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Risking heresy to serve as priests

Robed in floor-length white linen and purple stoles, two Roman Catholic women will kneel this afternoon in a spare Roxborough sanctuary, in a liturgy both ancient and audacious.

Bishop Patricia Fresen, right, talks with Eileen McCafferty DiFranco about her ordination as a priest and then a bishop outside of the Catholic church during a visit to Philadelphia. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Bishop Patricia Fresen, right, talks with Eileen McCafferty DiFranco about her ordination as a priest and then a bishop outside of the Catholic church during a visit to Philadelphia. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Robed in floor-length white linen and purple stoles, two Roman Catholic women will kneel this afternoon in a spare Roxborough sanctuary, in a liturgy both ancient and audacious.

Their bishop will lay hands on their heads, recite the ordination rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and invite the two to rise - one as a deacon, the other as a priest - and celebrate Mass before an expected assemblage of 200.

But even before their knees leave the floor, the two will be automatically excommunicated from the church they say they seek to serve, their ordinations invalid in the eyes of the Vatican, their Mass heretical.

The impending ceremony - the first of its kind in Philadelphia - elicited a one-page denunciation from Philadelphia's archbishop. "I am concerned pastorally for the souls of those involved" in "this pseudo-Ordination," Cardinal Justin Rigali said in a statement released Friday. It "denigrates the truth entrusted to the Church by Christ Himself."

In the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, few topics are more charged than women's ordination - a premise considered so utterly false by most of the all-male hierarchy that in the mid-1990s, Pope John Paul II ordered the church's one billion adherents to stop debating it, permanently.

Warned that they were defying an infallible teaching, many once-vociferous advocates have fallen silent. A small fraction still publicly crusade. And an even tinier fraction ordain one another.

Estimates top 100 on the number of women in North America and Europe - mostly baby boomers - who have been made deacons, priests, and bishops since June 29, 2002, when a schismatic Catholic bishop ordained seven women aboard a boat on the Danube River in Germany.

At least seven more ordinations are planned in the United States by year's end.

Many are done covertly and announced only afterward. Other ceremonies are public, as today's will be. The service is scheduled for 3 p.m. at a Christian chapel inside Congregation Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue on Freeland Avenue.

However, the archdiocese warns, lay Catholics who attend and take Communion could imperil their standing in the church.

"It doesn't necessarily mean automatic excommunication," as it does for the ordainers and ordinands, said Msgr. Michael Magee, chairman of systematic theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. "But it is a serious mistake against the communion of the church, and could carry penalties later."

Such stances have galvanized the hardest feminist core.

"St. Augustine wrote that if a law is unjust, you must change it," said Mary Schoettly. "And if you can't change it, break it."

The 66-year-old Schoettly - a retired biology teacher, a divorced mother of grown children, a lector and eucharistic minister in her mainstream parish in Sussex County, N.J. - is to be ordained a priest today. Also at the altar will be Chava Redonnet, 51, a hospital chaplain and author from Rochester, N.Y., who is to become a deacon.

While the women are emphatic that they will be full members of the Roman Catholic clergy, the church hierarchy - as Rigali's letter stressed - is emphatic they will not.

The Vatican has been strongly reiterating that position since 1976, after the Episcopal Church validated the illicit ordination in 1974 of 11 women in Philadelphia. Pope Paul VI took the occasion to remind Catholics that an all-male clergy was a "constant and universal tradition" of the Roman church because Jesus freely chose only men to be his apostles. By their "natural resemblance" to Christ, male priests also serve as the "sacramental sign" of him.

Advocates for female clergy have long accused the hierarchy of misogyny. Unjustly so, said Magee. "Women's ordinations are not invalid because the church disapproves of [women], but because it is the belief of the church that [such ordinations] are not possible," said the monsignor, who for nine years served at the Vatican's Congregation for Sacred Worship and the Sacraments.

Today's ceremony will be led by Bishop Andrea Johnson of Annapolis, Md., and Bishop Patricia Fresen of South Africa. A ruddy-cheeked former Dominican nun, Fresen chafed for decades under state-enforced apartheid in her homeland.

"Racism is a terrible sin," Fresen, 68, said here last week. "Sexism is just as terrible."

She heads an international group, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, that prepares women for holy orders.

In August 2003, she was ordained a priest by two of the "Danube Seven," who by then had been made bishops. In 2005, she said, a Catholic bishop "in good standing with Rome" secretly consecrated her a bishop as well.

Expelled from the Dominicans after 45 years, Fresen now lives in Germany. In Philadelphia, she is staying at the East Mount Airy home of a woman ordained in 2006 in Pittsburgh.

Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, 55, a married mother of four and a school nurse, for decades belonged to St. Vincent parish in Germantown. Days after her ordination ceremony, parish staff visited her, asking her not to show up for Communion.

Although one area priest secretly gave her a chalice, she said, many of the clergymen she once counted as friends now shun her. "I just haven't been able to get over that," she said, her voice breaking. "They're all in such fear."

Fresen, sitting at DiFranco's dining room table, tried to reassure her that "excommunication only takes effect if you let it."

"Nothing can put you out of the church," Fresen said. "Once you are baptized, you are baptized into Christ."

On that much, the Vatican agrees. Excommunication does not expel baptized Catholics, but it does bar them from receiving or giving sacraments until they renounce their wrong.

Repentance is rare, so most female clergy wind up outside conventional parishes. They often are found ministering to small communities of disaffected Catholics.

Schoettly leads once-a-month Sunday worship services, with Masses that she holds to be validly Catholic. DiFranco's Community of St. Mary Magdalene meets every Sunday at Drexel Hill United Methodist Church.

In addition to her role in Womenpriests, Fresen earns about $30 a week as a hospital aide.

Her path to ordination began 12 years ago, when she was teaching theology and homiletics - preaching - at a Cape Town seminary. But, she said, "I was never allowed to preach."

Only after seven years there did a priest on the faculty invite her to preach at Mass on Women's Day, a secular celebration.

"I prepared the homily of my life," Fresen recalled ruefully. "I wanted to knock their socks off."

When the day came, she stepped anxiously before the young men, many of whom were her students. "Before I could open my mouth," she said, "someone started to hiss. Then more. It absolutely threw me. I couldn't speak."

Fresen resigned from the seminary and took a teaching position at Catholic University in Johannesburg.

Then came the 2002 ordinations on the Danube. "I thought: 'Never in my lifetime!' " she said. A year later, she presented herself in Barcelona, Spain, for ordination to the diaconate and, two days later, to the priesthood.

Fresen insists there is an underground of support for female clergy, even among the hierarchy. When a South African bishop she knew learned of her ordination to priesthood, she said, he not only blessed her "but asked me to bless him" as well.