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Cover story

Women finding ways

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Catholic tradition teaches young women to be receptive, to be patient, to wait for the angel’s next visit.

But in a world where women are no longer considered inferior, hysterical vessels of procreation, that teaching is holding less sway.

After Vatican II, many Catholic women were convinced that change would soon be blowing through that open window, the aggiornamento promised by Pope John XXIII. They’d be ordained alongside their brethren, and the hierarchy would fade into an egalitarian, communitarian church of the people.

Over three decades, that hope turned to anger. And now even the anger has burned away. Nobody expects change anytime soon. If and when it does come, activists worry that it won’t be a change born of repentance, but rather of expediency wrung from the shortage of celibate male priests.

Some women aren’t waiting.

Some are entering interfaith seminaries, investing years of study without welcome or promise from their own church. Others are quietly assuming leadership roles in understaffed churches, doing a priest’s work without benefit of a priest’s authority. Once-staunch Catholics have abandoned parish life altogether, gathering in homes to break bread, sip wine and bless one another’s struggles. Those who feel called to the priesthood are turning to the more congenial Lutheran and Episcopal churches that have ordained women for nearly three decades, draining potentially strong leadership from the church they left behind. (Neither the Episcopal church nor the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America keeps statistics on former affiliations of its women priests. Of 229 female priests responding to the Episcopal clerical directory’s latest survey, at least 15 were raised Catholic.) Finally, those who refuse to leave their chosen faith are finding other ways: receiving ecumenical certification, for instance, then being consecrated to minister to independent Catholics.

Some cry a lot and shake in their sensible shoes. But they don’t regret taking action.

They say they’ve had plenty of visits from angels.

No more nonsense

What makes a devout Catholic defy church authority by even considering the forbidden topic of women’s ordination? For Genevieve O’Hara of St. Louis, who spent 17 years in a convent and now can’t even bring herself to go to Mass, the turning point was a glorious, sunny Palm Sunday in Rome in 1985. She stood in St. Peter’s Square, pressed in a crowd so huge it was almost frightening. She watched men in billowing vestments move through the crowd distributing the Eucharist. Not a single woman was allowed to help.

By Holy Thursday, when she watched Pope John Paul II bless the holy oils amid “all this wonderful pageantry, without a woman in sight” -- she was ready to start reading feminist theology. She read Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian anthropologist, on goddess worship in ancient cutlures, among others. Soon she was furious, helping stage alternative liturgies on the steps of the Basilica of St. Louis, and refusing to go to confession until the church ordained women. Today, she worships informally, in groups of dedicated and deeply spiritual women who take turns planning, reading aloud and praying, before breaking bread together.

O’Hara’s Catholicism is bred in the bone, as unchangeable as being a blue-eyed Irishwoman. “I was born to love religion,” she says softly. “My mother always blessed the bread. She blessed the seeds before they were sown. We got a blessing on our forehead every night before we went to bed. Her whole life was a prayer. But, oh, the institutional church, I just basically renounce it.” She stops short. “I’m afraid I’m shocking you. You see, I believe I am the church, too. But I take no part in a lot of the nonsense -- the hierarchical structure, the concentration of power. I think that’s really, really wrong. So I am outside of it. I have said for many years, ‘The bishops don’t have authority over me.’ That’s pretty radical. But it’s also comforting.”

For the Rev. Donna Reilly Williams, who is now sitting in the living room of a Lutheran parsonage in De Kalb, Ill., surrounded by cardboard boxes, the first turning point came when she and her husband returned from missionary work in Swaziland and Malawi. She’d worked with the excluded, from Africans with leprosy to women trying to find a dignified, meaningful place for themselves in a polygamous society. Back in Canada, she looked for her own place, enrolling in Newman Theological College/St. Joseph’s Seminary to prepare for hospital chaplaincy. She was allowed to take the same courses as the seminarians -- with one exception.

Williams still remembers standing outside the chapel door, watching through the glass as her nervous classmates mastered the intricacies of worship and liturgy. Slowly they learned to elevate the host with reverent authority and to move about the chancel as though they belonged there. Williams stood watching in the cold and drafty hall, held by a longing she couldn’t explain.

