Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity’s Early History By Alex Mar

I. From Silk Robes to Hairshirts 

WHEN JEROME, THE CATHOLIC PRIEST and scholar, arrived in Rome in the middle of the fourth century, he discovered a circle of noblewomen living in elaborate homes on the Aventine Hill who were nothing like their neighbors. 
They’d given up their silk clothes and pearl earrings, the hairstyles and rouge and musk, even bathing, as signs of vanity, and were now wearing coarse robes made of goat’s hair. They stayed almost entirely in their houses, fasting and praying, discussing Scripture; in secret, they might visit a nearby basilica or martyr’s tomb. They never allowed themselves to rest on couches or cushions of any kind, and at night they slept on thin mats on the floor—though they hardly slept, spending those hours, instead, crying and praying. Most importantly, these women—some of them widows, some only recently of marrying age, all converts to Christianity—had each taken a vow of chastity.
Their ringleader was Marcella, a famous beauty, now a widow, who lived with her mother. No one was sure where she’d gotten the idea for this improvised monastic network, but when her husband died only months after her marriage, Marcella embraced a life that few of her class would ever understand.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Melania established two monastic communities. (Photo: Godot13 /WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many of the female leaders of Christianity—in the Catholic Church in particular, with its 1.25 billion followers around the world—are barred from being fully ordained and are closely overseen by men. But this was not always the case. Scores of early Christian women—like Marcella, the desert-dwelling Susan, or the scholars Melania and Paula—embraced radical lives, helping the young religion fan out across the Roman Empire and beyond.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves. In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide. These women had permission to live beyond their gender as the leaders and patrons of local congregations, as preachers and ecstatic prophets and tough ascetics. They defied Roman family laws and rejected their sexuality. They walked the streets, spreading the gospel. They taught themselves Hebrew, analyzed Scripture, corresponded with other Christian leaders. They were aristocrats who seized control of their money and funneled it into the movement, building monasteries and helping prisoners and the poor.

Enjoying This Story?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get our latest, sent right to your inbox.
Christianity took shape with the support of these female leaders and mystics and activists. But what we have left of them now are only the remembrances of a handful of men.

II. Rebel Virgins

It started with the virgins.
In the first two centuries of Christianity, many of the cultures in which it took hold had stubborn gender roles—but these roles weren’t as hardline as you might think. Women had long been the managers of their households, and since followers of the new movement met in private, in intimate “house churches,” women often became the natural leaders of the congregation. Christian women and men alike could become full-fledged ministers.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the early congregation he founded in Corinth, he suggested that women should not teach or even speak aloud in church—but in his letter to the Romans, he also name-checked 28 prominent leaders in the Roman Christian community, 10 of whom were women. (A woman, the minister Phoebe, was Paul’s entree into that community.) Eventually, in some areas, there were even female bishops. This was back when the church was still a social movement, not yet a political powerhouse, and women were drawn to the possibilities it cracked open for them—as preachers, prophets, and patrons.
That said, laws passed by Augustus just before the start of the Common Era still required all upper-class men to marry and all women to procreate, in a return to Roman family values that were largely political myth. Women could only become financially independent—or, simply, independent—if they’d been divorced or widowed or given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes in order to have free rein with their own money.
Kellia ("the Cells"), referred to as "the innermost desert", was a 4th-century Egyptian Christian monastic community spread out over many square kilometers in the Nitrian Desert.
Kellia, a fourth century Egyptian Christian monastic community in the Nitrian Desert. (Photo: Geo24/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is in this environment that Christian women began to use the vow of chastity as both an act of devotion and an excellent legal loophole. Virginity became a movement, the ultimate hack. As a consecrated virgin, a woman suddenly became free of many of the empire’s gender laws, free to preach and to lead in their community, free to model themselves after the apostles. The majority of the virgins were women in the cities who formed their own network of house churches. They flaunted their independence from men, refusing to hide away or to veil themselves, rubbing their ethical superiority in married couples’ faces. They dressed to make a statement, sometimes adopting men’s clothing and hairstyles (some sheared their heads entirely), and preached in the streets in drag. Women of all social strata, in a move that evokes the late-1960s hippie exodus from the American suburbs, were abandoning their parents and husbands and homes to follow Christian prophets who claimed to offer a starker, truer interpretation of the gospel, and a chaste life as equals alongside equally devout men. Together, they would transcend the mundane world.
This life outside of social convention would not last. Toward the end of the third century, the emperor Diocletian ordered widespread attacks on chaste Christian women. All partner-less women who refused to marry were to be raped or prostituted. 1,000 widows were martyred in Antioch; 2,000 virgins were martyred in Ancyra.
At the same time, women’s place within the once exceptionally open movement began to contract. As Christianity expanded outward into the political realm, growing into an ambitious institution that aimed to harden its doctrine and practices, a decision was made: Women would no longer minister, prophesy, or baptize, and in the name of consistency, many of their stories would not be preserved. Church rank-and-file began to insist that women should not be ordained, should not baptize others, and should not teach the gospel—arguments that for the first 200 years had not been made, at least not on any meaningful scale. Few of these early female leaders would remain a part of the church’s history.

