Female Priests Defy Catholic Church At The Altar

Originally published on June 13, 2011 8:05 am

In 2002, seven women were secretly ordained as priests by two Roman Catholic bishops in Germany. After their ordination, a kind of domino effect ensued.

Those seven women went on to ordain other women, and a movement to ordain female priests all around the world was born. The movement, named Roman Catholic Womenpriests, says more than a hundred women have been ordained since 2002, and two-thirds of them are in the U.S.

On a recent June day in Maryland, four more women were ordained as priests. The gallery at St. John's United Church of Christ was filled with Catholic priests and nuns, there to support the women and the ordination movement — though visitors were asked not to photograph them. Witnessing the ceremony was enough to risk excommunication.

The audience turned to watch as the women made their way down the aisle, beaming like brides. The two-and-a-half-hour ceremony ended with Holy Communion — the moment they'd been waiting for. Each woman performed the rites for the first time as a priest, breaking bread and serving wine as tears of joy flowed down their faces.

Marellen Mayers is one of the women ordained that day, and like her fellow ordinands, she was raised in the Catholic Church. Her mother had an altar at home, and when Mayers was a child, she would stand in front of it, wearing a cloth as her vestments and saying the Latin Mass.

"My brother and sister would be kneeling behind me, and if I said, 'Dominus vobiscum,' I would turn around and say, 'You're supposed to say 'Et cum spiritu tuo,' " Mayers recalls.

Fellow ordinand Patti LaRosa had a similar experience growing up. She came from a close-knit Italian family and always felt comfortable in the Catholic Church. In the late '70s she got married, had two kids and was working as an assistant at a law firm in Rochester, N.Y.

Several times a week she would go to church during her lunch break, and one day she realized, "I'm supposed to be a priest."

As members of the Roman Catholic Church, these female priests are all breaking church rules, which allow ordination only to baptized males. No member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests has been excommunicated by the Church, but they have felt repercussions. They've not only been threatened but also have lost friends and colleagues within the Church — many of whom fear they will lose their jobs if they support the women's ordination movement openly.

LaRosa recognizes they are breaking Church law — specifically Canon 10:24 — but says, "when you have an unjust law, sometimes it needs to be broken before it can be changed."

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In 2002, two Catholic bishops in Germany secretly ordained seven new priests. It was secret because the seven priests were women. This was a blatant violation of church doctrine. Only men are allowed to become priests, and everyone involved in this underground ordination risked excommunication. But a movement was born and almost a decade later, dozens of women have been ordained around the world. Four of them received the sacrament last weekend at St. John's United Church of Christ in Catonsville, Maryland, and our producer Lily Percy was there.

LILY PERCY: Marellen Mayers wanted to be a priest since she was 8 years old. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Chicago. Her mother had an altar at home and as a girl, Marellen would stand in front it, wearing a cloth with a hole in it as her vestments, and say the Latin Mass.

MARELLEN MAYERS: My brother and sister would be kneeling behind me. And if I said, Dominus vobiscum, I would turn around and say: You're supposed to say, Et cum spiritu tuo.


PERCY: That's Latin, of course, for Lord be with you, and also with you. Today, Marellen is one of four women being ordained. She'll become a member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a movement that began in 2002.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Gracious God, we thank you for this wonderful celebration of this absolutely incredible weekend.


PERCY: It's the Friday night before ordination, and the group is gathered for dinner. The four sit beside their spouses and siblings as well as the women who will be officiating tomorrow. More than a hundred have been ordained since 2002, and two-thirds of them are in the U.S.


PERCY: These four women are giddy and talkative, like young brides on the night before their marriage. They know that feeling. All four have had weddings. One, Patti LaRosa, eventually divorced and now lives with her partner, Judy.

PATTI LAROSA: I have been a Catholic all my life, came from a close-knit Italian family, grew up in the church.

PERCY: In the late '70s, Patti got married, had two kids, and was working as an assistant at a law firm in Rochester, New York. She went to church during her lunch break several times a week. And one day, she found herself watching the priest when all of a sudden, it hit her.

LAROSA: Like a thunderbolt - I'm supposed to be a priest. Wow. This is what my life needs.

PERCY: So she met with her college chaplain, and started taking master's of divinity classes part-time.

LAROSA: And I thought well, if it takes me 10 years to complete, that's fine, because in 10 years, the Catholic Church will certainly be ordaining women by then.

PERCY: But that didn't happen. Patti saw her parish getting more and more conservative. She decided to leave and join the Episcopal Church. Four years later, she was about to be ordained there.

LAROSA: I had everything. And I had a parish that would walk with me and present me to the bishop, and I felt absolutely nothing.

PERCY: Patti just didn't identify with the Episcopal Church.

LAROSA: And that was a bummer of a day because it's like, God, what do you want me to do with this? I don't know what to do with this call you gave because in my church, I'm invisible.

PERCY: And that's when she realized she didn't just want to be a priest. She wanted to be a Catholic priest. So she joined the Roman Catholic Womenpriests and began the ordination process. Now, these women are all technically breaking church rules, which say only baptized men can be ordained.

LAROSA: So yeah, we're breaking the law. We're breaking Canon 10:24. But sometimes, history has shown, when you have an unjust law, sometimes it needs to be broken before it can be changed.

PERCY: No member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests has been excommunicated, but they've felt repercussions. They've been threatened. They've lost friends within the church, many of whom fear they'll lose their jobs if they support the movement openly.


GROUP: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Your spirit is upon me.

PERCY: The next day, the day of the ceremony, the church gallery is filled with priests and nuns. Visitors have been asked not to photograph them since just by being here, people are in danger of excommunication. On the church floor, the pews are full.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And now, let us stand as our procession begins.

PERCY: As the four women make their way down the aisle, the audience turns to watch. The four are beaming like new brides.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Are you resolved to fulfill the office of priesthood in the presbyteral order as a faithful worker who supports and serves the people of God?





UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Are you resolved to celebrate the mysteries of Christ faithfully...

PERCY: Each woman recites an oath of commitment and prostrates herself before God, lying face down in the church aisle. The "Litany of Saints" is sung.


GROUP: (Singing) Sarah, Hagar and Abraham, pray for us...

PERCY: Finally, they receive their vestments.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Now, it is our great joy to present to you our newly ordained priests.


PERCY: The ceremony ends with Holy Communion. This is the moment. Each woman performs the rites for the first time as a priest. They break the bread, serve the wine; tears of joy flow.


GROUP: (Singing) ...all around us in this day...

PERCY: A week after the ordination, I caught up with Patti LaRosa by phone. She'd just performed her first Mass - at her local parish, Spiritus Christi, in Rochester, New York.

LAROSA: I got there early, and it was beastly hot. But I said, I'm vesting now. I've waited 25 years to do this. And I know it's hot, but I don't care. I'm putting on the alb, I'm putting on the chasuble and the stole, and I'm going to stand at the front door and greet people. And that was wonderful.


LAROSA: It was wonderful. Then, we're all set. And the music starts, and we process in. And it was like my whole body was echoing, yes, this is what I was born to do. Yes, this is where I belong.

PERCY: Lily Percy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.