Graduating with distinction, she became a hospice chaplain in the AIDS community in Los Angeles, earned a master’s in pastoral theology, did grief counseling, worked as a pastoral associate, became a marriage and family therapist and consulted for Catholic parishes in Seattle where people’s working relationships had snagged or frozen. Around 1995, three different Protestant denominations asked if she’d consider ordination. She’d already begun “having this unpleasant experience where I would be in Mass, and I’d hear this voice saying, ‘What are you doing here in the pews, and not in leadership?’ ” She’d weep quietly, diagnosing herself with an ecclesial version of “abused wife syndrome.” Because she’d grown so used to seeing herself through the eyes of male prelates, she couldn’t imagine any denomination wanting her in another role.

When Lutherans and Catholics signed the joint declaration of faith, Williams attended a big celebratory liturgy in Seattle. “At the reception, I introduced myself to the archbishop,” she recalls. “He knew right away who I was.” By then she’d written six books and done consulting work throughout the diocese. “I told him I was becoming a Lutheran pastor and looked forward to a lot more collaboration with him. Less than a week later, a memo went out to all the Catholic agencies, saying they were no longer to use my services.”

Williams was ordained this December, and on Christmas Eve, she arrived at Bethlehem -- Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which had called her to be the congregation’s minister. “I’m not angry at the Catholic church,” she stresses. “I wouldn’t want to be a Roman Catholic priest. In the Lutheran church, the power’s structured from the bottom up, and while that has its flaws, I’d rather err in that direction.”

Intense heat

The Rev. Elaine M. White avoids hierarchy just as strenuously, preferring “circles instead of ladders.” This woman who now calls herself a Catholic priest grew up working-class Catholic in Brooklyn, educated by Dominican nuns she adored. Against the advice of a pastor (“White people should stay with white people”) she married an African-American. At 23, she divorced and realized that, if she was going to raise her two baby girls alone, she needed God’s help. “I’d survived violence in my childhood, and again in my marriage, and I was at the point where I knew that no human could heal me the way I needed to be healed,” she confides. “It was very hard for me to reach out to a God who was male and warm and loving. It did not resonate for me. God as policeman, God as watchman, the ‘I’m gonna get you’ God overshadowed a loving God. But I wanted more than anything to be whole.”

One day she sat down with the New Testament a coworker had given her. “I started paging through, pouring out some of my own experiences to God as I read. Eventually I noticed that one particular word kept coming up over and over in the scripture passages, and that word was love. What I came to understand was that this was God picking the topic of conversation. God wanted to talk to me about love. I kept reading and sharing, and after a period of time the crown of my head seemed to open and I experienced this intense heat. It began to come down over my forehead, passing my eyes, going into my mind, down my throat. This warmth, this peace, kept permeating my innermost being -- an innermost being that I did not even know I had.

“I was crying, a lot,” she continues, “and remembering things I had to remember, and the more I poured out my heart and soul, the stronger the peace was. It just kept coming in waves. The next morning it was almost like I had a fire in my eyes. My whole being was changed. Now I knew I could trust this personal God, and over a period of time I fell in love with God, and I wanted to tell God all the things I had done to harm, to damage, to hurt. It seemed like everything was coming up, no stone left unturned, and you know what? I never felt I was going to be shamed or put down by God. What I received instead was more peace, more love, more power. And because I was able to empty myself of all this negativity, I gave myself completely to God. I said, ‘I am yours now and forever. I will do whatever you ask.’ ”

One day soon after, she was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes when she heard, in her heart and her mind, God saying to her, “You are going to be my minister.” “I said, ‘Yes, I will, but I’m a woman and I’m Catholic. How am I going to do that?’ and God said, ‘I will make a way for you.’ And because of everything else God had done, I believed it.”

The experience was so direct and so powerful, it short-circuited any worries about defying church authority. “I found out something else,” says White. “I found out religion is not God.”

Instead of looking wistfully up the hierarchical ladder, these women are looking around, learning to see through the walls of organized religion, making their own connections. When O’Hara, caught by the fresh wholeness of creation spirituality, visited the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (the Episcopal congregation that welcomed Matthew Fox after he was stripped of his Catholic priesthood), she saw a woman walk down the long aisle in a gray suit and a priest’s collar. “I fully recognized her as an ordained priest,” O’Hara recalls, “and I did something I had not done in years. I went to confession. And during that confession I cried, and it was not in sorrow for my sins.”

Deeply rooted in Catholic contemplative tradition, White presents workshops in centering prayer and lectio divina with Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach. She has studied other spiritual traditions at The New Seminary in New York and is currently working on her master’s of divinity at the multicultural, multilingual, nondenominational New York Theological Seminary. She was ordained Dec. 3 by a community of consecrators for her Independent Catholic church -- a congregation founded by Roman Catholics but with no formal ties to the church. The consecrators included married priests, resigned priests, Roman Catholic laywomen, an African-American Protestant minister and a Protestant layperson.

