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Female priests defy Catholic Church, hope to change it

By Katie Balestra
Saturday, January 23, 2010; B02

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.

Call To Action, a Chicago-based pro-ordination group, reported 25,000 members in 50 chapters nationwide last year, up from about 500 members when it was founded in 1978. Last year, it collected about $800,000 in donations, compared with about $10,000 that first year.

Meanwhile, the Church is increasingly cracking down on those who support women's ordination. Last spring, the Vatican informed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of Catholic sisters based in Silver Spring, that it would look into the organization's teachings and views on women's ordination. The conference says it represents an estimated 95 percent of the 60,000 nuns and sisters in the United States. The group, a church-approved membership organization, has not taken an official position on the ordination of women, but the Vatican thinks that some of its members have been vocal enough to warrant an assessment.

In August, a nun with the Sisters of Charity was barred from teaching in Cincinnati parishes after she appeared as an adviser on the Women's Ordination Conference's Web site and refused to retract her position.

Advocates had hoped for a breakthrough after the Second Vatican Council convened in the early 1960s to renew and modernize the Church. The council said sexism had to be eradicated and gave laywomen more opportunities to work in their parishes.

Women also began to do more scholarly work in theology in the late 1960s and 1970s, and many thought a decision to ordain women would come soon. But in 1976, the Vatican said women couldn't be priests, in part, because of the belief that Jesus chose only male disciples. It also said the priest represents Jesus during Mass, so only a man can fill the role.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1994, Pope John Paul II issued a letter solidifying the Church's stance. The next year, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that the position was based on "doctrine taught infallibly by the Church."

But advocates for women's ordination say the Church's position isn't theologically sound. Fiedler, the radio host, said the argument that only men can represent Jesus during Mass because Jesus was male is "totally untenable."

Representing Jesus is not a matter of physical characteristics but of spiritual ones, said Fiedler, 67, who noted that, according to scripture, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. "You have to look at the behavior of Jesus and how he regarded women," Fiedler said.

Additionally, many nuns already take on the role of priests, often because there aren't enough priests available to perform sacraments such as confession, anointing the sick or offering Communion, Fiedler said. "Let me put it this way," she said, leaning forward and whispering, "it's going on all over the place by women."

Sylvia Mulherin, 69, a former nun married to a former priest, said that Jesus was progressive in his treatment of women but that, over time, men unjustly pushed women out. "Maybe the women don't have to come in the back door, but we still have to sit in the pews," said Mulherin, who lives in Fairfax County.

Amy Hoey, 79, a nun living in Silver Spring, agreed. "It's not fair. It's not just. But it's the current reality," she said, adding, "Sometimes it is only the promise of Jesus, that he will be with the Church until the end of time, that helps you to hang in."

The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, 57, one of the first women ordained in Maryland after the Episcopal Church authorized their ordination in 1976, is a role model to many would-be priests.

"Christ is about who is included, not about who is excluded," Weatherholt said during a recent service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Boonsboro, Md.

Initially, she struggled as a pastor, with parishioners threatening to leave. This eventually faded, she said, and at one point, two men told her that they had forgotten that she was a woman halfway through a service.

Meehan was 8 when her family moved to Arlington County from Ireland in 1956. Her father said she spent her free time as a child "playing church," setting up an altar in their home. "She was a priest from day one," said Jack Meehan, 85, in a thick Irish brogue. "I'm very proud of her."

She thinks the Vatican's actions are motivated by fear.

"They're so afraid because they're seeing that people are actually thinking this is a good idea," said Meehan, who discusses the issue on her blog. "We're taking it from the hierarchical model into the open, inclusive Catholic community of equals. And that's the thing that threatens them the most, a total change from one model to another."

Katie Balestra is a freelance writer based in the District.

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