Changing Church: Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan, Priest, Mary Mother of Jesus Catholic Community, Sarasota, Florida; Bishop, Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests Posted on December 7, 2011
Womb of Creation,
Shekinah, She-Who-Dwells Within
God, the breasted One
Sophia, Holy Wisdom,
Help women to delight in their identity as imago Dei (images of God).
Angry Woman Preacher
Liberator of the Oppressed
Transform patriarchal structures and sexist attitudes that prevent us from acknowledging women as imago Dei.
Jesus-Sophia, the Crucified One
Mother Jesus, birthing the world
Merciful Mother Jesus,
Jesus-Sophia, Healer of our Stress
Jesus, Mirror of Sophia
Reveal your saving power through women, imago Dei.
This prayer is included in Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan’s book Delighting in the Feminine Divine. With passion, Bridget Mary expresses and lives her belief that the Feminine Divine and women priests are transforming church and society.
As a Roman Catholic priest and bishop, Bridget Mary challenges the all-male priesthood, bringing dramatic change to the church. She and others in the Women Priests movement are prophetic also in changing the hierarchical church back to the early church model of a discipleship of equals. Bridget Mary explains: “Women priests call forth the gifts of the people in a circle of equals. The Eucharist belongs to the believing community. Therefore, when we celebrate Eucharist, we call people to join around the altar to pray the Eucharistic prayer, to say the words of consecration together with the presiders because the Body of Christ is the whole people together. We have a dialogue homily that reflects that the Spirit is in the people. At the liturgy of the Word, we need to hear different voices of how the Spirit is calling people to live the Word today in their real lives. It’s not just one person’s take on what it means to live the Word of God in the world, such as the preacher or presider or priest. We trust the Wisdom of the Spirit in the people gathered in the assembly.”
For many years Wisdom has been a significant divine image for Bridget Mary. She has been in the Sophia Holy Wisdom region of a religious order, Sisters for Christian Community. “This is not a geographical region but a spiritual focus,” she explains. “The region is reflective of the Wisdom of the Sacred Feminine, unfolding the Sophia feminine Wisdom. Our focus is on fostering the Divine Feminine in life, in our relationships, in our spirituality, in being women who reflect Wisdom Sophia and who join Her in working for justice and peace.”
Sophia has inspired Bridget Mary to write twenty books: “My ministry of book writing comes from Sophia to foster the Sacred Feminine. I always felt called to be a passionate reflection of the feminine face of God. That reflection is healing, reconciling, transformative, empowering, and co-creative of community, inclusive of all.”
Born in Ireland, Bridget Mary Meehan was named for St. Brigit of Kildare, bishop and abbess of Ireland, who was named for Mother Goddess, Brigit. With her parents and two younger brothers, Patrick and Sean, Bridget Mary lived in “a lovely little gray cottage” across from the Erkina River in County Laois, Ireland. “It was a rural, rustic, very beautiful countryside with sheep and cows and beautiful gardens and wildlife,” she recalls.
Bridget Mary describes her family as “very loving and earth-centered.” Her “close-knit” family prayed the rosary together every night. Her mom, whom Bridget Mary describes as having “mountain-moving faith,” always led the rosary. Her dad filled the house with music of saxophone and trumpet. Her maternal grandfather also provided a “very loving, nurturing presence” in the home.
Bridget Mary flourished in the spiritual environment of her home. “After the family rosary each evening, I’d have heart to heart talks with Mary,” she recalls. “We grew up in the kind of household in Ireland where you always felt that the saints and angels and Jesus and Mary were like extended family. We had this prayerful atmosphere and this sense that all of life was encompassed by the Holy—the storytelling, the music.”
In 1955, at the age of seven, Bridget Mary made her first communion at Church of the Holy Trinity in Rathdowney, where there is a stained-glass window of St. Brigit. “Eucharist always drew me,” she says. “I would go to Mass more times than we needed to. I didn’t just go once a week with my family. Even as a child, I had that sense of connecting with the Holy in the Eucharist, that it was a source of power, a source of being loved, and a source of energy.”
In 1956, the Meehan family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Arlington, Virginia. Here Bridget Mary attended Catholic schools. When she was eighteen years old, Bridget Mary entered a convent. “I loved my religious life,” she says. “I always felt called to consecrate my life to God. I felt this amazing Love always enveloping me and calling me to be that Love, and to form relationships of love and kindness and service to other people.”
After three years of formation Bridget Mary made her profession of vows to become an Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sister. During these years of formation she also worked toward her undergraduate degree. In 1969, she began teaching in Catholic schools.
While teaching and living near Atlanta, Georgia, Bridget Mary became a member of an ecumenical, charismatic prayer group, a major influence on her spiritual journey and her pastoral ministry. “It broke my Catholic mentality and opened me up to see that the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit are present in all of us, that together we journey toward God and service to one another,” she says.