“The same spirit that was in Jesus is present in all times and all places,” she says, firmly refusing “to let denominational party lines become an obstacle. I practice open Communion, welcoming to the Lord’s Table anyone who approaches it reverently to receive the Eucharist. We are one body in Christ. How interesting it would be if we all just worshiped and praised God and let the Spirit just be who she is.”

Nervous at first

Looking past doctrinal differences doesn’t mean ignoring sacrament. These women share a deep love for the sacraments, their sensuous fusion of the physical with the spiritual and the way they touch human need with grace. Women in eucharistic base communities were nervous at first, unsure whether this was heresy or trivial mimicry, but they have since realized the symbols are too universal to be restricted. Who is going to stop them from baking bread? And even without formal consecration, the act holds deep meaning for them.

White finds her life’s meaning in the experience of reconciliation that first opened her to God’s love, and she works hard to keep her priesthood humble. “My job is to point to God, to be a clear channel and to work through my own shortcomings,” she says. “Reverend is not a title; it’s a relationship. I am not celebrating Mass for people; I am celebrating Mass with people. Even a child can say, ‘Holy Spirit, please come, fall on this bread and wine.’ Nobody has a corner on the market. It’s a question of justice.”

When Williams was finally allowed to study worship and liturgy, at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., she remembers weeping as she practiced. “I felt so humbled,” she explains, “to be allowed to come that close to celebrating the sacraments. The other students were amazed how much it meant to me. But it was such a privilege, and still is. When I say the words of institution at Communion, it is so powerful. This is Christ coming into action here in our lives, and we get to ingest Christ into every cell of our bodies.”

“Often discussion about women priests tends to center around ‘rights’ -- including feelings, needs and desires -- of the women who feel the call,” points out a female pastoral associate who can’t risk being named. “Less often spoken, though not completely neglected, is the deep hunger for other voices. The hunger to hear the gospel preached by someone who knows your life.”

It’s that hunger that pushed Janice Sevre-Duszynska to interrupt. Three years ago, she disrupted an ordination ceremony in Lexington, Ky., urging the bishop to make her a new priest along with the man he was about to ordain. Last November, she grabbed the microphone during a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to plead for ordination on behalf of all women.

In the early years, some of the women she spoke for -- especially those closest to home, in the conservative Lexington, Ky., diocese -- didn’t welcome Sevre-Duszynska’s taking their part so vigorously. “They felt we should try to go through ‘proper channels,’ ” she recalls ruefully. “But I’ve done that.”

Sevre-Duszynska grows bolder every year, but women aren’t shushing her anymore, and nobody has urged obedience or patience for a long time. “I’m 51 years old,” she says. “To think that in this day and age we still can’t go to church and find feminine images of God or a feminine presence at Mass -- it’s sinful! As far as I’m concerned, sexism is the original sin, because from it springs so many other injustices. If men are against women, they are against the feminine in themselves, in the earth, in the environment.”

White adds that the exclusion of women’s experience “has robbed us of the balance that men and women need with each other. We need each other in order to be whole, to have balance, to know God.” Her colleague, the Rev. Giles Spoonhour, a married Catholic priest affiliated with the Federation of Christian Ministries, says of White’s ordination, “Everybody was flying. I had to take the next day off, I was so emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Here’s a woman who’s not only a mother but a grandmother, sitting there in her alb holding her grandchildren on her lap. The difference that makes is hard to put into words. It is almost ineffable.”

Women have been linked since time began with family, nurture and the body. By excluding them from priesthood, says Spoonhour, you exclude that entire realm from the sacramental reaches of the church, and what you’re left with is “machismo. It’s very confrontational. There is no pluralism, no open debate, no possibility of compromise; you must toe the party line. It’s like a military organization, they’ve silenced so many theologians.”

White talks easily about “The Ruah. The Shekinah. There are many names for God in the feminine form.” Why were they so easily lost? “The metaphors a people uses for God come very much from where they are,” she says slowly. “History tells us that. A trusting people will have a daddy God, the Abba Jesus spoke of with such affection, while a warring people will have a warring image of God. We tend to project onto God our images, our conditioning -- when in reality, God is love.”

