy.

"Basically, [that phrase] is exactly how I see myself as a woman  priest," said the Rev. Victoria Rue of Watsonville, Calif., ordained last  summer on the St. Lawrence Seaway. "I don't see myself being other or  better or in a higher state than anyone else."

Women's ordination advocates are particularly incensed at what they  see as blatant injustice in the comparison between the dismissal of women  seeking ordination and the protection of priests who have committed sexual  abuse or bishops who cover their tracks.

Regina Nicolosi of Red Wing, Minn., ordained a deacon with Rue last  summer, and her husband, Charles Nicolosi, a deacon in the St. Paul and  Minneapolis archdiocese, met with Archbishop Harry Flynn Oct. 24 at her  request, after she received two letters from the St Paul chancery asking her  to recant and threatening excommunication if she failed to do so.

"I felt it would be good to talk more and maybe to expose the  archbishop to some of our ideas about why we are doing this and how much we  feel part of the Roman Catholic church and have no intention to leave or bring  about a split," Nicolosi said. "Also the frustration we feel that  some of these actions of ours that are done with very good intentions are punished very severely but other actions [such as sexual abuse and its  cover-up] are hidden or the church tries to work around it."

While there is no lack of pastoral opportunity nationwide -- as  priestless parishes cope with lack of sacraments, and headlines week after week  decry new waves of clerical sexual abuse and administrative cover-up --  women's names aren't popping up on lists to fill empty pastor  positions.

"Where do we go to be women priests?" asked Rue, who teaches  theater and comparative religions and women's studies at San Jose State  University in California. After all, she noted, no one is offering her a parish  or a Newman Center to lead. "We go to our businesses, our theaters, our  universities. We go to where the people are, and we identify ourselves as women  priests. Not to further the divide between cleric and lay, but to bring people  together."

Rue, 58, plans to continue to minister to her house church, and reach  out to the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community as well as  to university students.

Who to serve was, indeed, part of Carmen Lane's discernment process  about her call to ordination. "What community is calling me to serve  it?" said Lane, 30, who works with survivors of sexual violence at  Michigan State University and has just entered the Roman Catholic Womenpriests  formation program. As a black lesbian, Lane says she hasn't always felt welcome in the church. But Lane, who converted to Catholicism at 17, said,  "I also think that from the beginning of my call to participate in the  church through my baptism, I was called to minister to folks who are exhibiting  oppressive behaviors. To be Christian is not to be at the center of society, it  is to challenge injustice in whatever form that injustice is manifest, whether  it's racism, sexism, institutional inequality. And I see women's  ordination as yet another inequality that keeps the church from fully realizing  itself."

Dagmar Braun Celeste, the first lady of Ohio from 1983-1991, was  ordained -- and subsequently excommunicated -- in 2002 in Europe. She was  ordained under the pseudonym Angela White because she wanted to protect her  family's privacy during the time leading up to her daughter's  wedding. She decided to tell Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla about her  ordination before the newspapers found out. He asked what she planned to  do.

"I said, 'Well, I suppose you're not going to assign me  to a parish,' " she said. Celeste's primary ministry is  promoting peacemaking, healing and creativity through Tyrian, a Cleveland  nonprofit organization she cofounded in 2000, though she does sacramental work  on request. Celeste received word through Pilla's office of her  excommunication by the Vatican, though under her pseudonym. A member of St.  Patrick Parish in Cleveland, Celeste attends Mass there and elsewhere but does  not regularly receive Communion unless, as is often the case, a lay person  chooses to share the host with her.

Nicolosi considers the nursing home where she is a chaplain and conducts  Communion services her "small parish." She is in formation for the  priesthood through Roman Catholic Womenpriests, with plans to be ordained next  summer at Lake Constance, Switzerland.

"After my priestly ordination, I will consecrate, too," she  said. "I did talk with all my Catholic residents before the ordination.  They know me. There were some surprises, but most accept what I am  doing."

Nicolosi is clear that she sees herself as a Roman Catholic but wants  the church to carry out "what Vatican II has started: an opening to the  world, greater inclusivity, more emphasis on the local parish and national  churches; priesthood that would include men and women, married or not, also  gays and lesbians."

Denise Donato was ordained in 2003 in Rochester, N.Y., by a bishop of  the Ecumenical Catholic diocese; she serves at Spiritus Christi, formed by  parishioners who left the Roman Catholic Corpus Christi Parish (see related  story on Page 5). The morning after last summer's ordination of nine women  on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Donato greeted the newly ordained at breakfast.  "I congratulated them and said, 'Now, go out and live it. Out there  are people who are hungry for what the church has to offer. Gather groups and  break bread and go into hospitals and anoint the sick and really minister to  the people. There are people who are starving for church.' "

"Ordination," Donato said later, "is not the sacrament to  live in our apartments, it is to be lived among the people. That is the hope,  that they are creating the church they have longed for. Because they are not  the only ones longing for it."

Kris Berggren lives and writes in Minneapolis.