"Bridget Mary Meehan loves swimming, line dancing and listening to the Louis Armstrong songs her father used to play on his trumpet. She loves her daily ice cream and diet soda at McDonald's, her Irish homeland and a good feisty debate.
BISHOP BRIDGE MARY MEEHAN
Occupation: Bishop, Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests
Family: Two younger brothers, Patrick and Sean
"We're the Rosa Parkses of the Catholic world. You have to start somewhere and we're not waiting for permission from the hierarchy."
But most of all she loves the Catholic church — the very church that has excommunicated her more than once.
“How many times? Let's see...” says Meehan, a nun and an ordained bishop in the renegade group known as the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. “The first was in 2008, when I was put in a category with those who've committed the highest form of Catholic crime — members of the Mafia and priest pedophiles. But apparently I'm lower than the priests because they can still take communion.”
The denunciations have done nothing to deter Meehan from her passionate commitment to achieving equal status for women in the Catholic church and facilitating no less than “a transformation of all unjust structures, in the church and in the world.”
“We're in the midst of a 'Holy shake-up,'” says Meehan of herself and the more than 200 women internationally who have been ordained outside Vatican circles. “We're the Rosa Parkses of the Catholic world. You have to start somewhere and we're not waiting for permission from the hierarchy.”
Both Meehan's faith and her strong sense of self were instilled in her earliest years, growing up in a bucolic cottage near Tipperary, with no running water but plenty of opportunity for communing with nature and God. In fact, the cows, chickens, lambs and goats were just as much a part of her religion as the angels and saints..."
“It was like Mary and Jesus were extended family,” she says. “Spirituality was all about the earth, water, nature. Faith was something you breathed.”
When she was 8, her family immigrated to Virginia, where she attended Catholic school and met her first postulants. She felt a call to serve the church, but fought it, bargaining with God to give her a reason not to become a nun.
But rather than entering George Mason University, where she'd been accepted, in 1966 she joined the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Pennsylvania.
Ten years later she took a leave to care for her mother and never returned. Instead she joined the Sisters for Christian Community, a non-canonical, ecumenical organization of 500 women who believe the spiritual destiny of all is to become as one with God.
She spent 15 years doing pastoral work at an interfaith chapel in a military community outside Washington, D.C., while earning her masters and a doctorate of ministry. Her studies immersed her in the historical connections of women to the church that are ignored or challenged by the present-day hierarchy and planted a seed that bloomed after she watched a woman lead Mass at an Episcopal service.
“It was a transformative moment,” Meehan says. “I realized that this was not just theory, but that it could become a reality.”
The Roman Catholic womenpriests movement was born in 2002 in Europe, when a male bishop broke church law to ordain seven women. By 2006 Meehan had become one of the first 12 women ordained in the U.S.
The movement has since split into two amicable factions — Meehan likens them to religious orders — the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, devoted to achieving equality in church, and Meehan's branch, committed to fighting for social justice across the board.
Through a “minor miracle,” the low-ball offer Meehan and her late father made on a home in Sarasota's Oakwood Manor mobile home park in 2004 was accepted without a counter. Once they had moved here, she began hosting a “house church” in their living room. Everyone — including the gays, lesbians and divorcées barred from traditional Catholicism — was welcome at the Mary Mother of Jesus Inclusive Catholic Community.
Meehan's actions have drawn a string of rebukes from Catholic clerics, notably the leader of the Diocese of Venice, Bishop Frank J. Dewane. Each reprimand has ignited media attention, which, Meehan says, has only served to bolster her cause.
“Every time they do that, I say it's the gift that keeps on giving,” she says with a polite grin.
The church outgrew her living room long ago and found an accepting home at St. Andrew United Church of Christ, where it meets every Saturday at 4 p.m. The priest leads a full church discussion rather than delivering a sermon and, during snowbird season, there are as many as 75 in attendance.
Meehan has been pleased and encouraged by Pope Francis's efforts to address injustices to the poor and oppressed. But when he visits the U.S. in September, she plans to mention just what he is neglecting.
“His agenda for justice and inclusion must be for everyone,” she says. “You can't have economic and gender equity without women, because it's all inter-related.
“I honestly think he recognizes our movement as prophetic. But right now, women are the elephant in the church's living room.”