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Seven women ‘ordained’ priests June 29
In ceremony they term ‘not licit, but a fact’

Passau, Germany

Champions of the ordination of women as Roman Catholic priests have long dreamt of presenting the world with a fait accompli: women ordained by legitimate Catholic bishops in defiance of Vatican opposition. Rather than waiting for permission, a “top down” solution that under John Paul II seems ever more improbable, change would thus come from the “bottom up.”

On a gorgeous Bavarian summer day June 29, aboard a specially chartered pleasure boat on the Danube River, seven Catholic women and two bishops who are not in communion with Rome, but who claim to stand in apostolic succession, tried to translate that dream into reality. Four Germans, two Austrians and one American were ordained before some 200 family, friends, supporters and journalists, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

According to the women, the ball is now in Rome’s court.

“It is not a licit solution, but it is a fact,” said Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, one of the seven. “We have to live with this fact and in this fact.”

Church authorities rejected both the credentials of the bishops and the validity of the ordinations, based on the teaching that the Catholic church has no power to ordain women as priests.

How the outcome will be judged in the court of Catholic public opinion, however, remains to be seen.

A spokesperson for the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference told NCR that a group of American Catholic women hope to stage a similar event shortly in the United States.

The seven women claiming ordination June 29 were: Germans Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Gisela Forster, and Pia Brunner; Austrians Mayr-Lumetzberger and School Sr. Adelinde Theresia Roitinger; and an Austrian-born American who used the assumed name of “Angela White.”

Muller & Raming

From left to right: Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Gisela Forster
and Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger.
photos by -- John L. Allen Jr.

The women said they had followed a three-year program of theological and spiritual preparation.

The man presented as presiding bishop was 61-year-old Argentine Romulo Braschi, a former Catholic priest whose checkered background has raised question marks.


Romulo Braschi

Braschi claims to have been ordained a bishop twice: once by fellow Argentine Roberto Padin in 1998, described as a prelate in the breakaway “Catholic-Apostolic Church of Brasil,” and again by Jeronimo Podestá in January 1999.

In Podestá’s case at least, there is no doubt as to his own legitimacy. He served as bishop of the Avellanda diocese in Argentina from 1962 to 1967, before being removed for alleged excesses in pushing social action and church reform. He went on to become a supporter of optional clerical celibacy, and died on June 24, 2000.

Skeptics, however, say that Podestá never supported the splinter church founded by Braschi, and hence they doubt that he ever performed the ordination. Braschi appeared at a press conference on June 29, however, with a notarized document from his lawyer in Buenos Aires, which he said attests to the event.

In reality, Braschi’s episcopal status makes no theological difference, since official Catholic doctrine holds that it is impossible to ordain a woman no matter who performs the ritual. Politically, however, the challenge to that doctrine would be more dramatic if it came from a legitimate bishop.

Local church authorities thus wasted little time in making clear that, from their point of view, Braschi does not fall into that category.

A spokesperson for the Munich archdiocese called him a “charlatan” in a June 26 statement, stating that he was excommunicated in the 1970s and that his claim to apostolic succession rests on “venturesome assertions.”

The statement noted that Braschi today describes himself as bishop of the “Catholic-Apostolic Church of Jesus the King,” which he founded in the 1970s. Braschi claims 250 followers in Switzerland and Germany, though the archdiocese put the number at 50. In 1996, Braschi launched something called the “Charismatic-Oxala-Nana Union” in Munich, devoted to “Afro-Argentinian nature religion.” He is also said to have embraced the Hindu doctrine of karma.

Braschi previously ordained his wife, Alicia Carbera Braschi, as a priest. She joined him in the June 29 ordination ritual, wearing liturgical vestments and carrying a crozier.

The other bishop June 29 was Ferdinand Regelsberger, a former Benedictine monk consecrated by Braschi on May 9, 2002, and whose claim to episcopal status thus rests on Braschi’s.

While organizers declared themselves satisfied with Braschi’s credentials, they acknowledged they had also expected a third bishop, a Czech, who allegedly ordained a handful of women as deacons in secret on Palm Sunday. Though she would not name the bishop, Mayr-Lumetzberger said the women ordained June 29 plan to ask him to re-ordain them in secret, sub conditionis -- a technical term meaning that the second ordination would be valid only if the first one is not.

