Standing among thousands of Roman Catholics outside the Vatican, a woman dons a traditional priest’s stole. She receives communion in the sacred city while awaiting the election of a new Pope. Noting the guards surrounding the crowd, she is aware of the risk in her presence. Suddenly, seven fateful words halt her celebration.
“Why are you dressed like a priest?”
Janice Sevre-Duszynska was prepared for the question. “Because I am one," she replied. "Would you like a blessing?”
The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP) is a branch of the international movement advocating for and performing the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.
In just over a decade, the ARWCP has ordained 200 women in 10 countries, the vast majority in the United States. These women do not accept their excommunication, instead promoting a mission of equality and solidarity within the Catholic Church.
“We’re not leaving the church, we’re leading the church,” Sevre-Duszynska, an active ARCWP member, said.
Two women were ordained this Sunday at Indianapolis’ St. John United Church of Christ. Mary Weber became a priest; Annie Watson became a deacon. Both were ordained by Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan. To an outsider, the ceremony would seem typical, an average day in the church. But to a Catholic, the opposite is true.
In 2007, under the authority of the Pope, a penalty was issued decreeing the automatic excommunication of anyone involved in a woman’s ordination.
In Catholic doctrine, the law of the Church, “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination.” Historically and traditionally, only a man can become a priest, deacon, or other ministerial position. The price of disobeying this law is excommunication, or denying communion to the defiant and effectively distancing them from the church.
As I entered the church to meet with Sevre-Duszynska before the ordination ceremony, I saw dozens of posters and fliers, all inscribed with the same Bible passage:
“There is neither male nor female. In Christ Jesus you are one.”– Galatians 3:28.
“God is beyond gender,” Sevre-Duszynska said. “To exclude women is to exclude an aspect of God.”
The mission of the ARCWP is deeply rooted in the struggle for equality. The group maintains that the reason women are still not allowed to enter the priesthood is due to sexism, not doctrine. Only a few decades ago, women were not even allowed to act as alter servers.
Though the Church has grown considerably since then, it has not faltered on its stance on women’s ordination. In the Church’s eyes, the image of God is always male. This is evident not only in the male priests, but also in the countless artwork depicting a male God.
“We need more feminine images of God,” said Sevre-Duszynska.
The link between the Women Priests movement and feminist movements around the world is strong and undeniable. The ARCWP seeks justice for women in society. They maintain that the male-domination of Catholicism has a deep-rooted effect in Catholic women, making them feel spiritually inferior to men.
The ARCWP believes that equality can start with the church. They believe that sexism is a sin, and that people need to see women as an image of God. Women are consistently oppressed, victimized, and objectified, and need to be empowered in a “church of equals”.
The idea of a “church of equals” binds the ARCWP. Going further than ordaining women, priests of the organization generally serve inclusive communities. They seek to transform Catholicism to maintain tradition and embrace all people as equals. People from other faiths, divorcees, members of the LGBT community, and countless other groups often denied privileges are welcome to receive communion.
The priests of the ARCWP break from traditional Catholicism in multiple aspects of the mass. Aside from receiving Eucharist without going through the sacrament of First Communion, the new movement invites anyone to bless the Eucharist and each other as well as sign up to read homilies and gospels, all things traditionally done by priests.
“The spirit is in everyone,” explained Sevre-Duszynska.
Nevertheless, not everyone agrees with Sevre-Duszynska or the mission of the ARCWP. The movement has caused massive controversy to erupt within the church, resulting in excommunications for countless involved.
The controversy is not only caused by the women’s ordinations. Even after ordination, certain aspects defy traditional Catholicism. Many of the women priests are married with children, something traditionally forbidden. All services are held in non-Catholic churches, as though they are prohibited in Catholic churches, other faiths have provided their support.
As Sunday’s ordination ceremony began, Reverend Watson, interim pastor of St. John United Church of Christ and husband of Annie Watson, welcomed visitors to the church.
“Be careful,” said Watson. “This movement is contagious.”
It is possible that Watson was referring to the ever-growing number of Roman Catholic women priests and supporters. It is also possible that he was referring to his wife, who only decided to become a deacon after discovering that her husband’s church would be hosting a woman’s ordination. After she found out, her investment in the movement grew.
The ceremony included a full Catholic mass as well as the ordinations of both Watson and Mary Weber, a former Sister of Providence. Both women have proven valued members of the Catholic community, giving their lives to service. Testimonials from friends and family members asserted their merit, after which a phrase was repeated.
“Do you know if she is worthy?”
“Those who know have been asked.”
During the homily and parts of the ceremony, speakers reflected on the history of women in the church. They praised St. Joan of Arc and St. Mother Theodore Guerin, two women who changed the world and were instrumental in the fight for women’s equality. Talk followed of old paintings suggesting an ancient history of women’s ordination, and of St. Joan’s Alliance in 1911, the first advocates for woman’s ordination.
“We are proud to walk in their footsteps today,” proclaimed Bishop Meehan.
From holding banners outside walls of the Vatican to sending priests across the world spreading their mission of peace and justice, the ARCWP is taking leaps toward equality and diminishing sexism in the Church. Those involved have taken great risks for their beliefs and faced dire consequences, but show no signs of slowing.
“You know what they say, excommunication is the path to canonization,” laughed Sevre-Duszynska, noting her belief that each person has a calling, and the women priests are doing what they believe to be their mission in life.
Catholics are taught that conscience is sacred, that they should be guided by their knowledge of right and wrong. The ARCWP urges people and brother priests to follow their consciences, believing that the discrimination of women as priests is wrong.
The United States has been proven to offer an overwhelming support for the Women Priests movement. Currently, the Catholic Church is in dire need of priests, and according to the ARCWP, they don’t have to look far.