In 1980, Bridget Mary felt called to join the Society of Sisters for the Church (SSC), staying in that religious order for fifteen years. When SSC began considering a more structured canonical status, she left to join Sisters for Christian Community (SFCC), independent of the Catholic Church hierarchy. “This community has the vision of global interconnectedness of all life and of all people,” Bridget Mary says. “Sisters for Christian Community work for earth transformation, fostering relationships that support justice, harmony, peace, and equality for all people.
After earning an M.A. in religious education at Catholic University of America, Bridget Mary served as pastoral associate at Fort Myer Chapel in Arlington, Virginia, for fifteen years. During this time Bridget Mary also worked toward the Doctor of Ministry degree at Virginia Theological Seminary. In 1987, she was the first woman and the first Roman Catholic at this seminary to graduate with the D.Min. degree. There was only one other woman, an Episcopal priest, in the D.Min. program at that time. Bridget Mary recalls: “She celebrated the first Mass I attended at the seminary. It was the first time I’d ever experienced a woman priest. I thought the ground would swallow me up; it was absolutely awesome! At the seminary I had once again that great experience of stretching through ecumenical dialogue. Also, I was reading more and more feminist theology by women like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Elizabeth Johnson.”
Then Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan began writing about female imagery for God. “I felt that if we were to grow in partnership as men and women in equality in the church, we needed to restore the feminine dimension of the Divine,” she says. Bridget Mary describes a mystical experience she had before writing her first book, Exploring the Feminine Face of God. “I prayed about writing that book.” she says. “In my prayer I felt Mary, Mother of Jesus, saying to me, ‘Yes, you need to do this. Just do it, and it will be blessed.’” So she wrote this meditation book based on female imagery from Scripture, the mystics, the Sophia tradition, and contemporary works. The book was so successful that as soon as it was published, it immediately sold out.
Believing in the importance of teaching biblical female divine images to children, Bridget Mary co-authored with her friend Regina Madonna Oliver a children’s book, Heart Talks with Mother God. One of the bright-colored pictures in the book, by artist Susan Sawyer, is of a woman tenderly holding a child close to her face. On the page opposite this picture is a meditation entitled “God, a Nurturing Mother”:
Listen my child as your Mother God describes herself to you. . . .
“I am like a tender mother who cuddles, kisses, and holds you in her arms.
I am like a caring mother who provides for your needs.
I am like a comforting mother who dries your tears when you are sad.
I am like a kind mother who always tells you how special you are.
I am like a wise mother who teaches and guides you.
I am like a happy mother who smiles, sings, plays, and dances with you.
I am like a loving mother who tells you lots of times: ‘I love you. . . . I believe in you. . . . Keep on trying. . . . I am proud of you. . . . I will always love you no matter what happens.’”
Bridget Mary believes that the Spirit prepared her for the priesthood through the many years of her pastoral ministry at Fort Myer Chapel and then through her leadership of small faith communities, meeting in her homes in Virginia and Florida.
On July 31, 2006, Bridget Mary was among the first eight women in the U.S. to be ordained Roman Catholic priests. The ordination ceremony took place aboard the riverboat “Majestic” at the confluence of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers in Pittsburgh. Officiating at the ceremony were Bishop Patricia Fresen, Bishop Gisela Forster, and Bishop Ida Raming, all validly ordained by bishops in full apostolic succession. Bridget Mary recalls: “My image as we were ordained on the boat was of Jesus calling us to get out of the boat and walk on water to a new model of justice and equality for women as disciples and equals. The only way to keep from sinking in the waves and storms that life would bring was to keep our eyes on Christ-Sophia and trust in her wisdom and compassionate care.”
The storms did come. Bridget Mary was excommunicated after being ordained, and a Catholic Press discontinued five of her books. The bishop of the diocese where she began a church in her mobile home in Sarasota, Florida, told the local paper to pull an announcement about this weekly Mass. The paper refused, and printed an article about the bishop’s opposition, drawing ABC news to do a story on the church. Then the church drew triple the number of people, and began renting space at St. Andrew United Church of Christ. Bridget Mary comments: “Opposition has always proved a blessing to us.”
On April 19, 2009, Bridget Mary was among the first four American Roman Catholic women bishops to be ordained. One of the functions of women bishops is to ordain other qualified candidates as deacons, priests, and bishops without having to depend on male bishops who must hide their identities from the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
On February 6, 2010, Bishop Bridget Mary participated in the ordination of the first women priests in Florida. The bishop of that diocese threatened to excommunicate not only Bishop Bridget Mary and others who officiated, but everyone who attended. “I don’t know how many excommunications I’ve had; I haven’t counted them all,” she says. “I think they’re badges of honor actually, blessings. When the bishop threatened to excommunicate everyone, we held our breath, wondering who would come to the ordination. We had over 200 people come! And the media were all there to chart the story. My experience is that opposition can really be the source of growth and blessing.”
Although Pope Benedict has excommunicated all the women who have been ordained, the women priests reject the excommunication. “The Catholic Church teaches that a law must be received by the faithful,” Bishop Bridget Mary explains. “Seventy percent of Catholics in the U.S. support women’s ordination. Therefore, canon 1024, which states that only a baptized male may receive Holy Orders, does not have the force of law because it has not been accepted by the community. In fact, we have a moral obligation to disobey this unjust law. We also reject the excommunication because we are validly ordained; the male bishop who ordained our first women bishops is in full apostolic succession.”