III. The Wealthiest Woman in Rome

As the church locked the roles of its followers into place—the Council of Nicaea, a first attempt at a consensus on church doctrine, was convened in 325—there were still those individuals who would not be contained. This takes us back to the well-appointed houses on the Aventine Hill, in the seat of the Roman Empire: Marcella’s loose collective of noblewomen were sending a shock through their community.
One prominent member of the group—we know her through her contemporaries Jerome and the historian Palladius—was Melania. The daughter of a former consul, married into a leading Roman family, she was among the wealthiest people in the empire. None of this, however, had protected her from that great equalizer, illness, and, when she was only 22, her husband and two of her three sons fell sick and died.
It was then that she did something very human: Melania turned to religion. She converted to Christianity and joined Marcella’s circle. It was a miserable life, a spirituality sprung from personal desperation.
But she stuck with it. And, after a few years, Melania raised the stakes. In a strange move for an aristocrat, she decided she would travel to Egypt, into the desert.
Seeking something deeper and harder than the officially sanctioned, assimilated Christian life, both men and women had begun streaming out into the desert—in Egypt, Syria, Persia, and present-day Turkey—to live as mystics. Contemporary fourth century accounts tell of tens of thousands of people who renounced the material world and went in search of a rapt, independent spirituality, supported only by their local ascetic community, or by a loose network of fellow hermits. (At this point, there were about 3,000 such communities throughout Egypt.) Some of them, out in that wasteland, became known as the “desert fathers” and “desert mothers” because they were giving birth to the Christian monastic life. Back in the cities and villages, word of these people spread, drawing others out to find them—Melania among them.
Saint Thecla monastery in Ma'loula
Saint Thecla monastery in Ma’loula. Thecla was a follower of Paul who was entombed in a cave, and the subject of many larger-than-life tales of her ascetic devotion. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Quietly, before the government could force her to remarry (according to law), she appointed a guardian for her remaining son, loaded all the property she could onto a ship, and set sail, bringing many of the women and children of her household with her. Once arrived in Alexandria, she quickly liquidated her assets. She’d given up sex; she’d given up her last surviving son; and she now slowly began a decades-long process of giving away all her money.
Melania studied with the desert ascetics and followed them on their visits to the monastic communities throughout the region. Each person had their own cell in which they prayed and fasted and punished their bodies. They rarely spoke. During group prayer or silent meals, they wore hoods to make it easier for them to avoid looking at one another. Sometimes a few of the men or women would disappear to walk the day or two into the nearest town and preach in the streets, railing against materialism or inciting some heated theological debate.
But after about six months, with a Christian changing-of-the-guard in Egypt, the governor of Alexandria banished the monks and all Nicene Christians to Palestine. Melania decided to follow them into exile. Disguising herself as a slave, she snuck into their compound each night to visit these devout men and bring them whatever they might need, paid for with her own funds. The consul of Palestine learned of what Melania was doing and, unaware of her noble roots, had her arrested and imprisoned. At that moment (according to Palladius), she chose to pull rank, making absolutely clear that she was in her lowly situation by choice. “I am So-and-So’s daughter and So-and-So’s wife—but I am Christ’s slave. And do not despise the cheapness of my clothing. For I am able to exalt myself if I like, and you cannot terrify me in this way…” Whenever necessary, Melania did not hesitate to use her financial and social standing to support her religion. The consul let her do what she wanted.
When the men were finally freed, five long years later, Melania was ready for new work. She decided to head to Jerusalem, where she poured her money into building two monastic communities on the Mount of Olives: one for men (headed by her chaste collaborator, Rufinus), and one for women. She lived there—overseeing the convent, caring for pilgrims and refugees, and working with the poor—for 27 years. Her reputation was so impressive that Jerome called her a living saint.
When Melania received word that her granddaughter had decided to join the ascetic life, she returned to Rome to help her, and to attempt (against the odds) to convert other members of her extraordinarily wealthy family. On that trip home, in the intense heat, a deacon traveling with Melania washed himself with water and then laid down on the ground for a brief rest. Melania, then 60, supposedly called out to him, “How can a warm-blooded young man like you dare to pamper your flesh that way?”
Once done with Rome, Melania sold whatever land she had left, returned to Jerusalem to give away the last of her money, and died a legend at the age of 70.

