20th anniversary of mission of Roman Catholic Women Priests to prepare, ordain and support qualified women called by the Holy Spirit and their communities of faith to minister to the People of God   

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Marie Bouclin, Special to The Review | June 15, 2022

June 29th 2022 will mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of Roman Catholic Women Priests with the first public ordinations of women in our time on a cruise ship on the Danube River. I’d like to share that event with you from the perspective of an eye witness. But first, let me give a recap of the history that brought us to that moment. After recounting the event, I’d like to describe how RCWP, specifically here in Canada, has lived up to its mission as a movement for Catholic church reform in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The earliest testimonies of women housechurch leaders are in the letters of Paul. Think Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla (and her husband Aquila) and others. Then in the Gospels, Mary Magdalen, Martha, the Samaritan woman (or Photina as she is known in the Eastern churches), and the list goes on. Biblical scholarship, church history and archeology have demonstrated that there have been women deacons, priests and bishops until the early 11th century. One of the most beautiful “witnesses” is the 9th Century mosaic of Episcopa Theodora in the basilica of St. Praxedis in Rome.

The idea that women could once again be ordained in the Roman Catholic church took hold when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. He recognized that it was time to make room for women in leadership -- certainly in society, perhaps even in the church. Two of the Danube Seven, Ida Raming and Iris Muller (as well as others) had made submissions to the Council Fathers asking to discuss the issue of women’s ordination. They were basically ignored. But women were already being admitted to theology faculties, becoming pastoral assistants, chaplains and scholars, even teaching future priests in seminaries.

We also became aware that, in the 1970's, during the communist occupation of some eastern block countries, bishop Felix Maria Davidek ordained married men and some women, with the secret approval of Rome. One of the women, Ludmila Javorova, refused to obey the Vatican order to renounce her ordination after the lifting of the ‘iron curtain’ even under threat of excommunication. All over the world, groups emerged to promote the equality of women by allowing them to receive Holy Orders. One of those groups was the Canadian Catholic Network for Women’s Ordination, now called the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) founded in 1980. Some twenty groups like ours gathered together in 1996 in Gmunden, Germany, to form Women’s Ordination Worldwide. An international symposium was held in Dublin, Ireland in 2001, and a Steering Committee meeting was planned for mid-July 2002 in Salzbourg, Austria.

As a member of CNWE’s national work group, I was delegated to that meeting. In her email, meeting convener Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger wrote that there was a Bishop in good standing with Rome who would be ordaining a group of women two weeks prior to the meeting, and if I was interested in being ordained to let her know. I responded that, no, I was not seeking ordination, but would very much like to witness this history-making event.

My husband Albert and I were directed to fly to Munich then take a train to Passau, Austria. From our hotel, early in the morning of June 29th, we were to walk to a nearby church. From there, printed invitation in hand, we were shepherded on to the cruise ship Sissi. Why on a boat? The Danube runs between Germany and Austria, therefore an international waterway, outside the jurisdiction of any German or Austrian bishop. Once we embarked on that journey, we couldn’t get off, but neither could anyone come aboard to stop the proceedings. The presiding bishop processed in to marimba-type music. The Swiss journalist sitting next to me pointed out that this was not a bishop in good standing with Rome but the schismatic Romulo Braschi of Argentina. I felt I’d been misled, but later heard a story that the Eastern European canonical bishop had been locked in his room so he couldn’t attend. He had too much to lose.    

Here is what I noted in my worship aid, from Bishop Braschi’s short homily: "I have been a priest for 40 years and accused of being a communist. Communism means totalitarianism" (implying that the preferential option for the poor is not communism).  Before he gave his final blessing he said, “Our faith, our ordination means fraternity. May God bless you. You are priests for the world, even if it is not recognized by Rome.” Later, at a press conference in Passau, we got word from the local bishop, through a journalist, that the women would be excommunicated if they did not recant and repent. In the following days, Bishop X as he is still known for his own protection, laid hands on all 7 women, and signed their ordination certificates then consigned the certificates to a safety deposit box in Austria. The Danube Seven: Ida Raming, Iris Muller, Pia Brunner, Gisela Forster, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Dagmar Celeste, and Adelinda Reutinger received their notification from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of pending excommunication on the following July 10th. It was promulgated in January, 2003. 

