Female priests defy Catholic Church, hope to change it

By Katie Balestra
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Inside a red brick house in Falls Church, Bridget Mary Meehan placed a silver chalice of wine and a plate of flatbread on the coffee table in her living room and prepared to lead a sacred, forbidden ceremony.

"As we gather around this table, this intimate little house church table, let us remember that God is raising us up, all of us," she said, smiling at the four worshipers who had come to hear her say Mass.

Three and a half years ago, Meehan joined a group of Catholic women from across the United States known as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests -- ordained as bishops, priests and deacons, sometimes in secret ceremonies, against Vatican law. The first ceremony took place in 2002, when a renegade bishop ordained seven women in a boat on the Danube River near Passau, Germany. Most, if not all members, have been excommunicated.

The group, which has about 70 women, is one of several nationwide gaining support among U.S. Catholics as more of them begin to question the Vatican's stance on women's role in the Church.

"Our goal is to bring about full equality of women in the Roman Catholic Church," said Meehan, 62. "We love the faith. We love the spirituality. That's why we remain Catholic. We are holding disobedience to an unjust law that discriminates against women. We're willing to go the whole mile with the institution on this."

The movement has a strong following in the Washington region.

Last year, Maureen Fiedler, host of "Interfaith Voices" on WAMU (88.5), organized a fundraiser for her radio program with a special address by the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest facing excommunication for attending a Womenpriests ordination. In the packed audience was Louise Lears, 59, a nun who returned home to her 85-year-old mother in Baltimore in 2008 after she was banished by the Archdiocese of St. Louis for attending a Womenpriests ceremony. Other attendees included many of the women behind the Women's Ordination Conference, a Washington-based pro-ordination group.

Bourgeois, a Vietnam War veteran, social justice advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has been trying to recruit other priests, many of whom agree with his position but fear excommunication. "I understand your fear about going public with this," he told them, "but you and I are card-carrying members of this all-boys club, and our silence simply sends the message very clearly that it's okay to have women sit in the back of the Catholic bus."

Popular support

Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, talks excitedly about the demonstrations she helps organize. She has protested outside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, wearing a T-shirt that says "Ordain Women" in nine languages. Vatican police detained her three times. She has started an online petition supporting women's ordination to send to the Vatican. It has several thousand signatures.

"I think that women themselves believe they should be ordained, that they've been called by God," said Hanna, from the organization's office in Southeast Washington. "It's not really the Vatican's place to mess with that call."

The local activism is part of a larger shift in public opinion. In April, a Pew Research Center survey found that 39 percent of former Catholics now unaffiliated with a religion left the Church because they were unhappy with the treatment of women, among other concerns.

Lears, the nun from Baltimore, was supported by her family and members of her church. Shortly after being punished, she attended Mass at her local parish with her sister and mother. She was forbidden to take Communion, but her mother and sister decided to share their hosts with her. Other parishioners dropped pieces of their hosts into her hands. By the ritual's end, her hands were full.

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