IV. Enter the Cave 

Little record remains of the desert ascetics Melania studied with, and, though there may have been twice as many women in the desert as men, we know even less about the desert mothers. A small collection of their sayings was passed down orally, but almost nothing of their lives. Who were these hermits and mystics? The story of Susan—though she lived later than the others here—is a rare surviving portrait of the severe path such women took.
Sometime in the 5th century, an eight-year-old girl in Persian Arzanene asked her parents to take her to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem. She’d likely heard talk of them, as there were thousands of pilgrims who were streaming through the region each year on their way to just that place. The upper-class family could afford the trip, but her parents dismissed her, laughed it off. Their daughter hadn’t even studied Scripture, so what could it all possibly mean to her?
So she ran away from home, hooked up with a caravan of Christian pilgrims, and hitched a ride to Jerusalem. There, they stopped at each of the sites to pray—and soon the girl, riding this spiritual high, headed off on her own. She would find a desert convent and start a new life. She traveled to a place she’d heard of, a community of many women somewhere near Gaza. 
The ascetic life was harsh for the girl, who renamed herself “Susan.” The sisters were not inclined to coddle her—she was often slapped and reprimanded—but she slowly earned their respect. And after about a decade of living this way, Susan had become a leader of the group. When the women were forced to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity (a newer branch of the church) under threat of torture, the remaining sisters turned to her. She decided they would do what thousands of Christians of different traditions had already done: they would go deeper into the desert, and build a new community there.
       More details Monastery of Saint Pishoy, Scetes, Egypt
Monastery of Saint Pishoy, Scetes, Egypt, founded in the fourth century AD in the Nitrian desert and named for one of the desert fathers. (Photo: Berthold Werner /WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Here, Susan’s story, related by the bishop John of Ephesus—a leader of an Eastern branch of the church, in what’s now Turkey—takes an even more dramatic turn. In a sequence of events typical of descriptions of the lives of saints (and even Moses and Jesus), Susan headed out into the wilderness and was confronted by Evil.
One day, having wandered far out into the dunes, praying as she walked, she discovered a cave. It was more of a large stone hole in the earth, this cave, and, as if by instinct, Susan climbed down and sat on the hard ground. Over the coming days and nights, demons supposedly appeared to her, one after the other—because just as the self-punishing and the devout are drawn to the desert, so (they say) are wicked spirits in their rawest form.
Back at the convent, the other sisters were miserable, confused—until residents of the nearest village led them to the cave. Peering down into the opening, they discovered Susan, on her belly on the dirt and gravel, groaning and praying out loud. The sisters pleaded with her to return with them. By force, they tried to remove her, tugged at her limbs, tried to lift her up and out—but she resisted. God intended for her to stay at this place, in prayer and penance.
For the next three years, the sisters would visit Susan once a week to bring her water and a few pieces of dry bread. As time went on, word spread of the woman alone in the cave, fasting and praying and battling demons. Her choice to isolate herself drew people to her—many visitors came to see her, from Alexandria and from Libyan villages. Eventually, an older holy man arrived, bringing with him ten disciples. Together with the sisters, they designed a desert monastery, with separate enclosures for the men and the women; and they convinced Susan to emerge from her desert cave, finally, to lead them. She spent her last years there, willing to talk to any who visited about the monastic life—but always from behind the wall. By the time of her death, she had not looked at the face of a man in 25 years.
People throughout Egypt passed around Susan’s teachings, the stories of her asceticism, her warnings about the apocalypse, her demand that every person ask forgiveness for the sinful nature with which they were born. Talk of her powers grew, from her ability to cure illness to her skills at battling far-away demons using only her mind. As John of Ephesus writes, “This is a woman, but she is stone, and instead of flesh she is iron!”

