On January 17th 1998, her 48th birthday and the day C.W. Howell Jr. was being ordained a priest in Lexington Kentucky, Janice Sevre-Duszynska resolved to present herself for ordination at the Cathedral of Christ the King. “I was in the Cathedral with all the candidates for priesthood, sitting in the pews.” She recalled, “I stood up, I threw my coat away, and I went towards the Bishop. “I’m called by the Holy Spirit to present myself for the ordination. I ask this for myself and for all women,” to which he said “Get back to your seat, you’re disrupting the service!” Instead I prostrated in the nave with a tiger lily in my hands. The people came acting like I was a crazy woman. I hoped when I was prostrating that some of my friends who were priests would make a circle around me and show their solidarity. Nothing happened at that time. They weren’t ready.”
For her entire life, Janice spoke loudly about her vocation to the priesthood to everyone she knew. She even went to United States’ bishop conference meetings, showing banners to ask for women’s ordination. With the people that suggested she entered the convent, she disagreed because sisters are secular laity, they cannot preach and cannot consecrate the Eucharist.
In this last century we are witnessing the transition (not without quakes) from a patriarchal society, where women were considered to be inferior to men by scientific and theological point of view, to a society where men and women will be legally granted the same rights and duties and certainly equal respect. Nonetheless every day women’s agenda, needs, experiences, gifts are still dismissed and ignored. Women and girls are still the most vulnerable and most invisible, the most hungry and the most desperate people. 84% of women around the world identify with a faith group, and we have somehow come to accept the natural denigration of them within the practices of world cults and doctrines. Religions are evolving slowly, but we can see some women of faith, all over the world, asking today for spiritual equality: they are Jews, Christians, Mormons, Muslim, Indus, Buddhist…
The Roman Catholic Church have fought fiercely against feminism and against the ordination of women. The Vatican’s Holy See is one of the last governments in the world (along with Yemen, Haiti and Qatar) to be led exclusively by males. Women do not receive the sacrament of the order in any of its three degrees (the diaconate, presbyteral, or episcopal) and it is a prerequisite to occupy most of the administrative roles and governance in the Church Institution, in order to be part of the formulation of the doctrine and the Church's global vision. After an initial opening during the Second Vatican Council in 1963, a time when women were first admitted to pontifical universities to study theology, in 1994 Pope John Paul II formally closed, in all Catholic institutions and official contexts, any discussion on women’s ordination with the Apostolic letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" in which he writes that the Church magisterium has no authority to change its traditions. It refers to Canon Law 1024, which explicitly says only a baptized male can receive sacred ordination.
Thus, it came as a surprising historic opening when on the 12th of May 2016, Pope Francis promised in front of an audience of 900 nuns that he would open a commission to study the role of women deacons (the first step in being ordained) in the dawn of Christianity and the possibility to apply it today.
In the summer of 2002, after a 2 years program organized by Austrian former nun Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, seven women (from Austria, Germany and United States) were controversially and illicitly ordained priests by an independent Roman Catholic Archbishop, on a ship cruising the Danube River. Shortly thereafter, three women were ordained bishops in great secrecy, so that they could carry on female ordinations without interference by the Vatican. As a consequence of their refusal to repent, the Vatican excommunicated the women in 2003. Since then, several similar ceremonies have been held by Roman Catholic Women Priests, a group of suffragettes performing religious disobedience in favor of women's ordination.
At first, the ordinations were held only on boats in international waters, but since 2007 other Christian denominations, and one Jewish synagogue, have provided hospitality to women priests by opening their spaces for ordinations and worship. Today, the movement counts more than 215 ordained women priests and 10 bishops worldwide, about a hundred of independent Roman Catholic communities. The numbers are still growing.
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.
We live a critical moment in history for Roman Catholicism. The Church increasingly feels like an obsolete model, far removed from the spiritual needs and realities of today. It defends dogmatic formulations in the face of the religious tolerance necessitated by an intercultural world; and offers outdated rhetorical language and aesthetic to young people who are educated in science and philosophy. The result is the steady decline of believers in Western countries. The fate of the Roman Catholic Church seems to hinge between: the current establishment disappearing into a cult of a few conservatives, or a deep transformation and renewal in its administrative and religious shape.
At the center of these debates and these possibilities, is the battle for a renewed priesthood that would include women as well.
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.