NewsExcommunicated: the women who fight to be priests of...

Excommunicated: the women who fight to be priests of the Catholic Church

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Anne Tropeano irons the clothes very early, she knows that she has a busy day ahead of her. She takes out of the closet a brand new white alb, a stole and a chasuble with light blue embroidery and gold thread endings.

On the calendar that hangs on the wall, he wrote long ago in red marker: “Ordination Day.”

He also takes care of making calls to coordinate the private security operation that he has hired for the church because he anticipates that there may be some hostile demonstration.

“It’s an issue that generates tension, not everyone is even open to considering the possibility of women being ordained to the Catholic priesthood,” says Tropeano, and speeds up the preparations.

Not only is he concerned about the hostility of a neighbor from Albuquerque, the city where he lives, in the state of New Mexico, United States. Since he posted online that he planned to become a Catholic priest, he says he has experienced “staggering” levels of harassment and bullying online.

Tropeano is one of more than 200 women around the world ordained within the framework of the movement for the female priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, who decide to take part in unauthorized rites to become priests, in a clear act of rebellion against the Vatican.

The Catholic Church does not authorize the priesthood for women; so much so that violating the restriction is considered one of the most serious crimes in canon law and is punishable by immediate excommunication.

“That means they don’t allow me to receive sacraments, like communion or confession, but it also limits me if I want to have a funeral in a church when I die,” Anne details.

“The threat of excommunication was the reason why this decision took so long. Because my whole life was in the parish, I went to mass every day, I worked there… So it was hard to get used to the idea that I’m going to lose all that”.

Tropeano is a devout Catholic, who has been in the “discernment process” of her vocation for 14 years. Before she went through different jobs, including that of tour manager of a rock band.

“I started hearing ‘You are my priest, you are a priest. I want you to be a priest.’ And I wondered, is it really God who is speaking to me? Because he is asking me to do something that is against the rules…”

I thought about choosing some other role qualified for women in the Church, such as that of a nun or a consecrated laywoman. He also considered abandoning Catholicism and switching to another Christian religion that authorizes the female priesthood.

Until he felt clearly, he says, that Vatican rules could not get in the way of his vocation.

“Once he recognized that it was the next step, the excommunication just became part of the process.”

She, like many other women in the movement, also sees her “illegal” ordination as a way of campaigning against what they consider to be a discriminatory and sexist stance imposed by the ecclesiastical authorities.

From Reformed Judaism to the more progressive branches of Protestantism, other religions have opened the door to women at the altars. For the Vatican, on the other hand, one of the arguments with which priestly ordination is restricted is based on the interpretation of the biblical story that says that Jesus chose twelve male apostles, and these in turn chose other men as acolytes, and the Church has continued this premise of succession.

“The Church teaches through its actions that it is okay to exclude women. Women learn this, boys and girls learn this, men learn this… and then they all go out into the world and live by this rule,” he says.

On a cruise

The movement of women priests became visible in 2002, after a controversial and highly publicized collective ordination. A group of seven women took part in an unauthorized ceremony on a boat on the Danube River, on the Austrian-German border.

Later known as “The Danube Seven”, the group organized the rite in international waters to avoid conflicts with any dioceses and the “ordination” was officiated by two bishops of the Catholic Church.

Other secret ordinations had been reported before, such as that of Ludmila Javarovada in a clandestine church in communist Czechoslovakia, in the 1970s.

But since the ordination of the Danube, the women have consolidated themselves into a movement. Although by now most of the adherents are from Europe, Canada and the United States, their ordinations have grown steadily.

“They invited me to participate in the Danube, but I didn’t want to. I said, how am I going to explain to the people that they ordered me on a cruise?” Olga Lucia Alvarez Benjumea says and laughs.

The Colombian is considered the first “presbytery” in Latin America, a region of interest for the movement and a stronghold for Catholicism, with more than 40% of the world’s Catholic population, some 1.3 billion believers.

photo pi,

Olga Lucia Alvarez da misa en un centro comunitario en un barrio de la ladera oriental de Medellin.

It was not on board a ship, but in another country to save problems in his own.

“I was ordained in Sarasota, United States, in 2010,” says Alvarez, who, however, assures that he has the silent support of many in Colombia.

“We can say that of the religious clergy, of many nuns and of some bishops, but we do not say their names so as not to create conflict for them.”

Once ordained, Alvarez settled in Medellin, where her ministry focuses on the poorest neighborhoods and house-to-house work for those who want to receive her priestly services.