V. She Knew Herself No More as a Mother

Just as Susan left her parents and Melania abandoned her last son, Paula, the most famous of these early Christian women, completely defied conventional mores of femininity: she chose spiritual practice over family. It was a choice viewed then (and now) as even more repulsive when made by a woman.
Like Melania, Paula was a member of Marcella’s circle in Rome. Once she’d given birth to a male heir (after four daughters), she took a vow of chastity and began spending time in Marcella’s house. When her husband died shortly thereafter, she gave herself completely to religion. As a wealthy widow of 35, Paula met Jerome, and he helped her to oversee her own group of ascetic women—a group that included her children.
Within two years, however, the close relationship between the two chaste Christians became the stuff of gossip. Around the same time, Paula’s eldest daughter died—possibly from excessive fasting—and an angry crowd threw stones at Paula in the street during the funeral procession. Jerome left Rome, and Paula followed him, taking her remaining virgin daughter Eustochium and leaving her other children behind (including her infant son). Jerome would later describe that decision: “Disregarding her house, her children, her servants, her property, and in a word everything connected with the world, she was eager…alone and unaccompanied…to go to the desert.” As her children stood on the shore watching the ship leave, Paula, standing on the deck, turned her back to them. In that instant, she transformed herself from Penelope into Odysseus, from the woman always waiting to the man always leaving.
“She knew herself no more as a mother,” Jerome wrote, “that she might approve herself a handmaid of Christ. Yet her heart was rent within her, and she wrestled with her grief, as though she were being forcibly separated from parts of herself.” This painful choice, Jerome insisted, made “all admire her victory the more.” It’s unclear who Jerome’s referring to when he says that “all” admired Paula’s abandonment of her family—for the rest of her life, friends tried to lure her back to Rome, and critics accused her of losing her mind. But Melania and Susan did the same; and this was also what Jesus famously did, by refusing to pay his mother any particular respect or attention. The breaking of family ties was a symptom of a higher calling—made more shocking when done by a mother. As Jerome wrote, Paula “overc[ame] her love for her children by her greater love for God.”
Together with Jerome, Paula and Eustochium spent more than a year traveling throughout Jerusalem (where they visited Melania’s monastery) and Egypt (where they stayed with the desert fathers). Finally, they settled in Bethlehem, where Paula used her own money and credit to establish two monasteries—one for men overseen by Jerome, and another for women. The convent was a mix of women from different social classes and countries who were united by the vows they’d taken, their complete segregation from men, even eunuchs, and their renunciation of any personal possessions and all forms of vanity. Paula, fanatical in her practice, liked to say, “A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul.”
But her lasting impact is as an intellectual. She managed Jerome’s scholarly work, and she suggested that he translate the Bible (then in Hebrew and Greek) into Latin. She helped him pull it off, providing all the reference materials. Having taught herself Hebrew, she edited the manuscript for him, and she and her daughter made copies by hand. This version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, became the standard version for the Catholic Church for about the next 1,500 years.
When Paula died, at 56, bishops from several cities were present to personally carry her body into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, over the cave believed to be Jesus’s birthplace. People from all around Palestine flooded the streets, and even the desert hermits and the virgins hidden away in their cells came out to pay their respects. For an entire week, they chanted the psalms.
Jerome was buried beside her 16 years later.

VI. ‘If Each of My Limbs Were Gifted With a Voice’

Marcella, Melania, Susan, and Paula—they chose to live at the very edge of society. Between them, they disobeyed their families, gave away all they owned, educated themselves, produced scholarly works, founded entire communities, and were sainted. But their own words were not considered significant enough to pass down. What could they have to say about the Gospel that their male peers hadn’t said already? How could they understand their actions well enough to tell their own stories? What we know about the virginity movement, we know through a small number of early Christian writers and bishops. What we know about Susan, we know through John of Ephesus. And we know Melania through Palladius and Jerome.
Though the life and work of Paula also comes to us through the letters of Jerome, her longtime collaborator, some later accounts of Jerome’s life—perhaps not surprisingly—would omit his close relationship with Paula to allow for a more conventional hagiography. How do you tell the story of a great man if there is a great woman at the center of it? This is only one piece of what can be lost when history is told exclusively by men.
Christianity has had, since its inception, countless stories of female ascetics and saints and martyrs in its repertoire, used to repackage its doctrines through melodrama, through lives writ large. What makes these stories different? Perhaps they’re compelling because they evoke a time so close to the church’s radical beginnings and are therefore that much more believable as stories of potential, of a church that could have been. Or maybe it’s because the biographies of Melania, Susan, and Paula became accounts of resistance—of a rejection of how the church, as an official organ of the state, had begun to limit the lives of its women. These are tales of women who walked away from their families, shed their social status, gave away their money as they saw fit, put on the clothes of men, escaped their cities, and traveled out into the desert. They traveled so deep into the desert that they struck the heart of it, the place where people go to be tested. And they faced whatever was there and survived it and were transformed.
On the occasion of Paula’s death, Jerome wrote: “If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” But the voice that was missing was hers all along.
This essay is dedicated to Jo Ann Kay McNamara (1931-2009), for her groundbreaking scholarship on the historical role of women in the Catholic Church.
Update, 1/21: In an earlier version, the wrong letter from Paul was cited. We regret the error.

