When it comes to role models, Mary Magdalene rises to the top for Abigail Eltzroth.
While Jesus Christ would naturally take the No. 1 spot on that list, the woman who first discovered Christ's empty tomb and began spreading the word of his resurrection is Eltzroth's kind of lady — in the thick of the story, right there with the men alerting the world to the Earth-shaking good news.
Last weekend, Eltzroth became the latest woman — and the first in the western half of North Carolina — ordained as a Catholic priest by a breakaway group called the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. The official Roman Catholic church, which does not allow female priests, will not recognize her new credentials, but that makes no difference to Eltzroth, a 64-year-old retired economist who moved to Weaverville a year ago.
Eltzroth maintains she is "breaking the stained glass ceiling."
"I’ve been in ministry for a number of years now, and in the Catholic Church that stained glass ceiling is just always present,” Eltzroth said. "Not only is there a limitation (on women's roles), but there's not even an acknowledgment of what we do."
Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of Sarasota, Florida, conducted the ordination ceremony, held Sunday at Jubilee!, a nondenominational church on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. Meehan is a bishop with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, one of two rebel Catholic groups in the U.S. that ordain women. The other is Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
Meehan maintains the female priest movement is on the rise, despite the church's cold shoulder, and now includes 250 women in 10 countries.
"The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is leading the church now toward living Gospel gender equality, as women priests lead inclusive communities where all are equal and all are welcome," Meehan said in an email. "Our movement has over 65 inclusive communities in 35 states in the United States, and there are women priests and inclusive communities in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States."
While Eltzroth and Meehan maintain that excommunication is automatic for women ordained by their association, the Diocese of Charlotte, which oversees all official Roman Catholic parishes in the western half of North Carolina, did not confirm that Eltzroth was "officially" excommunicated.
"That's not something the church actively does," said Patricia Guilfoyle, editor of the Catholic News Herald, which serves the western diocese. "It's not like the Pope issues a statement saying, 'This person is excommunicated.'"
She did note that the Vatican in 2007 issued a general decree regarding the excommunication of women who attempt to receive or grant the sacrament of holy orders (becoming a priest).
"Basically, it states that in all of these cases the people involved incur excommunication because they publicly and willfully choose to act in opposition to the authority of the Church — effectively committing an act of schism," Guilfoyle said.
The Charlotte diocese comprises 92 parishes and missions in 46 counties, serving an estimated 450,000 Catholics. Within a 50-mile radius of Asheville, the diocese has 19 Catholic churches or missions.
David Hains, a spokesman for the Diocese, issued a statement in response to Eltzroth's ordination ceremony.
"I hope that Catholics in the diocese will understand that it would be sinful to receive a fake sacrament from a woman priest, and that includes attending a fake Mass," he said.
Dwindling priest numbers in U.S.
The diocese, following Catholic teaching, maintains it follows the example of Jesus, who chose 12 men as his apostles, who were then charged with spreading the faith. In 1994, then-Pope John Paul II issued a statement that said the church has no authority to go further than what Jesus did.
Pope Francis caused a stir last year when he created a commission to study the possibility of women being ordained as deacons in the church, but he later clarified his position and said the exclusion of women from the priesthood is settled matter.
Eltzroth, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 2000 from the Presbyterian denomination, remains undeterred by the current Pope's affirmation of centuries of maintaining that stained glass ceiling. Her organization began ordaining priests in 2002 in Europe and has no intention of slowing down.
"We’re just one step ahead of him," Eltzroth said of Pope Francis. "We’re on the cutting edge. We’re leading the church into the future."
She cites Biblical teachings that support leadership roles for women, and she notes the church has not always had the same policies regarding priests, including the provision that they not marry. She's hopeful for continued evolution within the church, pointing out the church at times has supported slavery and condemned usury, the loaning of money and charging interest.
"Open the doors to women, open the doors to married men, the whole LGBT community," Eltzroth said, summarizing her philosophy on what the church needs to do.
