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Reclaiming the Feminine Spirit in the Catholic Priesthood

"I think this present position is highly influenced by the fact that many other churches are ordaining women," he said.

Polls have found that the majority of Catholics support women's ordination. In a 2000 poll of rank-and-file Catholics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 70 percent said they were in favor; 17 percent said they were opposed.

Others dismiss the polls, noting that younger Catholics tend to be more traditional.

"I think this movement is dying out," said Rocco Palmo, 23, who writes a popular blog, . "Women's ordination groups are made up of older women. The younger generation doesn't see this as an issue. They know the place of the church is to serve and not tinker with these kinds of things."

But members of Roman Catholic Womenpriests -- the group holding tomorrow's ceremony -- say excluding women from the clergy is sexist.

"It's not the same at all to run a parish as to be a priest. There is a glass ceiling, and women are second-class citizens. I think the church would be happy to go on forever to let women do much of the work but not in the form of priestly ministry," said Patricia Fresen, a Dominican nun from South Africa who will preside over the ceremony as one of five Roman Catholic Womenpriest "bishops." "This glass ceiling is almost bulletproof."

Meehan was born in Ireland and moved as a girl to Arlington, where she recalls having "this tie, this thirst, this hunger for Christ." She became a nun but left that order and went on to found an independent religious community. She later joined a community of consecrated women who are not recognized by the Catholic church as an official order. She also was a pastoral associate at Arlington National Cemetery's chapel and ran a cable television talk show called "GodTalk." These days, she runs ministry groups in Falls Church and in Florida, where she lives part of the year. Here, she has one group for women and another for senior citizens that meet in her basement. About 15 people are in each group.

Tomorrow, Meehan and the 11 other women will lie prostrate before an altar, be presented with goblets and priestly robes -- just like men, except the service's language has been rewritten to be inclusive. As the women who have participated in such ceremonies have done, Meehan will continue to minister to her communities, but she says she will celebrate Mass at her home or with people who are too sick to go to church.

"I think we are returning to the Gospel of Jesus's equality, not this idea that you are tied to an institution that has to give you approval," she said.

The group she belongs to began in 2002, when a renegade bishop ordained seven women in Germany. The Vatican quickly excommunicated the women. The next year, another bishop in good standing but who was never identified secretly ordained two women as bishops, saying he disagreed with the church teaching on women. More ordinations have taken place since, and the number of women in training for the priesthood has climbed to 120 today, Fresen said.

There have been no further excommunications since the first seven, which the women believe reflects a softening of the church's position.

That doesn't sound likely to Irwin, of Catholic University.

"Rome has spoken, so why keep going back to this?" he said.

Meehan and others in the group seemed to hold contradictory sentiments about approval from church authority. On the one hand, they say the ordination ceremonies are legal because of the involvement of the bishop in good standing. On the other hand, they say the current rules are illegal and should be ignored.

"I grew up in apartheid years in South Africa, and I learned that when a law is unjust it must be changed," said Fresen, 65. "If you think of Nazi times, people said they just did what they were told. If you can't get it changed, you must break it."

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