“We are not leaving the church; we are leading the church,” Bridget Mary says over and over. “Roman Catholic women priests are prophetic because we are a movement that restores justice for women in the church, rooted in the example of Jesus who called women and men to be equal disciples and rooted in the early tradition of the church where women were deacons, priests, and bishops. Women priests in partnership with married priests and others are already positioned to reform the church, to move it from hierarchical and misogynist to egalitarian. There’s a new partnership between women and men in grassroots communities, empowering and welcoming to all. People are now more open and ready. I think there’s a tipping point coming in Catholicism. The largest religious group in the U.S. is Catholics, and the second largest is Catholics who’ve left because they’ve been turned off or rejected.”
There is a great need for inclusive, egalitarian faith communities, Bridget Mary declares: “So many people are adrift and looking for spiritual resources, for community. Many have been alienated by the institutional church, including the divorced and separated, gays and lesbians, and women who feel like second-class citizens in their own church. We need to open our hearts, our homes, our churches to provide inclusive, welcoming, loving places of spiritual nurturance and spiritual challenge to live the vision of Jesus, the prophetic Gospel of justice and love and peace in our world, which embraces equality at its heart because all are in the image of God, male and female, Jew and Greek, every race. We are all one in the Divine. And that Divine has a female face.”
Bishop Bridget Mary says that she stays in the church to reform and renew and transform it. “I want to be an agent of change in solidarity with a vast group of sisters and brothers who are reformers and who love the church and want to restore it to its mystical, Christ-centered, justice-doing focus. We want to transform it from its hierarchical, male-dominated, insular view of the world to an open, democratic, participatory, people-empowered model of church. For now the institutional church has strayed. The Vatican is at the heart of global destructiveness. The institution has strayed because of the teaching on homosexuality as a disorder, the teaching on annulment, the ban on artificial birth control, the oppression of women—these are some ways the institutional church has alienated Catholics.”
Although Bridget Mary and other Catholic women priests envision an ideal church without distinctions between clergy and laity, they believe that women need to be ordained now to bring justice for women in the church. “Women priests remind us that women are equal symbols of the Holy,” she says. “Women and men are created in God’s image, and both may represent Christ as priests. Until we integrate the Divine Feminine in our religious systems, in our governance, in our structures, and in our whole approach to life, we will be flying on one wing. We will not be whole. We will have the patriarchal domination continuing, and that obviously is leading the world and religion to destruction. We’re experiencing the destructiveness of the all-male dominator model in Roman Catholicism with the global sex abuse scandal. The patriarchal model is not working for people. It’s not going to work. It’s not of the Spirit.”
A growing number of Catholics and people of other faith traditions are supporting the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. “The most wonderful thing is that Catholic people and Christians of other denominations and Jewish people are more and more supportive as they hear the stories of our call to be like Rosa Parks, refusing to sit in the back of the bus, and to lead the church into a new era of justice,” Bishop Bridget Mary says. “We are no longer willing to sit in the back of the Catholic bus and be subordinated, mainly because Jesus called women to be disciples and equals. Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection, and she was called to be an apostle.”
In her vision for the future, Bishop Bridget Mary sees women priests and the Divine Feminine as closely linked. She expresses hope for the future not only of churches, but of the world through including women as representatives of the Divine and through including Feminine Divine language and images in worship. “If the symbol system that patriarchy has given us of a male God is changed, our worldview could be radically altered. As we re-imagine our divine beginning, we can incorporate a symbol system that reflects the Feminine Divine and the experience of women as images of the Divine Presence.”
Bishop Bridget Mary is currently a leader in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests: www.associationofromancatholicwomenpriests.org She writes: “Our specific charism within the broader global Roman Catholic Women Priests initiative is to live Gospel equality and justice for women in the church and in society now. We work in solidarity with the poor and marginalized for transformative justice in partnership with all believers. Our vision is to live as a community of equals in decision making both as an organization and within all our faith communities. We advocate the renewal of the vision of Jesus in the Gospel in our church and world.”
The Roman Catholic Women Priests initiative began in 2002 as a renewal movement within the Roman Catholic Church whose goal is to achieve full equality for women and men within the Church. The common purpose of Roman Catholic Women Priests is to promote the ordination of women in Apostolic Succession as a matter of justice and faithfulness to the Gospel. There are currently women priests’ communities in Germany, Austria, France, Scotland, Canada, the United States, and South America.
“The unique focus of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is on justice and equality: 1. We seek equality for women in the church including ordination, and justice for all; 2. We serve the poor and marginalized; 3. We live the spiritual and social justice tradition of the church in inclusive communities of equals.”
I highly recommend Bridget Mary’s popular blog for exciting news on justice and equality in the Roman Catholic Church, other religious institutions, and society: http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/