In March, 2003, Bishop X ordained three of these women to be bishops to continue his work. In 2004, he ordained as bishop for the English-speaking world, Patricia Fresen, a Dominican nun and liberation theologian from South Africa. Bishops Gisela, Christine and Patricia ordained twelve women on another cruise ship on the St. Lawrence River in July, 2005. One of them was Canadian: Michele Birch Conery. Two years later in Toronto, on the feast of Pentecost, Monica Kilburn Smith and Jim Lauder were ordained to the diaconate and I was ordained a priest. In 2008, RCWP Canada called Patricia Fresen to be our bishop. She led us in the election of a Canadian, and that was me in 2011. I had the privilege of laying hands on Jane Kryzanowski in 2018 to replace me as bishop for Canada, to pastor of the pastors of St. Brigid’s in Calgary; Sourdough, Sudbury; St. Iris, Victoria; Star of the Sea, Galiano Island; Julian of Norwich, Sutton, QC; Emmaus Community in Edmonton; Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantsin in Vancouver; Church of the Beatitudes of Toronto; St. Mary of Magdala, First Apostle in Bethany, ON; Mary of Magdala Inclusive Catholic Community of Regina; Ottawa Housechurch, Ottawa; and Lethbridge Inclusive Catholic Community, Lethbridge, AB. Twenty years after the ordinations on the Danube, there are over 200 priests and 19 bishops (6 retired), serving in Austria, Germany, Canada, United States, Belgium, South Africa, Columbia and the Phillipines. The numbers, however, only tell half the story.

Patricia ordained me a deacon at a friend’s cottage in August 2006. My task was to work with her and Andrea Johnson, a priest from Annapolis, MD, to draft a mission statement for RCWP and what we saw as a renewed model of priesthood. Here is, in part, what we wrote after consulting the ordained women of Europe, the US and Canada:

Our mission within the Roman Catholic church is “to prepare, ordain and support qualified women from all states of life who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities of faith to minister to the People of God.” Our model of ordained ministry is part of the great post-modern paradigm-shift in which the earth, the world and the church are involved, a church of the people rather than a clerical church. Therefore, we in RCWP try to avoid clericalism. We cherish a community-based, inclusive model of servant-leadership. This implies simplicity in vestments and liturgical vessels, and also in our attitudes and behaviour.  Those who apply to our vocational discernment program must agree to a number of principles which guide our priestly life, particularly: equality, justice, inclusivity, unity in diversity, accountability, collegiality, and prophetic obedience. As priests, we are called to exemplify the changes we wish to see in the church in theology, liturgy, and pastoral practice to reflect the spirit and teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Those who attend our Zoom liturgies on Sundays, realize the most visible renewal is liturgical. That first ordination followed the Latin Rite to the letter with the exception of the promise of obedience to the bishop (and celibacy). Instead, we promise prophetic obedience to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through a life of prayer and the collective discernment of our leaders and communities. We practise an “open table” at Eucharist and the use of inclusive language both for the people and the way we address God. We replace the word “Lord” in most prayers and hymns with “Christ” who is a living, saving cosmic reality. While remaining recognizably Catholic in our worship, we place more emphasis on Divine Mystery than on calcified rubrics. For example, we have moments of silent contemplation, spontaneous prayers as well as shared homilies. We are more concerned with the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” (Gaudium et spes - - Vatican II) of all God’s people, rather than blind obedience to Canon Law. As we wrote in our report to the Vatican Synod just this year, we strive for celebrations that are life-giving, not guilt-inducing, that nurture hope and instill joy, that allow the Spirit to flow in all and through all.

Our liturgies reflect a renewal in theology. We have moved away from a theology of atonement and a religion of force and fear. We pursue together a spiritual journey of relationship-building with a caring and compassionate Mother-Father Creator who wants wholeness and healing for humanity and creation. We believe that our Baptism calls us to follow Jesus in proclaiming the goodness of God through Gospel-inspired lives. Our theology is Scripture-based, grounded in the traditional teachings of the church, but also attuned to contemporary prophets, and the signs of our own times.

Renewal in pastoral practices means empowering one another to recognize and deploy all our gifts to meet the needs of the world. It is also demonstrated by welcoming and affirming 2SLGBTQ+ persons; taking very seriously our responsibility to work for truth, justice and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters; and offering a path for spiritual healing to women and children abused by clergy. We have followed the Vatican II directive to become an enculturated church. We reach out and welcome disenfranchised and marginalized Catholics, people of other faiths and those who have none.

Do you suppose this is part of the "new Pentecost" some of us older folks remember praying for before the Second Vatican Council began?

Our various international RCWP constitutions make no provision for permanent deacons. Here in Canada, given our small numbers, a bit like the apostles in Acts 6:1-6, we saw a need for helpers. We have RCWP Canada Associates who fill just that role. These are spiritually mature people who need not have completed theological studies, but who espouse the mission and vision of RCWP Canada. They bring to us their gifts of prayer, wise counsel, administrative and communication skills, and financial assistance. Neither priests nor associates of RCWP Canada are subsidized by their communities.

[Marie Bouclin
, Sudbury, ON, is Bishop Emerita of RCWP Canada]


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