Liberal Catholics to honor activist priest Bourgeois

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There were no repercussions from the Vatican the many times that the Rev. Roy Bourgeois was arrested for trespassing at a U.S. Army facility where he protests human rights violations. But when he preached at an ordination Mass for a woman who claimed to become a Catholic priest, he was excommunicated.

"I must say the reaction was very harsh, was very severe and was very swift," said Father Bourgeois, 72. He also has been threatened with expulsion from his order, the Maryknoll Society. He has no regrets.

"To be very honest, I feel that, while I'm not in good standing with the Vatican, the Vatican is not God. I've never felt closer to God," he said.

On Sunday he will be in Pittsburgh to receive the 21st Century Prophet Award from Call to Action-Pennsylvania, an organization of liberal Catholics that urges women's ordination and other changes in the church.

While Father Bourgeois will not say Mass, Eucharist will be celebrated by Joan Houk of McCandless, a bishop in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which sponsored the service that Father Bourgeois was excommunicated for participating in.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh issued a statement regarding her role but said nothing about Father Bourgeois.

"The diocese takes no formal position on this event as Call to Action is not related in any way to the church. We would point out the obvious truth that Mrs. Houk is neither a priest or bishop, and that any ritual she would conduct by its very nature would not be a Mass," it said.

Father Bourgeois grew up near New Orleans and found his call to the priesthood while serving with the Navy in Vietnam.

"Death was close in Vietnam, and God became very close," he said.

A military chaplain recommended Maryknoll, a missionary order. Ordained in 1972, he spent five years in a slum parish in Bolivia, where people earned starvation wages, had no access to schools or health care and were imprisoned or killed when they protested those conditions.

Father Bourgeois protested alongside them. In 1977, he was arrested and forced to leave Bolivia.

When he was first assigned there, he had attended language school with an energetic Maryknoll nun, Sister Ita Ford, who had tutored him in Spanish. She was assigned to El Salvador, where she also spoke up for human rights.

In 1980, she was raped and murdered along with two other nuns and a lay missionary. Three of the five soldiers later found responsible for their deaths had trained at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

In response to their murder and that of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Father Bourgeois became a vigorous opponent of U.S. military aid to El Salvador. In 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women who worked with them were assassinated by Salvadoran troops, many of whom also were later identified as graduates of the School of the Americas.

Convinced that the school must close, Father Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch. On the first anniversary of the Jesuits' deaths, he led his first nonviolent protest there, was arrested and jailed.

The School of the Americas always maintained that it taught respect for human rights. It closed in 2001 and was replaced with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Father Bourgeois believes it's the same program and still leads protests.

Through his work, he met Catholic women who believed God had called them to the priesthood. He had never thought about why women couldn't be ordained, but he began to study the issue.

Ultimately, he couldn't accept the traditional reason that only men could be priests because Jesus chose only male apostles. He notes that St. Mary Magdalene is called the apostle to the apostles because she was the one to tell them of Jesus' resurrection.

"Just as God chose men to be apostles, God also chose Mary Magdalene and other women to be leaders in the church," Father Bourgeois said.

He believes the ban is because men want to preserve male power.

"I reached the point, after a lot of reflection and study and prayer, when I felt it was time to speak out. I saw very clearly the grave injustice that was being done against women, against our church and against our God, who calls both men and women to the priesthood. My conscience didn't permit me to be silent," he said.

"And when I broke my silence and went public, I really poked that beehive of patriarchy. I didn't realize how angry the patriarchy would get. I didn't realize how deep the sexism really was."

In August 2008, he preached at the ordination for Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Asked why he chose to risk his priesthood when it was clear that the Vatican wouldn't accept the priests, he compared it to the risks he took against long odds in Bolivia.

"I learned long ago along this journey that words without action are lifeless," he said.

The Vatican contacted Father Bourgeois about two months later, asking him to recant. When he refused, he was notified that he had incurred automatic excommunication. Under Vatican pressure, this spring Maryknoll gave him 15 days to publicly recant or face expulsion from the order.

That expulsion hasn't occurred because Maryknoll's leaders remain hopeful that Father Bourgeois will begin a dialogue with the Vatican, said Mike Virgintino, manager of communications for the Maryknoll Society.

"Maryknoll would prefer that Roy and the church could find some level of understanding because Roy is very important to Maryknoll," he said.

Father Bourgeois said he has already told both that "what you are asking me to do is not possible without me betraying my conscience." He hasn't heard from the Vatican since his initial reply nearly three years ago, he said.

If he is dismissed from Maryknoll and forcibly laicized, he said, it would be like losing his family. But Jesus warned that could happen.

"If you really, really commit yourself to justice, then you know that many of these issues will involve the cross, will involve suffering, will involve misunderstanding," he said. "I told my family years ago when I was in Bolivia that I wish there was a way to work for peace and justice and follow in the footsteps of Jesus and not upset things, and not cause controversy. It's just not possible."

He celebrates private Mass for himself in his apartment and clings to the ordination promise that he will be a priest forever.

"My only regret is that it took me so long as a Catholic priest to break my silence. I was asleep for so long," he said. "I'm only getting glimpses of how women suffer from being denied their call.

"What does it mean that you can't live out your call? Where do you go to find that happiness and meaning and joy in life? The day will come when women will be welcomed, but it's a hard struggle right now."

The luncheon will be at 10:30 a.m. in the Grand Hall at the Priory, North Side, and costs $40. Reservations are required. Contact 724-612-3842 or for information.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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