Posted on Sun, May. 28, 2006

Defiant female priest says Mass

By Kim Vo
Mercury News

The fledgling congregation gathered in a circle at Sunday Mass at Spartan Memorial Chapel to introduce themselves. A woman in a long, white robe spoke first.

``My name is Victoria Rue,'' she said. ``And I am a Roman Catholic woman priest.''

Rue belongs to a renegade movement that is ordaining women as Catholic priests, in defiance of the Vatican. Today, Rue celebrates Mass at the non-denominational chapel at San Jose State University.

Joining her at the altar on Sundays -- also in clerical robes -- have been a married man, his wife and another woman. The ceremonies prompted the Diocese of San Jose this month to warn Catholics that the sacraments there would be invalid.

It's a prickly issue more Catholic dioceses will face as increasing numbers of women join the ordination movement.

``God has called me,'' said Juanita Cordero, a Los Gatos woman who will soon be ordained as a deacon and aims to be a priest by 2007. ``Growing up it was never a possibility because it was always for men.''

Cordero, a former nun, is among 120 women enrolled in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests program, which has been boldly ordaining groups of women as priests and deacons.

A dozen will be ordained in Pittsburgh on July 31, including Cordero and women from Carmel and Pismo Beach. Another woman -- fearful that her bishop will quickly excommunicate her -- will only say she's from the Bay Area. Those women plan to eventually work as priests, offering pastoral care and presiding over rituals ranging from baptisms to weddings to Mass.

The church says the movement is built on a falsehood: Women can't be priests, so whatever ceremonies they hold are moot.

The women say they're reforming the church by defying it, hoping to bring about a more inclusive institution that welcomes women, married men and gays in all of its ranks. In addition to a more egalitarian church, they say, the movement fulfills their long-thwarted wishes to become priests.

Divinity degree needed

The Womenpriests program, which has no set headquarters but claims members in North America and Europe, requires women to earn a master's degree in divinity along with 10 additional units in areas such as spirituality and pastoral care.

The program gained notoriety in 2002 when a sympathetic bishop ordained seven women on the Danube River near Germany and Austria. The women have since been excommunicated. Still, some bishops went on to illicitly ordain two of those women as bishops, and they in turn have ordained other women. Local dioceses say those ordinations are hollow, citing canon law and the Vatican's actions against the original seven.

Both sides turn to historical precedent and theology to support their views.

The group claims that because the women were initially ordained by bishops in good standing, their own ordinations are valid. Supporters say their stance has precedent in the early church, citing artifacts showing women at the Eucharist table and references to presbytera or episcopa -- feminizations for priest and bishop.

``The reality of women priests is historical,'' said Rue, a professor of both women's studies and religious studies at San Jose State University. ``It's a birthright women have.''

Critics say it's unclear whether the depictions were of women and altars, and that the terms more properly translate as ``wife of'' priest or bishop, explained the Rev. Arthur Holder, an expert on the history of Christian spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The most oft-cited theological reasons women can't be priests is they aren't created in the image of Christ and that Jesus himself set the rules when he selected 12 men as his apostles.

Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, probably
won't allow women's ordination, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert.

``You got 20 centuries of teaching and practice. You need a pretty good reason to reverse that,'' Reese said. ``They would say you can't reverse that.''

Polls show that a majority of American Catholics support women's ordination, he said, but it's unclear if they would support a maverick movement to bring it about.

Take John Wilhelmsson, a San Jose State graduate student and lifelong Catholic, who is frustrated that Rue calls herself a Catholic priest when the church doesn't allow it.

``It's like telling a big lie,'' he said, ``and telling it over and over again.''

Other tensions have surfaced. The group posted fliers around the campus advertising the ``Catholic and inclusive'' Mass, sometimes putting them beside the diocese's warnings that someone had printed and hung. Several times the Mass fliers were taken down; one week, the diocese's statements were removed.

Other than steering Catholics away, the diocese has no plans to punish or talk with the women clergy, spokeswoman Roberta Ward said. The silence dismays Rue, but the diocese feels there's nothing to discuss while the two sides fundamentally disagree.

Besides, most of the services are so small, Ward said, there's no point in drawing more attention to them.

Anywhere from three to 30 people have attended the services, which began in March. Though the services contain the hallmarks of a Catholic Mass, some rituals have been tweaked. Clergy and laity gather and walk to the front of the church. Phrases such as ``our mother'' and ``she'' are regularly interspersed with the more familiar ``our Father'' and ``he.'' Homilies resemble Bible study sessions as priests sit and invite congregants to share their thoughts on the teachings.

Longing for reform

The altered ceremony, along with the female priest, took awhile to get used to, admitted Carole Thum, but the Saratoga woman kept attending because she longs for reform.

A granddaughter, who as a child wanted to be a priest, felt sidelined by her gender and eventually left the faith. An acquaintance's parents are conflicted because they are Catholic and he is gay. And then there were the pedophiles.``

It's a very confusing, puzzling time, but I think we need to have change,'' she said. "I just knew so many spiritual, educated women in my life. I wonder if they were priests what could they have accomplished."

Kathleen Strack says she decided to stop waiting. She had wanted to be a priest since age 8 and in the 1999 got a master's in divinity just in case the opportunity ever arose. Now 61, she's ready for ordination.

It's hard. She knows some will treat her as an outcast in the faith she deeply loves. She's currently using her maiden name, not wanting to be excommunicated before she becomes a priest. She's held fast to the calling all these decades, even after a priest tried to dissuade her when she was in middle school.

"He said, `Girls can't be a father to the people,' " she recalled. "And I thought, no, but I can be a mother to the people.''

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