One way O’Hara loosened her own conditioning was learning sacred circle dances. One of her group’s favorite songs is called “Washerwoman God,” and it moves with the lively rhythm of a woman caught up in her work. “We call you mighty God, Father Eternal, Leader of Armies, King of Kings, Lord of Lords,” begin Martha Ann Kirk’s lyrics. “But you are (hit the beat hard) WASHERWOMAN GOD, we know you in the waters. Washerwoman God, splashing, laughing free. If you didn’t clean the mess, where would we be?”

Where, indeed, asks O’Hara, who has found spiritual cleansing and refreshment in images of God as Mother and Father. After a recent home liturgy, she carefully saved one of the readings, a re-visioning that began, “On the first day, she gave birth to light and darkness. They danced together. On the second day, she gave birth to land and water. They touched” (from A God Who Looks Like Me).

‘Why I was born’

“Ordain women or stop baptizing them,” demands the bumper sticker.

“Not in a hundred, not in a thousand, not in a million years,” the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Antony J. Bevilacqua, has warned.

“The first time I stood in the pulpit and preached,” recalls Williams, “I had the sense that this was like breathing, it was so natural, and I knew: This is why I was born. A lot of people never have a moment like that in their lives.”

At least, not officially. “Most of the priestly work in the church is being done by women,” points out one who’s done her share of it, and who can’t speak openly without jeopardizing her position. “Ministry to the sick, teaching the faith, leading worship, counseling, working behind the scenes -- almost all women. When I was younger and folks asked me, ‘Would you want to be a priest?’ my answer was, ‘I already am,’ ” in mind and ministry. “But I am mortally tired of working for priests.”

The shortage only compounds the frustration: “We’re not exactly attracting the cream of the crop,” she says bluntly. “If a man is reasonably average and not prone to embezzling or boffing little boys and sticks to the course, he will be ordained, and he will be a pastor -- charged with the care of souls, supported for life, period. There are not many wisdom figures coming out of the seminary these days. Actually, there’s hardly anyone coming out of the seminary these days.”

Unless you look beyond the seminaries operated by the church.

At age 6, Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick knelt obediently while her big brothers took turns distributing the Necco wafer communion. But by the time she’d finished a degree in religious studies at Georgetown University, she was ready to challenge convention.

In 1975, she attended the first-ever Women’s Ordination Conference. Planners expected a few hundred people -- and drew three times that many. “At the end of the meeting, the organizers asked if the women who felt called to be priests would please stand, and almost 70 women stood,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “It knocked the socks off everybody.”

Five more years, they thought, and it would happen. Efforts redoubled, and in 1977, an optimistic Women’s Ordination Conference decided to incorporate and hired Fitzpatrick as director. She wound up starting a month early because the Vatican declaration against the ordination of women, Inter Insigniores, had just come out. “The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs,” the declaration reads “There would not be this ‘natural resemblance,’ which must exist between Christ and his minister, if the role of Christ were not taken by a man.”

The words fell with a thud, crushing bright hopes. Fitzpatrick’s first project was to encourage liturgies of protest around the country. But when she went to St. Matthew Cathedral, right there in Washington, officials stalled for a month. “Finally the monsignor told us the liturgy couldn’t be inside because the church had to be open at all times for tourists. So we held it on the steps outside, and shared wine and bread with the homeless people.” She pauses. “Those closed doors were extremely symbolic. And they are still closed today.”

At the second conference on women’s ordination, in 1978, the conference invited the bishops. Only one came, Bishop Charles Buswell, now retired, of Pueblo, Colo. Five years later, when the bishops decided to do a pastoral letter on women, conference members urged them to change the focus. “Women aren’t the problem,” they said. “You didn’t do a pastoral on black people, you did it on racism. You didn’t do it on poor people, you did it on the economy. Do this one on sexism.”

In 1992, Fitzpatrick and three other Women’s Ordination Conference members traveled to Czechoslovakia to meet women who had been ordained in the underground church. With communication risky between Czechoslovakia and Rome, the Vatican had authorized Czech bishops to ordain people as they needed to without getting permission in every case. At least one bishop had ordained several women, mainly so they could minister to women in segregated prisons. When the repression lifted, the priests had to be reevaluated individually, and the women were conveniently forgotten.

“We found a married male Czech priest in the U.S., and he helped us arrange to meet one of them, Ludmilla Javorova,” recalls Fitzpatrick. But when the group arrived in Prague, Fitzpatrick said, “the priest there told us the women were all dead.” The American women weren’t fooled. They had already arranged to meet Ludmilla two days later.

Fitzgerald pauses, and her tone turns wry. “That priest is now a bishop. He earned his little hat.”

