The Rebel Priests

These women say they’re heeding a call to the altar. The Vatican says they’re committing a sin as serious as pedophilia. The 75 American women who have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests knew they faced excommunication—but it was a price they were prepared to pay to change the church they love from within

by Julia Duin
monique venne image
Monique Venne
Photograph: Jean-Francois Campos

Via’s church grew, and today her community rents space from a Lutheran church in the dry hills of Serra Mesa, a middle-class neighborhood in San Diego. One Sunday evening in November last year, Via celebrates Mass as she always does, standing behind a simple wooden altar, wearing a beige liturgical robe accented by fall colors: red and brown, with yellow stripes on the sleeves. She addresses God as “she” and the “Holy One, the Inclusive One.” Instead of simply watching their priest consecrate the bread and wine, as traditional congregations do, Via’s community members stretch out their hands toward the chalice and together recite the prayer that Catholics believe changes bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. In the congregation’s reworked version of the Lord’s Prayer, they replace the words Lord, kingdom and Father with Christ, kingdom and Loving God.“The first time I attended Via’s Mass, women priests were a novelty,” says Ann Morey, parish treasurer. “Now it’s the new normal.” Terry Jackson, 72, a former priest who married a former nun, says they drive an hour to get there on Sunday evenings. “A lot of progressive bishops believe women should be ordained, but they don’t dare say it. They’re such robots.” Jackson and his wife began attending this church five years ago, and “we fell in love with the inclusiveness and the nonsexist language,” he says. “My wife feels so at home here and delighted with the femininity in the liturgy.”

What these parishioners consider “the new normal” is still anathema to the Catholic Church, which saw a new pope elected in March. None of the women profiled here thought he would initiate big changes. “My modest hope is that Pope Francis will lift the excommunications of women priests and their supporters, such as Father Roy Bourgeois,” says Venne. “However, nothing I have read so far indicates that he is open to ordaining women. So my tempered hope is that he will expand the priesthood to married men. I believe that once that happens, the other groups of people the church bars from ordination will gradually be accepted. But I do not expect to see women accepted into the Catholic priesthood in my lifetime.”

Some women priests have totally given up on the church and have emotionally moved on. One of those is Ree Hudson of Sedona, Arizona. She says that before her ordination on November 11, 2007, the archbishop of St. Louis sent her, via process servers, five documents threatening excommunication. “I don’t give a damn what they say,” asserts Hudson, a retired schoolteacher who doesn’t depend on a Catholic institution for income. “The bishops keep shooting themselves in the foot. Every time they do something against ordination, it helps our cause. It’s only a matter of time. Soon the church as we know it will crumble.” Like the other rebel priests, she continues to pray for the church that she hopes and wishes could be.

 

Julia Duin is the author of Quitting Church and Days of Fire and Glory.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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