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Operation Ordination

Catholic women fight for the right to becomes priests

The ordination candidates are all in white. Led by three bishops in flame-coloured robes, they move slowly from the stern of the boat to the bow. Our singing is attracting attention. Whenever a small craft goes by, the occupants crane their necks and stare. Maybe they're puzzled to see the middle deck of a cruise boat so packed with people while the other decks are empty. Or maybe they've listened to the news that morning and can tell what's happening on board.

It is late afternoon on Monday, July 25, 2005. A bright, hot day that will get steadily hotter. There are nine candidates. Over the next three hours, five will be ordained Catholic deacons and the remaining four, Catholic priests. Most of them have masters of divinity. Two have PhDs. All have been working in the field, serving their churches and communities as teachers, counsellors, chaplains, theologians and spiritual advisers. At the press conference the night before, one of them confessed to being "excited and humbled" by the prospect of ordination. Another, recalling standing on the back porch after Mass as a child, solemnly handing out cookies to playmates, said, "I have wanted to be a priest since I was eight." Still another, near tears, confided, "I have loved the Catholic Church all my life. I cannot tell you how deeply it touches me that I am finally able to do what God has asked me to do since I was a child."

The mood on the middle deck is jubilant. There were cheers when the motor started up and the boat pulled away from the Gananoque Customs dock. Every now and then, though, I find myself wishing we could be still. Just for a moment. Cut the motor, drop anchor and listen to the river lapping against the sides of the boat. The Thousand Islands-that glut of rocks and trees poking out of the water where Lake Ontario turns into the St. Lawrence River-are known to the First Nations people as the Garden of the Great Spirit. That sounds to me like a place for stillness.

We can't be still, however. We must keep moving. With almost three hundred people on board-family and friends, members of the press-the Thousand Islander III has chugged to the middle of the St. Lawrence. There, it will go round and round in big circles, crossing and recrossing the border between Canada and the United States. Though the candidates are from both countries, their ordination must not be said to have taken place in either country. We may not, even for a moment, rest.

The processional hymn ends. Bishop Patricia Fresen of South Africa, a short, plump woman with greying red hair, steps forward. She raises her hands above the candidates-women all-and begins to speak. "Our Mother God birthed us from the waters of creation..."

We are not authorized to change the Our Father into an Our Mother," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) declared in 1985, during a speech defending the "irreversibility" of Christian symbolism against the influence of "radical" feminism. Twenty years later, those words resonate differently depending on which side of that sentence you sit. Either you see a 2,000-year-old church courageously reinforcing its own teachings, or you see a hidebound institution obstinately painting itself into a canonical corner.

At a time of unprecedented priest shortages and a clergy discredited by sex-abuse scandals, the prohibition against female ordinations has become one of the most controversial issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. To date, the Vatican has shown itself to be as theologically "unable" to revise its male-only rule as when it first assailed second-century gnostic groups keen to promote a more active liturgical role for women. The justification often cited is the example of Jesus: he had many female disciples, yet chose to ordain only twelve men as apostles.

This sort of scriptural rationale was, of course, easier to argue when it went hand-in-glove with society's beliefs about women. In the early centuries of the church and through the Middle Ages, women were seen as morally and rationally weak. Because "a woman is in the state of subjection," reasoned Thomas Aquinas, "it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order."

By the time of Vatican II (the council held from 1962 to 1965, which effected liturgical and ecumenical reforms), however, the church had to acknowledge dramatic changes in social and sexual attitudes. The Vatican claimed that, in maintaining the Catholic Church's traditions, it was not discriminating against women but protecting them from the dubious gains of feminism. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, "Woman is being convinced that the aim is to 'liberate' her, 'emancipate' her, by encouraging her to masculinize herself, thus bringing her into conformity with the culture of production and subjecting her to the control of the masculine society of technicians, of salesmen, of politicians who seek profit and power."

The threat to church authority was not entirely secular. Challenges were starting to emerge within its ranks. In 1975, the Canon Law Society of America declared that there was no theological reason why women could not be ordained. At the same time, a group of American nuns formed a coalition to support female ordination, and Priests for Equality (a worldwide organization that still exists) drew up a charter that stated, "We endorse equality of opportunity for ordination for both men and women."

Equal opportunity, however, is not a concept the Vatican recognizes. From its perspective, the Catholic Church is not a democracy and its doctrines are not open to vote; ordination is a sacrament, and sacraments don't belong to the rights of the individual, but flow from Christ; ordination must be carried out in the way Christ intended it. In 1976, Pope Paul VI responded with "Inter Insignores: A Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood." While sidestepping Aquinas's female-inferiority argument, he confirmed that Christ's incarnation as a man made him and his priests the church's symbolic bridegrooms. And a bride-groom cannot be a woman.

