PITTSBURGH – Aboard the Majestic sailing the three rivers of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia’s Eileen McCafferty DiFranco participated in a ceremony yesterday that organizers say makes her among the first group of women to be ordained a priest in the United States by the organization Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
Roman Catholic dioceses around the country, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the more than three-hour ordination invalid because they said only men could become priests under church law.
More than 350 friends, family members and like-minded religious advocates watched as three women from Germany and South Africa who say they are bishops laid their hands upon the candidates clothed in white vestments and later stoles in shades of red and anointed them with oils as part of a Mass ushering in priesthood.
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The women said they were deliberately breaking a centuries- old church law, which they called unjust and discriminatory, forbidding women to become priests. Eight women presented themselves as candidates for the priesthood: three from California, two from Pennsylvania, one from Michigan, one from Wisconsin, and one from Virginia and Florida. The other Pennsylvanian is from Pittsburgh.
“Here I am. I am ready,” DiFranco said, rising from her chair before the laying-on-of-hands ceremony.
Family and friends presented each candidate for priesthood. Larry DiFranco, DiFranco’s husband of 32 years, gripped his wife’s hand standing before the crowd. “I have known Eileen to be an advocate for peace, equality and justice, an unwavering advocate,” he said, kissing her.
In the weeks leading up to the ordination, Cardinal Justin Rigali of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia wrote to DiFranco, urging her not to go through with the process.
In a statement issued in anticipation of the event, Rigali expressed his “disappointment.”
“I am concerned pastorally for the spiritual lives of those involved and for the confusion that has been created among some of the faithful,” he said. “… Jesus called only men to follow him as apostles. The church imitates Jesus’ example by choosing only men for the ministry of Holy Orders.”
He heralded the contributions to the church of both men and women. “An invalid ordination ceremony seeks on the surface to elevate the role of one group but ultimately it creates separation rather than unification,” he said.
DiFranco, 54, a nurse at Roxborough High School, at first feared she would be excommunicated, as have some women who were ordained in similar ceremonies on the Danube in 2002 and in Canada last summer. She said Rigali did not raise that issue, although he wrote that her efforts were exacerbating a “public scandal.”
“So I would assume he’s calling me a public scandal. I find that more offensive than the excommunication, given the situation in Philadelphia with the grand jury report [showing that church leaders] engaged in scandalous behavior to cover up a sexual-abuse scandal,” said DiFranco, a resident of Mount Airy and mother of four.
She cited a “calling” to the priesthood and what she sees as the church’s oppression of women as her motivators.
Academic experts said such a ceremony by a small group would not likely affect efforts to get the Roman Catholic Church to ordain women as priests or allow priests to marry.
“I don’t think it will have any more effect than same-sex couples going through marriage ceremonies in states where people of the same sex can’t get married to each other,” said William Tighe, an associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College who follows religious issues. “… It’s like giving the finger to the Catholic Church. If that’s what it is intended for, it will get the publicity it is seeking.”
Many Catholics favor the ordination of women as priests or deacons, according to polls. A 2000 survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate put the number at 71 percent; a 2005 Le Moyne College/Zogby International poll placed it as 62 percent.
Over time, the church has seesawed between the views that the church should adapt to the world and that the world should adapt to the church. Thirty years ago, after the Second Vatican Council, the possibility that women would become priests seemed more likely, some experts say.
“I used to think I’d see it in my lifetime. Thirty years ago, the church was much more fluid, much more open to change,” said E. Ann Matter, professor of religious studies and associate dean for arts and letters of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s been a backing away from that concept and more insistence on the tradition and the eternity of the church.”
But those who support the movement say many Catholics will see the ordinations as valid. Organizers assert that they follow the ever-important principle of apostolic succession in which every priest can trace his ordination back to an apostle. The female bishops conducting the ceremony say they were ordained by bishops in good standing with the church who have remained anonymous because of feared retribution.
More than 20 women have been ordained by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, with about 130 in the pipeline, including about 80 from the United States, organizers said. The candidates are mostly in their 50s and 60s, who have fought for decades to be ordained, according to ceremony organizers. They are in training for or already have degrees in theology, including DiFranco, who is three courses shy of obtaining her master’s of divinity.
“We speak a lot to millions of Catholics out there who are not going to church, who are alienated… because of language, because of lack of inclusion,” said Bridget Mary Meehan, 58, one of the priest participants yesterday, who had been a nun and Catholic school teacher in Philadelphia early in her career.
Yesterday, the candidates poured water from rivers and oceans that held meaning for them – the Delaware River, the Pacific Ocean, and waters from Korea, Tibet and Germany – into a bowl.
In an act of surrender, the women laid face-down on the boat floor before a cross and a makeshift altar.
As the ceremony was done, DiFranco fought tears as she joined hands with the other candidates, raising them in the air.
DiFranco and other women who have been ordained in such ceremonies say they will use their new designations to preach in their community churches as well as churches of other denominations that allow female priests. DiFranco belongs to the Church of the Beatitudes, a tiny congregation in Lansdowne, where she will offer a Mass. To begin her ministry, she will say her first Mass on Sunday at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, which is just blocks from her Roman Catholic parish, St. Vincent’s, where she has been a member for 20 years.
She expects no one to address her any differently – not as reverend or mother or father before her name.
“We’re a discipleship of equals,” she said. “Just call me Eileen.”
Priest and Deacon Candidates
Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, a public school nurse, from Philadelphia
Olivia Doko, founder and director of Olive Tree Ministries, from California
Joan Clark Houk, active in a variety of ministerial activities, from Pittsburgh
Bridget Mary Meehan, dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program for Global Ministries University, formerly a nun and Catholic school teacher in Philadelphia, now from Virginia and Florida
Rebecca McGuyver, a university biology teacher and science writer, from Michigan
Dana Reynolds, cofounder of Mosaics, a women’s spirituality center in Monterey, Calif., and volunteer hospice chaplain, from California
Kathleen Strack Kunster, a lay minister in parishes for more than 20 years, from California
Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg, a feminist theologian and clinical therapist, from Wisconsin
Chery Bristol, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender rights activist, from Michigan
Juanita Cordero, a nurse and teacher at De Anza College in California, from California
Mary Ellen Robertson, a hospital chaplain, from Michigan
Janice Sevre-Duszynska, cochair of the Ministry of Irritation of the Women’s Ordination Conference, from Kentucky