This story was funded with support by Longreads Members. Join, or make a one-time contribution.



Rate This

Women Priests Project: Giulia Bianchi, Photo Journalist

..."Most candidates for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement are mature women, many former nuns, missionaries and theologians. They work in social justice, in ecological movements, in non-profit organizations, education, or assistance of refugees, for example. Activism is often intertwined with missionary work.
Reverend Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortez from Colombia, for example, works with “mujeres de la prostitution”, sex-workers, and with afro-Colombian women living in extreme poverty. She doesn’t provide for them as a charity, she educates them to be free individuals, to fight for their rights, to be feminists. She doesn’t teach them to be Christian, but to be like Christ.
The Vatican considers female ordination a serious crime, issuing an order in 2010 to clarify that anyone who participates in the “attempted” ordination of a woman automatically excommunicates themselves. That statement included the severity of the sin of the attempted women’s ordination as at the same level of a crime as the sexual abuse of minors by priests.
For the crime of involvement with women’s ordination, employees of the Catholic Church often lose their jobs. Pastoral associates, professors, chaplains, nurses, and even nuns, lose pensions, support and housing issued by any Catholic organization, including schools and hospitals. They cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery with their own families.
Despite this, most of the women that have been interviewed do not want to leave the Catholic Church. In the words of Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, former nun, writer of more than 20 religious books, and founder of the Catholic Community Mary Mother of Jesus in Sarasota, Florida:  "Does that mean they can take away our faith? My faith is in my DNA. I'm an Irish Catholic woman and I am passionate about my Catholic faith. I'm as much a Catholic as the pope is. We’re not leaving the Church, we’re leading the Church"
To understand what “leading and transforming the Church” means, it is important to understand what is at the heart of the mission of women in priesthood, and why this model is so frightening to the Vatican.
According to feminist theologians, if God is always considered a masculine figure -- macho, warrior, dictatorial, perfectionist, distant, all knowing, all rational, all powerful -- this narrow image shapes our understanding of the entire world. This model of power and punishment reinforces inequality and violence. Yet, every major spiritual tradition carries a deeply rooted,  ancient and arguably feminist understanding of the divine: God as mystery, wisdom, spirit, pure life, pure passion for life, love. A feminist spirituality rooted in equality and inclusivity, is inherently nonhierarchical, and honors collaboration and compassion over power. It comes with a sense of co-creation and co-responsibility in the world, respecting all people as part of the divine Mystery.
Women priests ask for a new model of cooperation between men and women, a new model of leadership based not on power, but pastoral and responsible love. They envision the Church as an all-inclusive and egalitarian community, a model that could be closer to early Christianity, therefore not clerical, where priests are servants to the people of God. They did not shape a new cult, but organically gathered people from the grassroots, from the suburbs, and the people who no longer feel welcomed by the Official Church. The historical Jesus did not exclude anybody from his life, and therefore they do not exclude any person from their communities: it is quite common in their communities to see Catholics that are divorced, lesbian, gay, transgender, or women who have had an abortion...."

Since 2012, Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi has been working on a web documentary and book project called “You Gave The Virgin a New Heart”. She met so far more than 70 women priests in the USA and Colombia, photographing and interviewing them. She’s planning to continue her documentation in Europe and South Africa in 2016. The final book and website will present photographs, interviews, drawings, archival photographs and documents, theological and feminist essays becoming a reference point for this topic.
She choses specifically to document the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement because it’s the religion of her childhood, but also because she wants to stress the importance of civil and religious disobedience. We live in a society where obedience is rewarded anywhere. In her opinion, dialogue with the past is vital, but it must be a critical dialogue. We are in charge to shape the future starting from the primacy of individual consciousness.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Good News for Catholics Seeking Annulments

"VATICAN CITY — The changes in canon law Pope Francis made to ensure that marriage annulment cases were handled more quickly, more pastorally and with less expense mean that some changes should be made in the way church law is taught, said the Congregation for Catholic Education.
The congregation published an instruction May 3 urging Catholic universities to strengthen their canon law programs and urging bishops to send more of their priests "and, if possible, laypeople" to Catholic universities to earn canon law degrees.
The new rules, which go into effect for the 2019-2020 academic year, require all students in what is known as the "first cycle" of studies for church licenses in theology to take at least three semesters of canon law courses, including at least one devoted exclusively to church law regarding marriage and the process of recognizing the nullity of a marriage..."