Defiance then came from a place very close to the Vatican itself. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (scholars who take positions on problems of scriptural interpretation) reported that, since the ordained priesthood was a post-biblical institution-i.e., man-made rather than revealed-the New Testament example could no longer be used to justify keeping women out.

From the mid-seventies onward, the female-ordination debate heated up. Following the lead of other Protestant denominations, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the US both approved female priests. Women's Ordination Conferences (WOC) attracted growing numbers of advocates. Sister organizations sprang up-WomanChurch, FutureChurch, Women's Ordination Worldwide (WOW).

The Vatican didn't waver. In his 1988 encyclical "Mulieris Dignitatem: The Dignity of Women," Pope John Paul II described Christ's wishes as "clear and unambiguous." Echoing his predecessor Paul VI, he argued that since "the priest acts in persona Christi," it is necessary that those actions be "performed by a man." The US National Council of Catholic Bishops disagreed. In 1992, for the first time in its history, it withheld support for a pastoral letter from the pope on the grounds that its content would alienate women in the church. Closer to Rome, Reverend David Stanley resigned from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, citing the Vatican's continued ban on women's ordination as his reason.

For a time, the church took a more sympathetic approach. In 1994, Pope John Paul II issued "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone." He described the priesthood as not just a function but a grace given by God alone, through holy orders, to men. He assured women that this did not exclude them from the life of the church.

In his 1995 "Letter to Women," he upheld the idealized femininity embodied by the Virgin Mary and urged women to accept the "essential dimensions" of gender as modelled by Mary the mother and Peter the apostle. In this way, he assured his flock, "The spiritual beauty, the particular 'genius of women' is being rediscovered." Not according to WOC, which, the same year, held its twentieth-anniversary conference, "Discipleship of Equals: Breaking Bread/Doing Justice."

But for an increasingly frustrated Vatican, "doing justice," as an argument, was a non-starter. The priesthood couldn't be mixed up in ideas of social progress: it belonged to another order. And so, as the millennium approached, the church's gloves came off. First, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declared the ban on female priests an infallible doctrine-the subject was no longer open to debate. Subsequently Pope John Paul II delivered "Ad Tuendam Fidem" ("To Defend the Faith"), which incorporated the ban into canon law. This last act leaves dissenters exposed to the severest penalty the church can mete out: excommunication.

I am a Protestant. In my north Toronto neighbourhood, I live within walking distance of six different denominations, all of them up and running on a Sunday morning. Church membership, for me, has always been a matter of purely personal choice. As my needs and views have changed, so too has my church. I wouldn't have it any other way. But I do get teased about being a closet Catholic.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, I began edging liturgically toward Rome in my teens, when I chose to be baptized in the United Church. What attracted me about the service was the practice of approaching the altar to receive the Eucharist directly from the minister's hands. (Presbyterians-like my parents-typically sat in their pews while laymen passed around trays of cubed bread and little shot glasses of grape juice.) Today, as an Anglican, I'm probably as close to Rome as a Protestant can get. When my priest chants the Eucharistic prayer, the wording she employs is almost identical to that of the Catholic Mass.

It's been years since referring to my priest as "she" has caused me to so much as blink. Like her female predecessor, she is in fact a canon of the Anglican Church of Canada, whose House of Bishops contains a growing number of women. In the non-Catholic world of believers, female spiritual leaders-ministers, priests, rabbis-have been common for decades. This only serves to make the Vatican's threat of excommunication all the more shocking to me. Though I can be excommunicated as an Anglican, it would only be for behaviour bordering on the criminal. Theological disagreement, even defiance, would not be considered sufficient grounds.

The morning of the press conference, I attended a service at Christ Church Anglican in Gananoque. I knelt at the altar, received the Host from the hands of the priest and drank wine from the common cup. Three hours away from Toronto by train, the familiar liturgy made me feel at home. But what if the Anglican Church were to refuse me this comfort? How would that feel? Like being suddenly homeless, disowned by a parent, fired from a job, dumped by a lover? Perhaps all of these. At some point, though, wouldn't my own experience as a wandering Protestant remind me that there's always another church?

