A look at the Roman Catholic 'Womenpriest' movement

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NEW YORK - The grinding of an espresso machine and the bass of “In Bloom” by Nirvana hums on the other side of a thin curtain as Rev. Gabriella Ward, a professed “Roman Catholic Womanpriest,” gives her homily at a mass, celebrated in the back of the Brooklyn Commons Cafe.

“The world seems different when you know God in the depth of your soul” said Ward, to the eight community members gathered around the makeshift altar. “God is always with us, no matter what.”

At the end of the mass, everyone joins in singing along to Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” played from Ward’s smartphone. She considers it her theme song. When it ends, Ward dwells on the final verse: “You raise me up to more than I can be.” Ward said the love of God constantly raises her up. The fact that women can’t be priests in the Catholic Church hasn’t stopped her from pursuing the call to priesthood that she’s felt since she was a child.

“I knew I wanted to be a priest when I was five,” said Ward. “I said to my sister that I wanted to be a priest when I grew up, and she laughed and said you can’t cause you’re a girl.”

Ward is the minister of St. Praxedis Catholic Community, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It meets twice a month, once at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and once at Brooklyn Commons in Boerum Hill, both in New York City.

Ward was ordained in Boston in July 2008 by a female bishop in the Church of the Covenant, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ. The community’s first mass took place in Ward’s tiny living room a few months later. Twenty-two people came. There are typically as many as ten mass-goers, most of whom are female.

“[St Praxedis] has been an ebb and flow,” Ward said. “It’s difficult to organize, as well as to find places to hold mass. But this has been the desire of my heart, a sign of peace. The call is so strong. I can’t not do this.”

Ward’s theology is social justice-oriented. She considers social justice a ministry, one she is currently living out as an organizer of the Coalition for Wetlands and Forests in Staten Island, which is fighting to save a poor community’s only open and green space.

Phyllis Russo Petito, a St. Praxedis member who has been with Ward since the beginning, said the social justice focus is what keeps her going to mass.

“I never felt the love of God in the Catholic Church,” said Russo Petito. “I come [to St. Praxedis] because I think people who come to this community are social justice minded. But it’s hard because people come and go, she doesn’t have a real church. Her position is not honored by society. She deserves a place where she can be, so people know she’s here.”

Ward said people typically email her if they are interested in coming to her mass. Many of them in recent years have been people who are fed up with the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups within the church. Ward is trained in the psychology of trauma and counsels adult survivors of child abuse.

“Lots of people tell me, ‘I just can’t do it anymore’ because of the abuse within the church and lack of understanding,” Ward said.

Ward is also intentional about using inclusive language at her masses, such as not using ‘He’ as a pronoun for God, or ‘man’ for human. God is not referred to solely as Father, but, as the ending prayer in Ward’s mass begins, “All-sustaining Mother- Gracious Father God.”

“I believe God is love as First John says,” said Ward. “If God is male, male is God and that affects women. Inclusive language is very important.”

The Roman Catholic Womenpriest (RCWP) movement began in 2002 after the first female ordinations happened in Germany, on a boat on the Danube River. Two Catholic male bishops ordained seven women that day. Those women, and the ones after, have continued to ordain women to the priesthood. There are currently 264 ordained women in the RCWP movement throughout the world, according at Andrea Johnson, a RCWP bishop.

These ordinations are in full apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church, Ward said, because the male bishops who ordained the first women have apostolic succession. This means they have a spiritual authority passed down from the 12 Apostles through successive popes and bishops.

Johnson is one of eight bishops in the US. She was elected to be a “pastor to the pastors” and help keep the organization unified.

“Our job is to clarify for people that we are Catholic,” said Johnson. “We are not leaving the church, and we are not ‘a’ church. So that’s the part that bugs the Vatican the most, I think. That we don’t leave.”

Johnson grew up Catholic, and after she got married, she was hired by the Army to run ministries for a small outpost. While there, she believed she was doing all the work of a priest, except for saying mass, in which various priests would take turns coming to the outpost on Sunday mornings.

“Besides mass, I was the one who planned the community and formed a strong parish council and did the ministries that we had to do out there,” Johnson said. “The strain was great on those priests [who came in] because they didn’t have any relationship with the people. The beginnings of my ideas of priesthood came from my time at that Army post because I was doing the work. I felt very strongly called to do this work.”

Johnson soon got involved with the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), which works directly with the Vatican to promote women’s equality in the church. She began priestly discernment in 2005 and “has never looked back.”

“We are like illegal immigrants in the church, we don’t have our greencards,” Johnson said. “but we are going to change the face of the church.”

The conversation on women’s ordination was sealed when Saint Pope John Paul II wroteOrdinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. He said that it is “not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons,” being that Jesus was male and chose only men to be his Apostles, and this has been a constant practice of the Church. John Paul II goes on to say that this does not diminish the dignity of women and should not be used for discrimination against them.

In 2007, the Vatican released a general decree that said any woman who attempts to become a priest, or those who ordain a woman, have automatically excommunicated themselves from the church.

“People fear that if they come [to St. Praxedis] they’ll be excommunicated,” Ward said. “You won’t be. Excommunication only has power if you give it power, and we don’t. We don’t accept it as real.”

Ward said the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn have never contacted her.

“The fact that God became flesh in the male body was a historical necessity, not a theological necessity,” said Ward. “Mary, as a prophet, was very instrumental in how Jesus was raised and his inclusivity with women. It’s a big part of the Gospel.”

Grace May, a Presbyterian pastor who recently began attending Ward’s masses, said that she was “delighted to see a woman preaching and doing the sacraments.”

“It spoke to my soul,” May said. “I’ve noticed that although women could preach or do other things, when it got to the Eucharist, it went to the guys. So seeing this, I felt such a release. The dams are being broken.”

Female pastors and preachers are on the rise among both Mainline and Evangelical Protestants. Among Catholic weekly mass-goers, 59 percent say they support having women priests.

The biggest argument against the Vatican’s rule that women can’t be priests, according to Kate McElwee, the executive director of WOC, is, “who are we to say that God doesn’t call women?”

“I do truly believe women will be accepted as priests, bishops, cardinals and deacons within the church in the future,” McElwee said. “We have a lot of work to do and I kind of have to be hopeful, but I am. It is a journey.”

Ward, Johnson and other priests and bishops in the RCWP movement aren’t waiting for the Vatican to act on their calls to priesthood.

“There was always a hole in my soul that couldn’t be filled, and it was filled when I became a deacon, lying on the floor, when I returned to Jesus,” Ward said. “Things changed when I got up from the floor, very much.”

After mass at Brooklyn Commons, as everyone bundles up in their coats to head home, one member hugs another and says, “God is good.”

“Yes she is,” the other replies.