Our God, who art in heaven

. . .

A congenial group of dissidents - seven conservatively dressed, middle-class Catholics, most of them retired - recite a revised version of the Lord's Prayer.

Moments later, their priest, Eileen DiFranco, officiates at the ritual consecration of the communion bread and wine on the altar of a Burlington County chapel.

Let us pray with confidence that our gifts are acceptable to God our loving parent.

Welcome to Sunday services at St. Mary Magdalene, an "Intentional Eucharistic Community" where the pastors have been ordained by an international organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

"Women are following a call," says Tom Cusack, a former Catholic priest from Monmouth County, N.J., who was attending the service. "Even though it means going right into the flamethrowers."

The Vatican does not recognize the ordinations of women.

Pope Francis, embraced by many for what appear to be more flexible views on a variety of issues, recently reinforced the church's stance on the matter.

"As you know, there aren't female priests in the Roman Catholic Church," Kenneth A. Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, says in a email.

"Those claimed ordinations would be invalid as would be any Eucharistic celebration over which they may have" officiated, he adds.

"The only response of the church is to show us the door," notes DiFranco, 64, a Philadelphia mother of four who was ordained in 2006.

"I can't wait until the pope says yes," Jackie Casper Agostini, 74, a Sunday services regular from Hainesport, says.

"By then, I'll be dead."

Every week, Agostini and perhaps a dozen other women and men gather to worship in the chapel of Epworth United Methodist Church in Palmyra. As is true of many Protestant denominations, Methodists have long ordained women.

"We are blessed to be able to [offer] the space to them," Epworth's pastor, the Rev. Charles Soper, says.

"They are people of God who have been forced by a disagreement to find a different way."

Services began in Palmyra in 2015 under the auspices of the St. Mary Magdalene "mother church" in Drexel Hill, which was established nine years ago and has about 40 members.

The atmosphere at the service ("It's a Mass," DiFranco says) is familial, the language is inclusive, and the liturgy, while familiar, is resolutely egalitarian.

The pastor offers a homily that draws on her experiences as a mother and grandmother - not the sort of insight readily available to Catholic priests.

"To listen to someone who has been married, who has been there, give a homily - it's real life," says Marge Johnston, 63, of Bellmawr. "This is a more equal church, a less authoritarian church."

I grew up Catholic, and still respect the good works of the church. But as an adult I found the celibacy the church requires of gay people who wish to, say, receive Communion wasn't something I could abide by, much less, adhere to.

"I can't imagine Jesus as a traffic cop, standing at the altar and excluding people from [Communion]," says DiFranco - who, like any good preacher, has a way with a phrase.

The faith-filled folks I meet at Sunday's service refuse to give up on the church they love.

"The hierarchy of the church is wrong. But it would be difficult for me to go to another church," says Roberta Lynch, 63, a retired radiologist who lives in Cherry Hill.

"Why should I give up my faith? I'm going to fight for my faith," says Agostini, who grew up in Voorhees and graduated from Camden Catholic High School in 1960.

"Jesus was a rebel. He stuck his neck out. And to some degree, we're sticking our necks out," says Walt Sandell, 78, a retired administrator.

"We're making a spiritual statement," the Haddon Heights resident adds. "We're saying that women and men are equal before the Lord.

"What more can you say?"

St. Mary Magdalene Community holds services at 11:30 a.m. Sundays at Epworth United Methodist Church, 501 Morgan Ave., Palmyra. For more information, go to smmcommunity.org.


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