Women Priests in the Roman Catholic Church

by Bridget Mary Meehan

According to some recent reports, Vatican officials were considering rules that would subordinate girls to boys in their ministry as altar servers. Now we are told that these changes are under review. Let's hope so.

The fear factor in the Vatican of a female priesthood is palpable. Evidence of the entrenched sexism of Vatican officials appear in proposed new rules that give preference to altar boys over altar girls in serving at Mass. Church leaders are terrified that the sight of girls on the altar will lead to women priests. They intuitively sense that despite their well-publicized ban on women’s ordination, the Spirit is calling forth faithful women to step out of the boat, trust God and walk on the uncharted waters of priestly ministry for a renewed church- even when faced with excommunication.

It is time for speak up for an end to spiritual apartheid in the church. Women make up more than half of the people in the pews, and fill over 80% of lay parish ministries in the United States. Let's shout it from the housetops- : No, more second-class citizenship for women in the church. We need to end the church's centuries-old discrimination toward women and girls. As a community of faith, the Roman Catholic Church should affirm girls and women NOW as equals in all church ministries including that of deacon, priest and bishop. In fact, in my opinion, women from every continent should be invited to participate in the selection of the next pope.

It is time for Catholics, who believe that women are created in God’s image, to resist the Vatican’s bullies' blatant sexism, and to call for a church that open all ministries to women. St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, offers words of encouragement to women who are called to priesthood. In Story of a Soul (192), she writes: “I feel in me the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle” We need to have the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas, who once said: ” I’d rather die excommunicated than have violated my conscience.”

Let us challenge the Vatican leaders who negate the gifts of women by excluding them from the sacrament of holy orders. Let us stand up for gender equality for women and girls in the church.

Courageous women, like Ida Raming, and the seven women who were ordained on June 29, 2002 to the Catholic priesthood, remind us that God is calling women today to obey God, not the hierarchy. The shortage of priests is a reality. Worldwide, 43% of parishes have no priest. This means millions of Catholics no longer can celebrate Eucharist. Yet, there are 82,000 female lay ministers who serve the church now. Catholic communities, like Spiritus Christi in Rochester New York, have called forth Mary Ramerman and Denise Donato to be their priests. There is NO Shortage of vocations. Women are ready, willing and able to serve the church as priests. Love for God and for people motivates women to risk condemnation by the institutional church to birth a new priesthood for a renewed church. The time is now. We have come full circle.

Let’s get the record straight. Jesus did not “ordain” anyone. Women were among Jesus’ disciples. According to all four Gospels, Mary of Magdala, called the “Apostle to the Apostles” by Church Fathers is the only person described as being present at both the cross and the tomb. The male apostles, except for John, deserted Jesus and hid after he died on the cross. For the first four centuries, Christians worshipped in homes and women presided.

Dorothy Irvin, an archaeologist and theologian, provides evidence that women ministered in priestly ministry in the catacombs and churches in Rome:

1)A fresco in a chapel in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome depicts women with arms outstretched toward the cup and plate in the gesture of consecration at a celebration of an overnight Eucharistic vigil held near the tomb on the anniversary of a Christian's death.

2)A fourth-century fresco, also in the tomb of Priscilla, shows a bishop laying his right hand on the shoulder of a woman priest at her ordination. The woman is wearing an alb, whose white edge can be seen beneath her chasuble, a vestment first worn by a priest at ordination. She is holding an open scroll from which she would preach. Other catacomb figures depicted with scrolls are St. Peter and his daughter.

3)In a side chapel of the Church of St. Praxedis, a ten- minute walk from the railroad station in Rome, is a beautiful group portrait in mosaic of four women. On the far left, is Theodora who is shown wearing an Episcopal cross. Above her head is a square frame, indicating that she was alive when the portrait was created. Above her head is the title "Episcopa" which indicates that Theodora was a bishop. St. Praxedis is shown next to Bishop Theodora, wearing a jeweled crown and an Episcopal cross. She is shown standing next to Mary, mother of Jesus. (For more information about calendars with mosaics contact: Dorothy Irvin at Dirvish854@cs.com)

In response the call of Jesus, who called all the baptized to radical discipleship, some Catholics have stood on the prophetic edge and offered a model to the Catholic Church of an inclusive model of priesthood. One outgrowth of Vatican 11, The Federation of Christian Ministries (FCM), a thirty-five year old organization has provided a place where reform - minded Catholics could experiment with new models of ministry as Catholics on the edge of the institutional church, while remaining connected to the church yet going beyond the present canonical structures. Over the years, FCM has evolved into an inclusive community of ministers including women and ministers from other denominations. There are women ( and men) who remain Roman Catholics and who are certified by FCM for public ministry. FCM members work in a diversity of ministries ranging from organizing intentional faith communities to chaplains in hospitals and prisons. In all fifty states, FCM is recognized as a community of professional ministers who proclaim the Gospel, witness weddings, preside at funerals, lead worship and support human services.

We stand now at a crossroads in the church. Will we allow the Vatican bullies to continue their discrimination against women in the church? Will Catholics sit back and allow their daughters to be thrown off our altars? Will we stand up for gender equality in the church? With hearts aflame with love for the church, we can embrace an inclusive vision of ministry that utilizes the gifts of all God’s people, including the married and women, in ordained ministry in the church.

Together we can make a difference. We can call our institutional leaders to treat women as Jesus did- disciples and equals. We can live as if the vision is a reality now. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Bridget Mary Meehan, sfcc