Too fundamental

It took a while for Javorova to trust the American women, but soon she was telling them how, when the Czech bishops voted at a secret synod about whether to ordain women, and the vote tied, she ran out into the snow with tears in her eyes. Her bishop came after her. “Please ordain me!” she cried, and he said, “I will.”

Fitzpatrick thought ruefully of all the well-intentioned American bishops. “WOC was actually dialoguing with seven bishops, and probably between 35 and 50 more would have gone along with ordaining women,” she says, “but we always said that all we needed was three who would ordain women now, as happened in the Episcopal church. And as much as those bishops wanted to, they wouldn’t dare.”

Hoping to bolster the men’s courage, the Women’s Ordination Conference and other groups brought Giorgi Otranto, a scholar at the University of Bari in Italy, to discuss recent discoveries about early Christianity: the mosaic from the Church of St. Praxidus in Rome, which shows four bishops, among them a woman, Theodora; a fresco in which a woman, arms upraised, appears to be officiating at a religious ceremony; inscriptions on gravestones attesting to female priests named Leta, Flavia, Maria and Marta; a fresco of women blessing bread in the Priscilla catacomb in Rome.

Otranto started a flurry of excited discussion that lasted long after he returned to southern Italy. Then, in 1994, Pope John Paul II proclaimed once more that women could not be ordained, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pronounced his statement infallible. It was intended to be the end of the discussion.

The following year, the pope wrote a letter to women urging them to be involved in society and predicting that their involvement would “force systems to be redesigned in a way which favors the processes of humanization, which mark the ‘civilization of love.’ ”

Then, just minutes away from the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Women’s Ordination Conference held its own conference with the theme “A Discipleship of Equals.” That ’95 conference revealed that many women had lost patience with the stance espoused by the Women’s Ordination Conference. Leaders urged abandoning church structures in favor of a nonhierarchical “discipleship of equals.” Others, though, grabbed microphones to say no, that ordination must come for women within the Catholic church.

The conference left the Women’s Ordination Conference broke and fragmented, and leaders spent the next five years facing the harsh reality of red ink and divided opinions. The cause held them together -- that, and members so loyal one took out a second mortgage on her house to help pay off the conference costs. Now the conference has a new director, Genevieve Chavez, 1,800 members, and a lively billboard campaign that started when a young mother saw the Chicago diocese’s recruitment billboard. “Looking for a sign from God? Become a priest.”

A group of women, since dubbed the Chicago Seven, drank a lot of coffee and produced a billboard that says, “Looking for a sign from God? This is it. Ordain women.” The billboard has been displayed in prominent locations in Chicago, Milwaukee and Lexington, Ky.

A second billboard was produced and is now on display at nine sites in the dioceses of Winona, Minn., La Crosse, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa . The Women’s Ordination Conference hopes the billboards will galvanize action and education.

“The pope said we can’t even discuss women’s ordination,” notes Chavez, “so the Catholic hierarchy can’t say a word about it.” She says she has seen women tire of trying and drop out of the debate altogether. “I can give you the name of a nun who doesn’t go to Mass anymore,” she says. “On the other hand, there’s this whole new generation of young women coming up through the Catholic ranks who can understand and name discrimination but are wanting to hold onto their Catholic roots. They’re the hope. Because it’s too fundamental an issue to say, ‘It’s OK the way it is.’ ” Women won’t be fully equal, she adds, “until we say that women, too, can represent the divine.”

Chavez’s consolation is the research, scholarship and theology that’s been done in failure’s wake -- work that, had Catholic women been ordained years ago, might never have been done. This April, for example, Janice Sevre-Duszynska will leave for Rome, Naples and Tunisia with archaeologist and theologian Dorothy Irvin, to “investigate sites of women presbyteras, episcopas and deaconesses.” From there Sevre-Duszynska will travel to Dublin, Ireland, as will the Women’s Ordination Conference’s board, for the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference June 29 to July 1. So far, women from 14 countries have registered. And then Sevre-Duszynska will go home to Lexington, resume her studies at Lexington Theological Seminary and continue looking for a bishop brave enough to ordain her.

Problem is, she has to look blindfolded, whisper and tiptoe. “Everyone who knows a bishop who might be friendly honors the secrecy of that bishop,” notes Chavez, “because the axe could fall on him at any time. We want him to stay in the system.”

For many women, though, staying’s getting harder all the time.

Maybe it’s the church’s turn to sit patiently, scrubbed clean by a Washerwoman God and dressed in her finest, waiting for the angel’s visit.

Jeannette Batz’s e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001