Women's Ordination Worldwide- Vocation Sunday - Hear Our Calll- See Pihotos!

WOW e-news
Vocation Sunday - Hear Our Call!
Vocation Sunday Vigils in Armagh, Ireland; Baltimore, US; Brussels, Belgium; Bristol, UK; London, UK

To have gone to the press and onto the streets and declared publicly in front of our cathedrals that a great wrong was being done to women in the church put our hearts into our mouths.
But, in the prophetic tradition, it isn't a bad place for the heart to be kept.

Patricia Brennan, prophet of women's ordination
We know that Catholic women are called by God and by their communities: called to priesthood, to equality, and to full participation in the life of the Church.

We also know that too often, their call remains untold, dismissed, or rejected.

That's why Women's Ordination Worldwide and Women's Ordination Conference are launching Catholic Women Called - a new video storytelling series of women called to renewed priesthood. Whether ordained, on the path to ordination, or living with the tension within the institutional Church, women long to share the truth of their vocation with the world.

Watch and share our introductory video here (click on the image below):


WOW support Cardinal's call for a Council to review the question of women's ordination
See our press release

WOW needs your generosity to organise actions. Please donate to the work of WOW
Donate to WOW here

WOW Prayer

O Holy One, You who are Creator of all,
who made humanity in Your image

Saviour of all, who called women and men
to witness Your ministry, death and resurrection,

Inspirer of all who seek and serve,

We thank You for the women You have blessed with Your call
to celebrate the Eucharist,
to minister alongside their brothers in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.

We pray that the Church will soon welcome and nourish to the full
the gifts of women as priests, prophets and leaders,
knowing, as Mary of Nazareth knew,
that with You all things are possible.


Vogue Article on Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement by BROOKE BOBB photographed by GIULIA BIANCHI

Vogue article:
"On June 29, 2002, seven women and two bishops were aboard a boat on the Danube river near Passau, Germany, with a plan to alter the course of history. On a body of water in no official diocese, nor in front of a governing body that might invalidate them, Pia Brunner, Ida Raming, Iris Müller, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adeline Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, and a woman under the assumed name of “Angela White” were ordained Roman Catholic priests by Bishops Ferdinand Regelsberger and Rómulo Antonio Braschi. This was a radical act: These seven women are believed to be some of the first to be given the right to oversee a parish since Ludmila Javorová was ordained in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia as part of the underground Catholic churches that sprung up under Communist control. All of the women on that boat had been baptized, gone through similar theological training as their male counterparts, and spent the requisite years getting their master’s degrees in divinity; some had served as nuns, and some as Catholic school teachers for several decades. Still, the church forbids the ordination of women to the priesthood, and so the “Danube Seven,” as they’re now known, were all excommunicated after they refused to nullify their ordination by July 22, the day of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. For the uninitiated, excommunication goes something like this: The Danube Seven, and other women ordained after them, received word from the Vatican stating that they had violated canon law (the set of principles enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic church) and so were forbidden from administering sacraments. Some who lived in a convent or were teaching in a parish school were kicked out or fired immediately, in some instances without severance. The social fallout was harsh, too: A few were told by their priest superiors that their sin in being ordained was equal to a clergy member sexually abusing a child.

A “calling,” or an inherent pull of the soul toward God and discipleship, plays a large role in the Roman Catholic faith—one that is not unique to men. Many of the women called to the clergy describe it as a spiritual awakening that they first began to sense as a small child, listening to homilies from the church pews. For others, it was the urgent and necessary desire to be a part of the Catholic communities who dedicate themselves to nursing the sick, giving back to the poor, teaching the young. This is a reason enough to remain within a religion whose operatives have banished them; in effect, they answer to a higher power. As Jennifer O’Malley, a woman priest from Long Beach, California, explains, “I have stayed because being Catholic is part of who I am. Leaving would be abandoning who I am, my call to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and my call to be a voice for gender justice in our world.” Neither threats nor exile nor fear of unemployment stopped the Danube Seven or those who came after them from answering the call. They looked outside the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church and started their own independent Catholic churches and communities, beginning a movement for others like them who did not agree with the strict doctrines of the church, but who also were dedicated to its devotion to empathy, forgiveness, and divine love.