“I was very afraid of presenting myself at the altar, because people would suddenly start insulting me or throwing things at me,” he says, especially “in a city like Medellin, ultra-conservative.”

“So for me the support I received from the people was a great surprise, that stimulated me and the fear was lost.”

Alvarez comes from a family “all very Roman Catholic,” with a mother who had been a Carmelite nun before her marriage, and two brother priests.

“My mother always had the support. She had a short time to die and I told her what I was involved in. And on her 93-year-old sickbed, she told me ‘What you are doing, I would have liked to do.’ I felt her great support there from a woman who wanted a liberated daughter.”

She has also received a sign from one of her brothers that she considers to be a sufficient sign of support.

“One day he gave me a paten and a chalice in silence. I think that told me everything,” says Alvarez, who has now been promoted to bishop within the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP, for its acronym in English). ), an entity that is not recognized by the Vatican.

Like others in the group, she insists that there is nothing in the Bible to support the premise that women cannot become priests.

“It is a human law, it is an interpretation… and as an unfair law that it is, I do not consider that it must be obeyed.”

The sentiment is shared by the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), a group dedicated to lobbying the Vatican. Who seeks instances of dialogue, but also takes advantage of the public space to make their campaign visible.

Its executive director, Kate McElwee, says her favorite work is that of the Ministry of Irritation, the main activist arm of the WOC that has staged everything from blowing pink smoke at the last Papal Conclave to blocking the way for the Popemobile. The Vatican police took care to break up their meetings, and McElwee smiles nervously as she recalls the arrests for violating public order.

“We walk with these women who feel called and hope that the Vatican will open its doors for them and confront their sin of sexism,” she says.

“But meanwhile, other women find it impossible to wait, the call of God they feel is so strong that they have no choice but to violate an unjust rule.”

At the “closed door”

The Catholic Church sees these ordinations not only as illegal, but also as invalid.

When the seven o’clock ritual on the Danube was made public, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -later Pope Benedict- declared that the participants would be excommunicated “for the most serious offense they have committed” and for not showing signs of repentance.

Later, Pope Francis has referred several times to the issue of the female priesthood. When asked in 2016 if the Vatican’s position could change, he alluded to a much-quoted document from one of his predecessors, John Paul II, which notes that “the door is closed” on the ordination of women.

“I declare that the Church does not have in any way the power to confer priestly ordination on women and that this opinion must be considered definitive by all the faithful of the Church”, expresses the Apostolic Letter on Priestly ordination reserved only for men, May 1994.

Just a few meters from St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of the Vatican, Nathalie Becquart is in charge of giving voice to the Church’s position on the increase in illegal “ordinations”.

Becquart, a French nun from the Xavieres congregation, is the first woman in history with the right to vote in Vatican affairs, one of the most powerful women in the Church these days, many say.

In 2021, Pope Francis appointed her as undersecretary in the Synod of Bishops, an assembly that directly advises him on key issues. One of several women appointed in recent years by the Pontiff to important posts, in a decision that many read as a first step in recognizing that women should have a greater voice in the governance of the Church.

At her desk in the Synod office -surrounded by books, paintings and a photo in which she smiles with the Pope-, Becquart calmly explains, patiently unravels possible biblical interpretations, recognizes the changing role of women in the society of today.

But it leaves no room for doubt about the position towards the priesthood of women.

“For the Catholic Church at this time, from an official point of view, it is not an open question,” he tells BBC Mundo.

“It is not just a question of whether you feel called to the priesthood, it is also an acknowledgment that the Church calls you to be a priest. Your feelings or your personal decision are not enough,” adds the nun.

She believes that there is a process of change underway that can be seen in the access of more women -like her- to leadership positions in the Church, but in “roles that are disconnected from ordination”.

In addition, he says, change “is never easy” and always faces “fear and resistance.”

“I think we have to broaden the vision of the Church. There are many, many ways for women to serve the Church,” Becquart says.

What does the Catholic Church say?

