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

Monique Venne started saying the Roman Catholic Mass at her family’s oval kitchen table when she was nine years old. It was 1966, and on days when she couldn’t play outside after school, Monique and her seven-year-old sister, Janine, gathered in the warm kitchen of their home in Stoneham, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. Monique would carve out a round piece of white bread and flatten it. That served as the Communion wafer, which she’d place on an avocado-green glass plate. Then she would pour grape Kool-Aid into a matching green goblet. That became the chalice of Communion wine. For the Mass, Monique dipped into her trove of memorized Latin phrases. But, she says, “we didn’t light candles, as we were not allowed to use matches.”

At school, she opted to skip the noon recess in favor of attending Mass so she could enjoy the real thing. Dressed in her green plaid parochial school uniform, she sat in the front pew. Only boys could be altar servers, reciting the responses and ringing a set of bells at key intervals, but often the boys wouldn’t show up, so Monique quietly chanted the responses and clapped her hands when the bells were supposed to be rung. “I thought of myself as a pious Catholic kid,” she remembers decades later. “I sang in the children’s choir because that was the only way a girl could participate in the liturgy.”

In eighth grade, she toyed with becoming a nun, then discovered boys. She married, got a master’s degree in meteorology and spent 15 years in that field, first as a meteorologist at Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis and then at two small research firms. But through it all, she volunteered at her church. “I was always involved in some sort of liturgical ministry,” she says, serving as a Eucharistic minister (helping the priest serve Communion), sacristan (in charge of the ceremonial robes and equipment) and altar server (by then, women were allowed on the altar). Occasionally she’d lead morning prayer on weekdays. “I was always happiest near the altar,” she says. “I have a deep love of liturgy.”

By age 41, she was burned out on her profession. Providentially, she was laid off at the same time. She enrolled in a United Church of Christ seminary, just north of Minneapolis, with the idea of earning a theological degree that would qualify her to publish Bible study guides for Catholics. In 2002, while at the Protestant seminary, she had a chance conversation with some Catholic priests and mentioned how she’d celebrated pretend Masses as a child. “They told me that these experiences were considered to be the first call to priesthood,” says Venne, a thoughtful-looking woman with short brown hair and green eyes. “I was floored! I was both joyful and bitter: joyful that I had this calling and bitter that the Roman Catholic Church would not acknowledge my calling because of what I was—a female.”

Coincidentally, 2002 was a year of great import for Catholic women longing to be ordained. That’s when a group of seven from several countries decided to become priests in spite of the church’s position that females are prohibited from this path because Christ chose only male disciples. Like other Catholics, these women believed in apostolic succession, the idea that priestly ordinations are valid if the bishop who performs the rite can trace his ecclesiastical lineage back 2,000 years to the original 12 apostles. The women found two such bishops willing to conduct the ceremony, which took place June 29, 2002, on a boat on the Danube River. (Diocesan boundaries don’t include international waterways, so the location ensured that no church authority could block the ceremony.) The bishops used the same rites that are used for male candidates, and the women took the same vows, prostrating themselves as men do when they are being ordained.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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