Today, there are approximately 145 women Catholic priests in the U.S. and about 204 worldwide, according to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, ranging from as young as about 35 into their 70s and older. These women are supported by RCWP, which holds conferences and demonstrations, and helps them with the task of fundraising for their churches as well as the postgraduate education that potential candidates for the Womenpriests clergy must complete. Every woman priest candidate must do the same work and schooling as required by a male in the seminary. The Womenpriests are adamant that their movement is not about being “anti-men,” but instead, building a community that values inclusion. As O’Malley notes: “Ordaining women means changing the structure of things so that the people in the pews can have a larger voice in the decision-making process—at our churches, everyone is welcome to the table regardless of gender or sexuality.” Aside from their duty to God, what is most important to these women is dissolving those lines drawn in the sand by the Catholic hierarchy. “Gender being more important than one’s humanity in serving humanity is deeply troubling,” says Nancy Corran, the former pastor at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego. “The ‘girls keep out’ of the priesthood is a man-made construction; a reality ordered by men, not ordained by God.”

The Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi first attended a service led by Diane Dougherty in Atlanta in 2012. Having grown up Catholic, she found herself personally moved by the RCWP and its cause. For the better part of the ensuing six years, Bianchi has been traveling around the world photographing these women priests, spending time with them, and learning about their journeys into the priesthood. She’s met women priests who are married to other women, women priests with children, women priests who believe in abortion, and women priests who are vehemently opposed. She’s met women priests who have been mailed death threats. In 2016, after Pope Francis stated that the decision on banning women from the priesthood was likely finite, Bianchi put up posters featuring her images around the city of Rome. She is currently working on publishing a book of her images, part of what she has named the “Women Priests Project,” and in June her work will be on display at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago.

“When you see a spiritual authority in a female body, that’s powerful,” Bianchi says. “I have to say, the first time I saw it, I cried.” The image of a woman leading a mass and giving communion (or one in any high-ranking leadership role within the church) is one of pure fantasy for most people who have grown up in the Catholic church and school system. Biblical stories and Gospel passages are mostly told with female names in the footnotes; women are spoken about only as saints, nuns, and saved sinners, usually in devout service to the male hierarchy of the church. Though the number of people working in the mainstream U.S. Catholic church has been shrinking, the Catholic women’s representation and participation in society, particularly in America—where they serve as nuns or laypeople, as volunteers in inner cities and schools, community centers, and hospitals—has a direct effect on the next generation of leaders.

As Bianchi came to realize, their stories are just as important as their presence. “This project is really about breaking down the stereotypes of women in the church and listening to what they have to say,” she says. “Let’s challenge what the church says is sacred, what the church says is pure. Let’s listen to one another, and let’s acknowledge that the idea that women are not good enough to be in a position of power in the church, or that their body is shameful, or that they can’t define Catholicism on their own terms, is bullshit.”

Jennifer O’Malley, 45, and her wife, Elizabeth Carlin, 44, Long Beach, California
O’Malley remembers sitting in church with her family as a young girl and being struck by the “love your neighbor concept, and giving a voice to people who couldn’t have their voices be heard.” She worked for a Catholic parish for many years, and later met a group of women who were leading a small liturgy without a priest. “I felt very deeply like this is it,” she says, “this is what I’m supposed to do.” O’Malley has a master’s in theology from Loyola Chicago, and now has her own community of about 20 parishioners in Long Beach. She is also a special education director and a board member of the Women’s Ordination Conference. “Everybody is welcome to the table in this movement,” O’Malley emphasizes. “It’s unfortunate that Pope Francis’s view continues to be oppressive about women. He has said some great things about the environment and accepting immigrants and reaching out to those living in poverty, but women are disproportionately affected by all of this.” She adds, “How can he say all of this and also say that women are not good enough to hold certain positions?”

Barbara Billey (right) preparing the altar with a congregation member in the chapel they use in Windsor, Ontario, a few miles from Detroit.