  • Catholic doctrine, or the interpretation of canonical laws, consider the priesthood as a prerogative of men. Canon 1024, for example, indicates that “only the baptized man validly receives holy ordination.”
  • A 2021 canonical penal reform explicitly criminalized the ordination of women with latae sententiae penalty – that is, automatic excommunication without the need for trial of anyone who attempts to ordain a woman, other than the woman herself.
  • Pope Francis opened a door to the ordination of female deacons, who could not officiate mass but could administer some sacraments. The process, however, has suffered setbacks and delays.
  • In an unprecedented decision, Pope Francis has promoted the so-called Synod of Synodality, a two-year consultative process that tries to gather the opinion of Catholics from around the world on the future of their Church. And references to the WOC and the movement of women aspirants to the priesthood have been included on the Synod website.
  • A recently released working document suggests that the role of women in the Church will be high on the agenda of the bishops who will meet in Rome in October 2023 to discuss the results of the Synod.
  • Sister Nathalie Becquart told the BBC that “through the Synod of Synodality we will continue discernment and the Pope will have to see what the next step is.”

A different priesthood

Amid the whispers of the congregation that fill the space until the first chords of the organ are played, Anne Tropeano closes her eyes, recites a brief prayer, “Let’s do this,” she harangues, and prepares to walk through the main nave of the church towards the altar.

The solemn hymn, the emotional glances of her friends -many of them “risk being excommunicated just for being here”-, the female bishop waiting for her to proceed with the ordination. The ritual is both alien and familiar.

“Here I am, I’m ready,” she tells Bridget Mary Meehan, the ARCWP bishop who has traveled to Albuquerque to officiate the ceremony.

“It’s the day I’ve been waiting for 14 years,” Anne had told us earlier. The one marked in red on her calendar.

Except for the strangeness caused by seeing women in spaces traditionally occupied by men – the pulpit, the altar, the sacristy – the liturgy does not differ in any way from an authorized priestly ordination, including the laying on of hands and prostration, in the that the aspirant to the priesthood lies down with his face facing the ground.

When finished, Meehan raises the arm of the brand new “priest” and introduces her to the congregation to applause.

One of the missions that most excites her is the possibility of being the face of a different ministry. A less hierarchical and more participative way of priesthood, open to people traditionally questioned by the most conservative sectors of religion.

“Here nobody is prevented from taking communion. It doesn’t matter if you are divorced, none of that. Everyone is welcome, the LGBTQ community is welcome at the table,” he says.

Olga Lucia Alvarez also sees her ministry as an opportunity to redefine the relationship that lay Catholics have with their representatives.

Especially in the current state of affairs in the Church, says the “bishop”, in the face of the decline in priestly vocations and the severe damage to trust caused by the scandals of sexual abuse in the Church.

“You can find a bishop who easily tells you ‘It’s that we are the representatives of God on Earth’. They are not ashamed… Now they have to keep their mouths shut after all the pedophilia that we have on top of the hierarchy, by the members of the hierarchy”, Alvarez gets angry, frowns and raises his voice.

Pope Francis has apologized to the victims of abuses committed by the clergy and has condemned the “complicity” of the Church in hiding these “serious crimes.”

The women’s ministry is the answer to this crisis, insists the Colombian, who with more than 80 years dedicates her hours to mentoring young people who are considering priestly ordination as a life option. A while ago she just had a video call with a candidate in Spain.

“People are asking for a ministry that is closer, that is capable of lowering heaven to earth. It is urgent to show another face of the priesthood, it is urgent.”

Likewise, the movement wants to open the debate beyond Vatican circles, partly because it trusts that lay Catholics would support its cause if the ecclesiastical hierarchy gave them the opportunity.

And some polls seem to confirm it. For example, in Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics in Latin America, 8 out of 10 Catholics are in favor of the priesthood of women, while in the United States they are 6 out of 10, according to a study by the Pew Center.

In 8 of the 19 territories studied, more than half of the Catholics welcomed the change in norms.

However, the movement of the priests is still eminently Eurocentric, without reaching the region where the Catholic population is growing the fastest: Africa.

Many other Catholics around the world, while not opposed to ordination, consider the issue not a priority for a Church already mired in an institutional crisis.

Anne Tropeano appealed directly to the Pope to ask that the dialogue be opened.

“Pope Francis, you have to have an audience with women called to the priesthood. It doesn’t matter if they have been ordained in this movement or not, you need to listen to our experience and bring it to your prayers,” Tropeano claims.

“I feel that this is a wave that is rising within the Church, that at any moment is going to fall on the beach,” says Alvarez.

Everything indicates that the road will be long. They both know this, but they believe their campaign is vital to the future of the religion they embrace and yearn to represent without restraint.

“The Church will not be able to fulfill its mission unless there is equal participation (of men and women),” says Tropeano.

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