Roman Catholic Women Priests Call For A More Inclusive Church

For someone whose very title – Roman Catholic Womanpriest – triggered her excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, Eileen DiFranco has much in common with Pope Francis.

“I think he has said just marvelous things about poverty and Catholic social justice,” DiFranco said of the pontiff.

Their views, however, diverge sharply on the role of women in the church.

That is: DiFranco, a retired school nurse who lives in Mount Airy, believes that women can and must be ordained as priests, as she was in 2006 in a ceremony declared invalid by the church.

She is now one of 188 Roman Catholic Womenpriests around the world.

Many of them are gathering in Philadelphia this weekend for the third meeting of Women’s Ordination Worldwide. Their aim: to “challenge global discrimination against women in the Roman Catholic Church” in advance of the larger World Meeting of Families.

On Friday, DiFranco, Andrea Johnson, and Patricia Fresen gathered in DiFranco’s comfortable living room before heading to the conference, musing about their journeys to become Womenpriests and their hopes for the movement. Johnson, of Annapolis, Md., and Fresen, who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, are both bishops.

The trio, who eschew using titles and wearing Roman collars, would love to have a conversation with church leaders, but laugh at the thought of so far-fetched an idea.

The church has characterized the ordination of women as delicta graviora – a grave crime against the church, considered the same level of sin as sexually abusing children.

“Do we look that scary? A bunch of old ladies?” asked DiFranco, who is 63. “Why not sit down to talk with us? Why not come down here and have pizza and beer with us? But most priests and bishops don’t even want to hear our story.”

No pedophile priests have ever been excommunicated from the church, notes Fresen, who grew up in South Africa and for 45 years was a Dominican nun. For most of her life, becoming a priest was a persistent, but impossible, idea.

“For many years, the idea of being ordained – it wouldn’t go away,” said Fresen. But although she studied in Rome for years, earning her Ph.D. and giving men studying to become priests formal preaching instruction, Fresen was barred herself from preaching.

The push for women’s ordination began in the 1970s, after Vatican II reforms stirred new life in the church. The first women priests, the Danube 7, were ordained in 2002 by a male Roman Catholic bishop on that river in Germany.

Fresen was the eighth to become a Womanpriest, ordained in Barcelona in 2003. DiFranco was ordained in 2006 and Johnson, in 2007.

“When you take the chains off the Holy Spirit,” DiFranco said, “it’s amazing.”

DiFranco is married, a mother and a grandmother, and holds advanced degrees in nursing, health education, and divinity. She is a priest in the Saint Mary Magdalene Community, which holds worship services in Drexel Hill and North Wales, with a third location coming soon in Palmyra.

The liturgy at their services would be familiar to Roman Catholics, with some key differences.

“We’ve changed the sexist language,” DiFranco said.

“And we certainly don’t have people kneeling,” Johnson said. “People pray the words of consecration together – there are no spectators.”

Womenpriests preside at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. They anoint the sick.

Five hundred people are expected to attend this weekend’s conference, traveling from as far away as Australia to discuss “Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice.” They will attend workshops on Catholic feminist perspectives on human rights challenges and on women leaders in the early church.

The conference concludes Sunday with a “vigil and witnessing walk” with Catholic Organizations for Renewal – a larger call for a more inclusive church, the womenpriests said.

If they got Pope Francis’ ear, the message would be the same, the faithful women said.

“Come and see,” Johnson said. “Come and celebrate Eucharist with us – speak to our communities.”


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