What does it mean to you to know that you have been excommunicated? Or that you might soon be excommunicated?" This is my question at the press conference. The answer comes from Bishop Gisela Forster of Munich, who was excommunicated shortly after being ordained to the priesthood on the Danube River in 2002. In her limited English, she describes how the excommunication order from the Vatican was delivered to her home, printed on "rich, beautiful paper." It left her, she says, "badly affected." Then, wanting to say more but sensing the inadequacy of words, she mimes stabbing herself in the heart.

The Danube Seven ceremony, which took place on board the Passau somewhere between Austria and Germany, was the culmination of years of work by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Formation Program (RCWFP). The program, whose growth owes much to the Internet, was started by Forster and Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger (who is from Austria) in 1998. Today, over sixty women are involved, with more inquiries coming in each month. The exact number of female priests can never be determined, because some have reason to fear career reprisals if they are outed as being ordained. The night before their ordination, two of the St. Lawrence candidates tell almost-identical stories of composing their initial e-mail to RCWFP, then sitting for hours in front of their computer before daring to hit the "send" button.

Though RCWFP insists on making "woman" and "priest" one word, the program has no intention of dropping the "Roman Catholic" from its title. It acknowledges the authority of the church while challenging the form taken by that authority. In 2002, the Danube Seven received the laying on of hands from Bishops Romulo Braschi of Argentina and Ferdinand Regelsberger of Austria. Both men, according to the program's literature, stand in full apostolic succession to Rome-though they are not, in fact, in communion with Rome-and they bestowed on the original candidates sacramentally valid orders, which have been attested and notarized.

The Vatican, however, was not impressed. ("If you're a woman," Gisela Forster says at the press conference, "they think it doesn't take.") Within six months of the Danube event, all seven women were excommunicated.

If anything, that action galvanized the movement. Since 2002, more male bishops have come forward anonymously, offering to raise a number of the female priests to the bishopric. Now bishops, Gisela Forster and Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, who are presiding with Patricia Fresen at the St. Lawrence ceremony, have gone on to ordain women from all over the world. In June 2004, six women from six countries were made deacons on the Sissi as it cruised the Danube. On July 2, 2005, a woman took her priestly vows on the Saône River near Lyon in France. More ordinations are planned for 2006, on a lake in Switzerland and once again on the St. Lawrence. Since the ordinations must happen in nationally ambiguous places, the boat has become something of a tradition for these ceremonies.

"There is a movement of the Spirit happening," Mayr-Lumetzberger says confidently at the press conference. "And when it reaches critical mass, the excommunications will stop." As she admits, it's not that easy. "If you're going to bring female priests into the Catholic Church, you can't just add women and stir."

RCWFP fully acknowledges that its ordinations are being performed contra legem. It does not, however, consider them to be acts of disobedience to canon law and Catholic tradition. Instead, it regards them as acts of prophetic obedience to the call of God. The movement is dedicated to reforming the church's power structure from within. Its bishops wear no mitres, carry no shepherd's-crook croziers and are addressed simply by their first names. Priestly candidates prostrate themselves not in front of a bishop but in front of the altar. Once ordained, they live as worker-priests, earning their own income and promising obedience to God alone.

Reverend Thomas Lynch is the dean of studies at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto. He seems more amused than anything else by RCWFP. "The whole thing," he explains over the phone, "is a question of authority. In order for a bishop to be able to ordain a candidate to the priesthood, his apostolicity must be valid. That is, he must be in communion with Rome. And just as important, in order to receive ordination, that candidate must be properly configured to receive it. In the view of the Catholic Church, women are not so configured."

I tell him about the male bishops who ordained the Danube Seven and the others who have come forward since. Doesn't their participation make it valid?

"No. Because they are acting in knowing defiance of Rome. They are attempting to ordain women. Who, again, are not properly configured to receive ordination."

"What about Mary Magdalene?" I ask, remembering the Gospel reading from the ceremony. "Didn't her encounter with the risen Jesus make her the first apostle?"

"An apostle of sorts," he concedes, "by virtue of having been sent to pass on the news of Christ's resurrection. But her apostolicity is essentially invalid because, unlike the twelve male apostles, she was never actually ordained by Jesus. This is how Our Lord made it clear to us that women are not, and never will be, properly configured to receive ordination."

His voice is friendly. The voice of a teacher eager to explain, to make clear. At one point, he even spells "apostolicity" for me. "In your opinion," I ask, "will the church ever change its mind?"

"No. Because the church will never change its theology. God the Mother is simply not what Catholics believe. You can't isolate the issue of female ordination, or any other single issue. You can't change one thing without changing everything else."

"You can't just add women and stir," I suggest. Chuckling, he agrees.

I am here! And I am ready!"

