Group ordains 8 women as priests

The Catholic Church rejects validity of a riverboat rite

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photosThe Roman Catholic Womenpriests Community ordained women as priests and deacons during a ceremony aboard a riverboat on the Monongahela River yesterday. The Catholic Church said the participants excommunicated themselves through their actions.
By Ann Rodgers
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Among the women the community ordained yesterday was Joan Clark Houk, 66, of McCandless, second from left.Video: Group ordains women as priests
Eileen McCafferty DiFranco of Mount Airy pours water into a bowl in a "Mingling of Waters" ceremony the community's ordination rites yesterday.
Women ordained as priests and deacons joined hands and celebrated after the community's ordination. Among them was Ms. Houk, third from left. Left of Ms. Houk is Dr. Gisela Forster, one of the community's presiding bishops; at right is Ms. McCafferty DiFranco.

On a riverboat cruising the confluence of Pittsburgh's three rivers yesterday, eight women held hands triumphantly and danced with three others they call bishops, as one of the latter proclaimed: "It is with great joy we present to you our newly ordained women priests."

More than 350 invited guests burst into applause and cheers for eight priests and four deacons of the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests. But the Catholic Church, which the women claim to have been ordained for, says they have excommunicated themselves through their actions.

This is the fourth such group ordained worldwide since 2002, and the first in the U.S. The women came from across the nation. All have been held on boats, because they are a traditional symbol of the church.

The ceremony followed the form of the Catholic rite, but with changes in ritual and language.

Dagmar Celeste, a former first lady of Ohio who was among the group's first ordinands in 2002, said, "Today we give honor to our mother God ... Just as the water broke in the wombs of our mother, so we open the waters of mother church."

In the most traditional part, the candidates -- most of whom are grandmothers or old enough to be so -- prostrated themselves on the floor before a makeshift altar. The congregation chanted a litany of saints with many traditional names, but also those of non-Catholics, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and whose lives also challenged Catholic teaching, such as Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city councilman who was shot to death in 1978.

But at the prayer of consecration, they offered their first Eucharist, "together with Benedict, our pope, and with all our bishops, men and women."

The Catholic Church teaches that only males can be ordained because the 12 apostles were male. It holds that ordination is handed down by a chain of bishops that can be traced back to those 12 apostles. Roman Catholic Womenpriests claims that its bishops are valid -- though illegal under church law -- because their bishops say they were secretly ordained by an active bishop in Europe, or by a man who was ordained by a former legitimate Argentinian bishop who left his office and married.

The Catholic Church does not accept those arguments. In 2003 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- upheld the excommunications of the first group after they appealed their bishop's declaration to the Vatican. Rome leaves it up to local dioceses to issue statements about the group.

"This is a sad moment for us. It has fostered even greater disunity in the church than what existed before this day began. We pray for reconciliation we pray for unity," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"Either you accept the teaching of the church or you don't. If you don't in the public manner in which they have done today, then they are choosing to separate themselves from the church, even though they say they are not doing so."

Joan Houk, 66, of McCandless, who was declared a priest, said she would abide by the church's most basic restriction, and not go forward for communion in her parish.

"I will remain in my pew and pray for all of those others who also cannot receive communion," she said.

Her master of divinity degree would easily enable her to be ordained an Episcopal priest. But she chose Roman Catholic Womenpriests "because I'm Catholic," she said.

She knows that she will never be able to officially serve the Roman Catholic Church in any paid or volunteer capacity. But she said she considers her ordination more than a symbolic gesture, because she believes God will recognize it even if the church does not.

"The church is looking at it as if I am putting myself outside the church. I don't see it that way," she said.

"What I hope to do is connect with people who are Catholic who have walked away or are not participating, and convince them to become active in the church again and to belong to a parish, and to use their voice to let their pastors know what is of concern to them," she said.

Several liberal Catholics offered support for yesterday's ritual. But not all advocates of women's ordination are convinced it's the way to proceed.

Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate at Hofstra University on Long Island is a Catholic theologian who advocates the ordination of women to the diaconate, because that discussion is still permitted in the church.

The riverboat movement "raises the issue and makes more people discuss it," she said.

But she is concerned that some of the women wouldn't qualify if they were male because of their theology or lifestyle.

"From what I have read of their biographies, some of the women are not much interested in much of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. So there is a conundrum there. How can you be ordained to serve a community of believers if you don't agree with them?" she said.

For a variety of reasons, including the fact that none of the women's diocesan bishops gave permission for their ordination, "there is no chance of the Catholic Church accepting the orders," she said.

Patricia Fresen, a bishop in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, compared their movement to the anti-apartheid movement.

"I am utterly convinced that our ordinations are totally valid," she said. "Although they break [canon] law, we believe we are breaking an unjust law. I come from South Africa. We learned from Nelson Mandela and others that if a law is unjust, it must be changed. ... If you cannot change it, you must break it."


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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