by Diane Marshall
On July 25, 2005, a chartered tour boat embarked from Ganonoque, Ontario and sailed out into the St. Lawrence Seaway. On board, nine Roman Catholic women — five Deacons, and four Priests — were gathered to be ordained in a ceremony taking place in international waters where no Roman Catholic diocese had jurisdiction. My husband and I were among a crowd of friends, family, and other supporters onboard to witness this momentous event.
Opening with a “strong women” song, sung by an Algonquin Mohawk woman as she welcomed us to traditional Mohawk territory, the service was a beautiful and powerful testimony to the courage and witness of these nine women, as well as that of the “Danube Seven” ordained in 2002, three of whom, now Bishops, officiated at the St. Lawrence ordinations.
The original vision of a future R.C. Womenpriests movement arose in part from the work and scholarship of Gertrud May, now 83. An active member of Wir Sind Kirche (We Are Church), Gertrud decided in 1998 to bring together two leading women, now Bishops: Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Gisela Foerster of Germany. This historic meeting followed the November 1995 publication Responsum ad Dubium, whereby then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) announced that the Vatican’s ban on women’s priestly ordination is an infallible doctrine, not open to debate. In July 1996, Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) was founded, following a caucus at the first European Women’s Synod. The US Women’s Ordination Conference agreed to provide leadership for the first two years. The first planned action was a worldwide day of prayer for women’s ordination on March 27, 1997.
In the fall of 1997, the U.S. was visited by Ludmila Javorova, who was ordained a priest in 1970 by Bishop Felix Davidek, so that she could minister to Catholic women in prison,in the then underground Czechoslovakian Roman Catholic Church. [Ed. Note: A detailed account appears in a 2001 book by Medical Mission Sister Miriam Therese Winter, titled Out of the Depths: The Story of Ludmilla Javorova:Ordained Roman Catholic Priest, and reviewed in the Summer, 2001 issue of EEWC Update.]
The ban on women priests
In June 1998, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem incorporating certain Vatican teachings into Canon Law, including the ban on women’s ordination. Thus the ban was codified and characterized as one of the “divinely revealed truths.” The Pope warned dissenters that they will be subject to just punishment, including possible excommunication. In spite of this, the first WOW international conference was held in Dublin, Ireland, in June 2001. Eleven resolutions were approved by 370 women and men from 26 countries and 5 continents. The second international WOW conference was held in July, 2005, prior to the recent ordinations, in Ottawa, Canada.
The “St. Lawrence Nine”
Following in the steps of their European sisters in 2002, the nine North American women were ordained by Bishops Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Gisela Foerster, and a third recently ordained Bishop, Patricia Fresen of South Africa (now residing in Germany, and in charge of preparation for the more than sixty women priests currently in formation.) As Ida Raming, a priest ordained also in 2002, said: “It is a question of releasing Roman Catholic women from spiritual prison. . . . Roman Catholic women have no voice of any legal weight, as they are excluded as non-priests from the decision-making processes of the church.” In a personal interview she went on to say that women talked, wrote, discussed, argued, debated for many years, and it is now time to take action.
The goal of Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) is “to bring about full equality of women in the Roman Catholic church, at the same time striving for a new, more collaborative model of priestly ministry.” The group’s constitution states that RCWP “does not perceive itself as a countercurrent movement against the Roman Catholic Church, but rather seeks to work positively from within the church.” The group has received its authority from Roman Catholic bishops who stand in full apostolic succession. The bishop who publicly ordained the original “Danube Seven” was Bishop Romulo Braschi of Argentina. A year later, Christine and Gisela were ordained as bishops by several male bishops whose identity must be protected. Thus these women bishops have bestowed on the “St. Lawrence Nine” sacramentally valid orders which have been attested and notarized. The women have all the necessary academic qualifications and are considered by their communities suitable for leadership positions. “This practice will continue”, say the women bishops, “until gender equality in the church has been reached” (RCWP press release). The group “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” perceives itself as a worldwide, clearly constituted, democratic organization. It has a website: www.Virtuelle-Dioezese.de (See also www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/ )
The priests and deacons know they may very well be excommunicated by Rome, as have their predecessors in Europe. Yet, as Bishop Patricia Fresen writes, “… as working womenpriests, women are finding a way to announce their priestly call and to breathe sacramental life into their growing faith communities. The Great Paradigm Shift of the Roman Catholic Church has begun.”
The Womenpriest movement knows that under the present conditions, they are claiming the right with men to be priests contra legem (the canonical term for “against the law”). They believe they need to break an unjust law while standing firmly within the church. They, along with women in the Anglican (Episcopal) and Evangelical and Protestant traditions, share the common vision of reforming the church structures from within, of re-imaging and designing a new model of priesthood, of affirming a model of shared power, to become a “discipleship of equals”, of recognizing a differentiation of ministries and gifts, and of becoming worker priests to avoid the strong financial control of a hierarchical power structure. As such, they will use no titles, and do not have obligatory celibacy. Within their faith communities, they follow different liturgical models, and welcome ecumenical dialogue and concelebrations. They stand firmly in the prophetic tradition, believing their ordinations are in obedience to the call of God.
With the gathering songs,”Here I am, Lord” and “Come Drink Deep”, the candidates were presented by members of their communities for the Diaconate and for the Priesthood. An Introductory Rite by Dom Helder Camara was followed by the Liturgy of the Word, and readings from Wisdom 7:22-28, Galatians 3:26-29, and John 20:11-18. The homily was given by the three women bishops together. The Rite of Ordination was traditional, but with feminist additions, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist was very moving with bread and wine passed among the gathering on the boat by the ordained women. Water, which was brought from all corners of Europe and the USA and Canada by each of the Bishops and the women being ordained, was poured into a common bowl and then into the St. Lawrence as a symbol of peace.
As an Anglican, I have witnessed several ordinations of women friends, including Canada’s first Anglican woman bishop, but to be at this historic Roman Catholic gathering of the priestly ordination of Victoria Rue, my husband David’s and my special friend, was a truly moving event. There was a strong sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
EEWC has a long history ourselves of welcoming and encouraging women called to ministry, lay and ordained. We would do well to extend a hand of fellowship to welcome the history-making four new priests: Michele Birch-Conery of British Columbia; Victoria Rue of California; Jean Marie St. Onge and Marie David of Massachusetts; and the five new deacons: Rebecca McGuyver of Alabama; Dana Reynolds of California; Regina Nicolosi of Minnesota; Kathleen Sullivan Vandenberg of Wisconsin; and Kathleen Strack of the western United States. (Some women’s names are pseudonyms as their identities need to be protected). They truly are faithful and courageous “strong women.”
© 2005 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 29 number 2 Summer (July-September) 2005