This concern for the fine points of canon law struck some observers as ironic, given that it came in the context of an ordination that openly defied church teaching, and a Mass which included clergy of the Lutheran and Old Catholic churches as concelebrants (also prohibited). Yet participants were in deadly earnest. At one point Braschi read a prayer in Spanish that referred to hermanos, “brothers.” Someone in the crowd called out “and hermanas,” or “sisters,” whereupon Braschi wheeled sharply and said: “Today we follow the Roman rite.”

The women stressed they do not intend to separate from the Catholic church. “We don’t want a fight with the church,” Forster said at the press conference. “This is a sign of renewal for the church, not against it.”

Reaction from officialdom was nonetheless negative.

Bishop Maximilian Aichern of Linz, Austria, sent a letter June 28 to Mary-Lumetzberger, who lives in Aichern’s diocese, threatening excommunication and interdict if she went ahead. A spokesperson for Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich called the event a “sectarian spectacle” that had “nothing to do with the Catholic church.”

Cardinal Joachim Mesiner of Cologne said the project was absurd, comparing a woman wanting to be a priest with a man wanting to give birth. Roitinger told reporters that she has been threatened with expulsion from her religious order, the School Sisters of Hallein.

The sour notes were, however, not restricted to church officials.

“These women are not representative of most Catholics here,” said Otto Schwankl, dean of the Catholic theology faculty at the University of Passau, in a June 27 interview with NCR. “Most people think it’s nonsense.”

Even some groups supportive of women’s ordination expressed reservations.

The Austrian branch of the “We Are Church” reform group, the “Church from Below” movement in Germany, the www.womenpriests.org web site, and the New Wine movement in England all discouraged the June 29 event. The argument for women priests should be made, they said, from within the Catholic mainstream.

On the other hand, delegates from the U.S.-based Womens Ordination Conference and the Canadian “Catholic Network for Women’s Equality” were on hand to offer support.

The driving force behind the event was Mayr-Lumetzberger, 46. Raming and Müller were acknowledged as inspirational leaders. Both now in their 70s, they said a sense of time running short was part of the motivation.

“We have been very patient for 40 years,” Raming told NCR, saying that she and Müller submitted a petition to the Second Vatican Council in 1963 seeking discussion of women’s ordination, and have been working on the issue ever since.

Some progressive critics noted that since Vatican II Catholic theology has emphasized that it is always a local community that calls forth a vocation, and the seven women ordained June 29 have no such base of support. But Raming said the analysis does not apply.

“You cannot ask that we have a community like a regular priest,” she said. “We have an extraordinary situation.”

Mayr-Lumetzberger said she would begin celebrating Mass in a private chapel in her home, and will build her own community.

“I will go with people on their way to God, pray with them and celebrate with them,” she said. “I will prepare women for ministry. Otherwise, I’m as teacher at my school and I am a priestly person in my everyday work.”

The ordinations were preceded by months of tantalizing, and at times baffling, secrecy.

A small group of reporters invited to witness the ordinations was instructed to show up in a parking lot in Passau, Germany, at 8:30 am on the 29th. Not until then was it made clear that the event would take place on board the MS Passau.

Organizers refused to confirm the identities of either the bishops or the participants until the moment the ceremony began, and in fact the final line-up of women was not finalized until shortly beforehand.

At one stage up to four Americans planned to take part, though all but one withdrew on the grounds that they were not part of the three-year process of preparation.

The lone American who went ahead did so under a false name. She declined an NCR request for comment, though she contributed an essay recounting her personal story to a book entitled We Are Women Priests, published in German and distributed at the press conference. The essay contains more than enough information to establish her identity for the truly curious.

Despite the precautions, the day was not free of vitriol.

At the press conference, an Austrian conservative who publishes a small local newspaper repeatedly challenged the women and Braschi. Frustrated with their responses, he baited Mayr-Lumtezberger by blurting out: “You have nice breasts and I would like to see you sunbathe naked!” Security guards moved in, triggering a brief uproar. The man eventually returned to his seat.

On the boat itself, the ceremony featured a few oddly post-modern flourishes, such as a Paraguyan folk band belting out an instrumental version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” as a lead-in to the “Our Father.”

Aside from these occasional flashes of the surreal, however, most observers seemed enthusiastic. Johnson called the June 29 ordinations a “model” for American action.

Carol Crowley, one of the American women who decided not to go through with ordination this time, said she was looking forward to doing something similar back home.

“Some say ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’” Crowley said. “But I say, ‘Next year in the United States!’”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, posted July 1, 2002