Catholic woman ‘illegally’ becomes a priest
By Gregory Flannery
|left to Right Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan and Debra Meyers, Photo by Eric Fox|
"One person’s heretic is another person’s saint. Witness Jesus of Nazareth or Joan of Arc or Debra Meyers of Batavia. No one is yet calling Meyers a saint, but there most decidedly are those – men, mostly; celibate men, especially – who call her a heretic because of what she calls herself: a Catholic priest.
Meyers was ordained May 25 in a rite presided over by a woman who calls herself a Catholic bishop. No officially sanctioned Roman Catholic parish would abide such an ordination. Indeed, Meyers’s ordination occurred next door to Annunciation Church, affiliated with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The parish didn’t send flowers. Never mind the Vatican’s ecumenical efforts at improved relations with Judaism, Islam, the Anglican Church and other faiths – it will hold no truck with these women.
But St. John Unitarian/Universalist Church welcomed Meyers’s ordination as a priest in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP).
“The woman priest movement is welcome here at St. John’s,” said the Rev. Amy Shaw, pastor.
The Cincinnati Enquirer sent regrets. It fell to Robin Buchanan, administrative assistant to Editor Carolyn Washburn, to RSVP that the paper wouldn’t be covering the “illegal” ordination. Responding to a reminder inviting a reporter, the Enquirer declined to cover the religious crime in progress.
“Thank you for the reminder,” Buchanan wrote. “I asked if we would be providing coverage. I was told no, as you admit in your email that your ordinations are considered illegal. You may want to write a letter to the editor noting the event but we will not be providing coverage at this time.”
Never mind that “illegality” – literally, an exception to the rule – would seem to enhance newsworthiness and that Meyers’s ordination was the first of its kind in Cincinnati. The Enquirer, the only daily newspaper in Cincinnati, covers a region that is home to many Catholics. Did the paper take a pass so as not to offend orthodox Catholic sensibilities?
At the same time that it sought to publicize Meyers’s ordination, the ARWCP fretted about perceived risks. The ordination included a “media-free” zone, hoping it would protect nuns, lay employees of Catholic institutions and anyone else who didn’t want to be photographed attending the ordination. Excommunication is the maximum hazard a woman would face in this country for proclaiming herself a Catholic priest.
In Italy, a woman priest can face at least inconvenience. In March, police there briefly detained the Rev. Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who participated in Meyers’s ordination, for appearing in public in priestly vestments. She was released without charge. (Disclosure: Sevre-Duszynska is a contributing writer for Article 25.)
But for Catholic nuns and lay employees who support women’s ordination, excommunication could be a very serious matter, leading to expulsion from their convents and/or loss of their livelihoods.
That kind of treatment is the stuff of ancient Christian heritage, according to Bishop Mary Bridget Mary Meehan, who presided over Meyers’s ordination.
“Rejection, hostility and jail are nothing new for followers of Christ, either in the gospels or in our contemporary world,” Meehan said.
She mocked the Vatican’s ban on women priests, summarizing it thus: “Only men have the right equipment.”
The Vatican, of course, holds that God provided the job description for priests. Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, cited the late Pope John Paul II.
“Several years ago Pope John Paul II restated definitively what has consistently been the position of the church, that it doesn’t have the authority to allow the ordination of women priests.”
The Rev. Donna Rougeux, a woman priest participating in the ordination, challenged that assertion.
“History and archeology indicate that women served as deacons, priests and bishops for the first 1,200 years of the church. … In the ordination of a woman priest, we assist in the restoration of our tradition,” she said. “We are being faithful to the original intent of our brother, Jesus.”
The claim that women were ever ordained by the Catholic Church is inaccurate, Andriacco said.
In her homily, Meehan argued that the gospel reading at the ordination, the story of the “Woman at the Well,” points to Jesus’ rejection of traditional sexual roles in religion.
“Jesus engaged a woman in a theological conversation – the longest conversation in the gospels,” she said.
Meehan also criticized the Vatican’s “hostile takeover” of a U.S. nuns’ organization, accused of being influenced by “radical feminism.”
“Jesus was a radical feminist,” Meehan said.
In an interview prior to her ordination, Meyers spoke to a reporter at St. John’s Church near a print depicting the Edict of Torda, the 1568 declaration of religious tolerance, making the new Protestant denominations welcome in Transylvania. A statement about the painting includes these words: “At most places, the Catholic Church attacked the new beliefs and persecuted the people who held them.”
“They are still sort of doing it,” Meyers said.
A professor of history, women’s studies and gender studies at Northern Kentucky University, Meyers said she was raised Catholic.
“We were an interesting mix of a family, staunch Irish Catholics on my mother’s side, lackadaisical Catholics on my father’s side,” she said. “My mother ended up divorcing my father after an abusive marriage. Priests had long told her to stay with him and make the most of it. It had an impact in my life, just seeing how unjust some of the advice was.”
Religious diversity is something Meyers is familiar with. She has two adult children, a son who practices Judaism and a daughter who is a Unitarian/Universalist. What matters is taking care of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, she said.
“As long as my kids are doing those things, I don’t care what they call themselves,” Meyers said. “They’re living God’s word, and that what’s important. Everyone need their own spiritual path. That’s why God provided us with so many religious options.”
Meyers said her ministry will focus on the needs of single mothers and their children.
“I am committed in my ministry to helping women,” she said. “That really has been short-changed by the traditional church. You may feel very uncomfortable going to a (male) priest, and a priest may not be the best person to aid in your spiritual journey.”
Meyers said she has known since childhood that God called her to the priesthood.
“I had been called as a very young child to be a priest,” she said. “I knew that as much as I knew my own name. Everything I’ve done up to this point – as a mother, as a teacher and as a community member – is really pastoral and is a ministry. So even though I was denied being a Catholic priest, everything I was doing was what a priest would do. This is what I have been preparing for all my life.”
Meyers said her ordination as a Catholic priest is a way to help reform the church in which she was raised.
“I can help move the church into the 21st century, to become more loving and inclusive,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I chose not to go toward an Episcopalian priesthood.”
Why, though, does Meyers want to be a Catholic priest – that is, a member of an institution that explicitly rejects her gifts? Denying her vocation, she said, would be a sin.
“Whether or not the traditional Catholic hierarchy recognizes me doesn’t matter at all,” she said. “I would rather reconcile my actions with God. That’s more important to me than what the Vatican thinks. From my perspective, I am still following the path of the Roman Catholic Church.”
For more information, visit www.arcwp.org