A national organization of Roman Catholic priests has asked local priests not to volunteer to help serve communion at the papal mass here next month so that some lay women can participate.
The proposal is an effort to circumvent a Vatican ruling that none of the lay men and women who serve communion in their local parishes may assist at the papal mass if there are enough ordained priests and deacons available.
A letter to 2,200 area clergy from the Rev. William R. Callahan, national secretary of Priests for Equality, a group that favors a wider role for women in the church, calls that directive "a serious shadow of discrimination which has been cast across the pope's visit."
In his letter, the Jesuit priest pointed out that the ruling "falls with special weight upon the women of our church for whom all clerical participation is denied. The action is being perceived as a powerful symbol that we, the clerical members of the church, continue to reject the ministry of women in our community in any but subservient roles."
Callahan said that if enough priests make themselves unavailable, then planners of the mass will have to fill in with the lay men and women to secure the 1,500 communion distributors needed.
Callahan's letter to the priests and seminarians in the Washington, Baltimore, Arlington and Richmond dioceses was sent a week ago.
The Rev. Ronald Jameson, who is in charge of liturgical arrangements for the papal mass, said yesterday he did not expect any shortage of clerical volunteers. "From the names and numbers that are coming in right now," he said, "It looks very good."
In addition to local volunteers, Jameson said he has had a number of inquiries from priests from other parts of the country who plan to be in Washington at that time and would like to participate.
Callahan acknowledged that the bulk of the response to his letter has been "very hostile" to his proposal, but that there had been "some positive" reaction.
"If it happens," he said, "it will happen by people just not showing up."
Callahan, whose group claims 1,750 members, has also written all the church's American bishops, urging them to protest to the Vatican the ruling barring lay men and women from assisting in the papal Eucharists.
The Vatican gave permission more than a decade ago for lay men and women to help distribute communion, but only when there were not enough priests or deacons. Many parishes, however, have regularly scheduled the men and women -- called special ministers of the Eucharist -- to expand the involvement of lay men and women in the church.
Feminist groups in the church have also planned actions during the papal visit to protest what they view as the secondary role of women in the church.
In Washington, a coalition of feminist groups has applied for permits to hold a prayer vigil outside St. Matthew's Cathedral when the pope meets with area priests there. Plans are also under way for staging a "morality play" in Lafayette Park while Pope John Paul II is visiting the White House.
A Chicago group called Chicago Catholic Women has written the pope, said Sister Donna Quinn of that group, asking that he address the question of ordaining women while he is in that city.
Quinn said the Chicago feminists are refraining from any kind of protest during the papal visit there because "we didn't want to be hooked up with Madelyn Murray O'Hair," the self-proclaimed atheist who has planned a protest there against the church during the papal visit.