Diane Dougherty, 73, the Church of the Visitation in Atlanta, Georgia
For Diane Dougherty, who has dedicated her life to being a Catholic woman priest and activist, her fight is not only for inclusion of women and LGBTQ people in the church, but also against social injustice, racism, and anti-immigration laws outside of religion. “I’m going to the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” Dougherty said excitedly when she spoke with Vogue from her home in Atlanta. “It’s going to be amazing—I wanted to help out with it because our movement, everyone’s movement toward equality, it’s all the same, really.” The 73-year-old former nun (who says she thought that wearing habits was “stupid”) spent nearly 40 years working for the Catholic church and got kicked out of four parishes in the span of three years for asking for fair wages or questioning the use of the church finances. She is a chaplain to various activist groups around Atlanta and she is also a human rights defender at the Carter Center. “The church is really glad to get rid of women,” Dougherty says. “We have information, and we’re not dumb, and we point out factual things to the hierarchy that they just don’t want to hear. The male leaders of the Catholic church are kind of like Trump: I said it, so therefore, it is.” If Dougherty had the chance to sit down with Pope Francis and discuss the movement with him, she says she’d say nothing. “I would be waiting for him to say, first of all, ‘I am sorry,’ ” she explains. “Secondly, I’d wait for him to say, ‘I understand that you should not be treated like a kind of workforce in service to us; I understand you have a calling.’ ” For Dougherty, it’s a matter of vision or, at the very least, dialogue. “The pope has to alter his notions of a creator and have a bigger vision that is inclusive of me, that’s inclusive of gay men and women, that’s inclusive of people of color. But how can he do that when he’s living in a toxic culture?” Dougherty believes in the power of people to lead the discussion, but her confidence in the Vatican to do the right thing on their own is all but lost. “Belief systems within all traditions are like Swiss cheese,” she says. “There are great big holes in the teachings and beliefs themselves . . . In Catholicism, there are too many holes in the cheese.”

Rev. Diane Dougherty says Mass at the First Metropolitan Community Church in Atlanta.

Jane Via, 70, Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, California
Jane Via, a two-time cancer survivor and a former professor of theology at the University of San Diego, was ordained a Roman Catholic deacon in 2004 under a pseudonym to protect her son, then going into his senior year at a canonical Catholic high school. After her son graduated, Via continued her successful career as a deputy district attorney in San Diego and cofounded her own small community: Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, where services are held at rented spaces within host churches. The goal was to attract “driven-away Catholics and fallen-away Catholics,” as Via says, “anyone who was not given a place in the traditional church, be they divorced or transgender or a woman who’d had an abortion.” In late 2005, she organized friends asking if they or any of their friends would be interested in joining the first service. About one hundred people showed up. She continues to try to reach a new generation but doesn’t “know if our little parish will survive” without young families, who she believes tend to be more traditional or are interested in institutional church. Via wants to teach young people that “Jesus was a feminist” through his attitude and outreach to women. She adds, “I try to work with younger or more creative and open-minded clergy about changing some of the language in the liturgy because I became very aware of how the exclusively male language . . . that language perpetuates the whole patriarchal structure of Christianity.”

(Left) Dr. Jane Via with the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, 2015; (right) Nancy Corran’s ordination with the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, 2015.

Rev. Jennifer Marcus (right), from Detroit, was ordained a priest and Terese Rigodanzo-Kasper (left), from Chicago, a deacon, at Nativity Episcopal Church in Bloomfield Township, Michigan.

Donnieau Snyder, 46, “Servant Leader” at New Spirit Rising in Fresno, California
“It was during my second-grade year when I experienced the joy of knowing my call to priesthood,” says Snyder, a teacher who lives in Fresno, California, with her partner, Vanessa. But her love for Catholicism has always been complicated by the fact that she was told she was a child of God, but at the same time, unequal to some of his other children, and so unable to be ordained in his church. Snyder says that whispers about her involvement with the women’s priest movement provoked her parish priest to tell her that she was no longer welcome at his church. This pronouncement came just after the Vatican publicly categorized women’s ordination as a “grave crime” worthy of equal punishments to those placed on clergy members who had committed sexual abuse. Today, she is part of a faith community called New Spirit Rising, and the members, Snyder is happy to note, are varied. “When I have asked what brings them to our community, they generally say something about how they feel welcomed to ‘just be.’ ” She adds, “Gender, sexual orientation, skin color, or any other element that has been used to oppress a human being from fulfilling their service to others has no place anywhere. The Roman Catholic Church has an opportunity to find themselves on the right side of history by recognizing those who are called to sacred service, and not remain blind to the paradoxes they preach.”

Procession at Falls Church, Virginia, with Rev. Wanda Russell.

Nancy Corran, 45, Omaha, Nebraska
Nancy Corran grew up a Presbyterian, and became fascinated with religious teachings from a young age. She was ordained in 2010, and recently moved to Omaha from San Diego with her husband and two children. She is currently working to build a community church in her new hometown, after having served as pastor at the 150-member Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community. “MMACC offers a new way to be Roman Catholic,” Corran explains. “When I first attended service there, I knew I had ‘found church’—the way I, at least, always envisioned it could be. It was a place where you don’t have to check anything at the door, a place where the scholarship was sound, the spirit soared, and the sacred was ‘broken open’ all at the same time.”"