Eltzroth lived in Nebraska and Washington, D.C. for years before moving to Weaverville last year, at the invitation of her grown daughter, who lives in Asheville and told her, "This is your kind of people here." A divorcee, Eltzroth also has a grown son, who lives in Washington, D.C.
She and Meehan believe the Catholic Church, faced with a decades-long shortage of male priests, needs all the ordained leaders it can get. Eltzoth maintains a third "of the active priests in this diocese are foreign born, and that’s probably true throughout the country. They’re coming in from countries that have an even greater priest shortage."
The church has responded in many areas by closing parishes.
On its website, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that in 2016, nearly 3,500 American parishes did not have a resident pastor, compared with 549 in 1965. During that same time, the number of priests serving a diocese has dwindled from just over 35,900 to 25,760.
The total number of priests in the U.S. declined from just over 58,600 in 1965 to almost 37,200 in 2016, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. That occurred while the number of people identifying as Catholics increased over the same time period, from 48.5 million to 74.2 million, CARA states.
FutureChurch, an organization that espouses the "return to the practice of priesthood that welcomes both married and celibate men," as well as acceptance of female deacons, highlights "an acute worldwide shortage of priests" on its website. Between 1975 and 2008, "the world's Catholics increased by 64 percent, from 709.6 million to 1.17 billion, but the number of priests increased by only 1 percent, from 404,800 to 409,200," FutureChurch stated, citing CARA statistics.
Changing with modern world?
While many Roman Catholics admire the church's steadfastness and adherence to tradition in a tumultuous modern world, Meehan and Eltzroth say the church needs to evolve to survive.
Meehan said millions of Catholics have become disaffected by the church's conservative stances on the priesthood and other issues, and making the church more inclusive would help bring them back. She believes they are following Jesus' example in inviting everyone to the table to receive the Eucharist (communion) and the sacraments.
"We are leading the church into its future, which is now inclusivity and welcome for all, especially those who are on the margins — gays, lesbians, transgender, divorced," Meehan said. "We have an open table and everyone is always welcome, just like how Jesus welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and everyone on the margins. They were all there, at his meals."
Eltzroth is hopeful that the church may open the door to allow married male priests, but she doubts that in her lifetime she'll see the Vatican give the stamp of approval to women priests.
Having spent years in Catholic ministries, including a couple of years in a Catholic prison ministry in Saginaw, Michigan, and another stint working with American Indians on a reservation in Montana, Eltzroth believes she's more than ready to assume the role of a priest. One moment that spurred her into the priesthood was the audacity of a male priest who approached her and suggested she should mend his laundry.
Eltzroth went on to secure a degree from Washington Theological Union, a now-defunct Catholic seminary that was in the nation's capital.
"I plan to start a worship community here in Western North Carolina," said Eltzroth, sitting at a cozy Weaverville diner, not far from where she lives and plans to found her church. "And I expect there are going to be a lot of people who would welcome an alternative to the official Roman Catholic church."
She initially was drawn to the Catholic church by a simple realization, one she hopes to replicate in her church.
"The churches were crowded on Sundays," Eltzroth said. "There were even parents in the back holding small children. I thought, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of that.’”
She had no intention at that point of going into the ministry, but as she participated more fully in the church, she felt a calling to the seminary, which offered advanced degrees in Catholic studies, and says she was encouraged by other church members and even a pastor.
Eltzroth emphasizes that she and her fellow female priests are not bomb-throwers looking to tear down the Catholic church.
"We don’t want to leave the church," she said. "We want to still continue to be an active part of the church, and lead it to be part of the future."
More information on the issues
To learn more about the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, visit https://arcwp.org/en/
To learn more about Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, visit her blog: http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/
To learn more about the Catholic Diocese of WNC, visit https://charlottediocese.org/
For statistics on the Catholic Church in the U.S., visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website at www.usccb.org/