One of the candidates practically yells the ritual response when her name is called, earning applause and laughter from the floating congregation. On this July afternoon, Rebecca McGuyver of Alabama, Dana Reynolds of California, Regina Nicolosi of Minnesota, Kathleen Sullivan Vandenberg of Wisconsin, Kathleen Strack of California were called to the diaconate. Michele Birch-Conery of Vancouver Island, Victoria Rue of California, Jean Marie St. Onge and Marie David, both from Massachusetts, were called to the priesthood.

A presenter speaks for each woman, listing the attributes and accomplishments that qualify her for ordination. The presenters include friends and colleagues, a sister, a daughter and two husbands. One of the emcees of the event is Kathryn Poethig, who introduces herself as the "proud partner" of priestly candidate Victoria Rue. Unlike the official church, RCWFP blesses same-sex unions and sees no connection between celibacy and the priesthood.

The candidates prostrate themselves before the altar. We sing the Litany of the Saints, chiming in with the refrain "pray for us." I remember catching the eye of one of the women the night before, just as the press conference was breaking up. Grinning nervously, I said, "Hey. Congratulations. Wow." She looked gravely into my eyes and said, "Please pray for me." For some reason, her words made me remember what I've been told Gananoque means: "water over stones." Like that childhood game-stone blunts scissors, paper wraps stone-I fell asleep that night running the new possibilities through my head: stone diverts water, water washes stone, water wears stone down.

The candidates are helped up and allowed to sit for the laying on of hands. Some of them look faint from the heat. The bishops, in their heavy robes, are red-faced and sweating. The emcees remind us that the laying on of hands is the most central and most solemn part of the ordination and that it will be conducted in silence.

Each of the bishops goes to each of the candidates in turn and places her hands gently on their heads. They proceed slowly, taking their time. There are silent tears, kisses. In a break with ordination tradition, friends and family are invited to come forward and lay their hands on the women's heads as well. They line up in silence. The only sounds are the boat's motor as it circles round and round and the occasional whisper of a welcome breeze.

The new deacons, grinning, each receive a blue-green stole and a bible. "Believe what you read," Bishop Fresen urges them. "Teach what you believe. Live what you teach." There is work to be done, and these women will do it. They will offer pastoral care to people who are alienated by their churches. They will marry the gay and the divorced, whose unions the church will not bless. A significant number of men will come to them for confession.

The new priests are each given a red stole and a white chasuble. A man helps his wife into hers, then kisses her and gives her shoulder a husbandly pat. Finally, the bishops anoint the priests' hands with oil. One woman raises her palms and sniffs them. In just a few minutes, for the first time, she will preside over Holy Communion.

The bit of brown bread in my palm has a wholesome lumpiness that makes me smile. It looks homemade. I'm used to thin white Anglican disks, uniformly marked with a cross, that taste of nothing. Should I eat it? Should I even have taken it? Though my baptism is recognized as legitimate by Rome because it was done in the name of the Holy Trinity, I'm not supposed to take Catholic communion. Apparently there are doctrinal differences over whether the Lord actually resides in the Host or is merely passing through.

I guess I should have asked last night at the press conference if they would give communion to a Protestant. Surely they would have said yes. But maybe not. Nothing breaks clean. When asked about birth control and abortion, the candidates physically recoiled. Held their hands up and said, "No!" I remember thinking, "Yep. You're still Catholics."

The bread is as chewy as it looks. "The Body of Christ," I say to the man on my right, passing him the basket. The boat is too cramped to allow us to come forward to the altar, so the newly ordained priests have opted for family style. When the wine reaches me, I take a sip of the wine and pass it on. As I watch the chalice shift hands, I remember the woman who asked me to pray for her. I'm not very good at prayer. It embarrasses me, and my mind wanders. Usually the best I can do is try to define what I want.

So. What do I want? I want to believe in what is happening here on deck. I want to believe that these women have just become Catholic priests. I want to believe that the Catholic Church will find a way to let them be its priests while still being the Catholic Church. I want to believe that miracles can happen.

The Danube Seven. The St. Lawrence Nine. Maybe next year the Irish Sea Twelve and the year after that the Titicaca Nineteen. They will all love and believe in what the Catholic Church might someday be, every bit as much as Reverend Lynch loves and believes in what the Catholic Church has always been. And part of me will understand both sides-the part that disagrees with virtually every word the Pope says, but still wants to fall into the arms of the Holy Father and be his child.

Meanwhile, in the Garden of the Great Spirit, our boat goes round and round. And we sing another song.