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The packed church descended into silence as the two candidates for priesthood took their place before the altar to prepare for the most solemn moment of their ordination — the laying on of hands. The bishop rose and instructed the assembled crowd to place their right hand on the shoulder of the person seated directly in front of them. Then, with all the energy in the room focused on the ordinands, the bishop laid her hands on the head of each, praying silently to invoke the Holy Spirit to come down on the newly ordained priests.
Catholic priests have been ordained in this manner for centuries. But there was one important difference about this ritual at the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s West Village earlier this month: The two new priests and the bishop who ordained them were women.
For D. Alexandra Dyer, one of the newly ordained women, and a lifelong Catholic who says she received her calling to the priesthood at age 7, the ceremony was a moment of justice.
“After so many years and decades of waiting, to be finally able to say yes,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion, “this is how it’s supposed to be.”
“We don’t focus on what the institution thinks,” said Andrea Johnson, the presiding bishop, who has been performing ordinations in the U.S. since 2009. “We focus on what the people think. No matter what the Vatican says about the church not being a democracy, at the end of the day, the people decide.”
According to a 2013 Quinnipiac University poll, at least 60 percent of American Catholics support female ordination. But the issue remains contentious.
Despite Vatican opposition, the RCWP movement is growing. Six American women will be ordained this month, bringing the number of women priests to 142 in the U.S. and 179 worldwide. All the women go through the same rigorous screening and application process as their male counterparts. They must hold a master of theology and undergo at least two years of training in the sacraments before being considered for ordination.
There is, however, an important distinction between male and female Roman Catholic priests: The women must be self-financing. “Our call does not come with a lifetime guaranteed income, a parochial house or a pension,” said Jennifer O’Malley, a priest and spokeswoman for the RCWP. “We have to keep our day jobs.”
The movement to ordain women began in dramatic fashion in 2002 when seven Austrian and German women were ordained by two male bishops in good standing with the church on a ship in the Danube River. A group of protesters prevented a third bishop, known today only as Bishop X for his security, from getting on the boat. According to O’Malley, Bishop X later ordained two of the seven female Danube priests as bishops so they could, in line with the doctrine of apostolic succession, ordain other women called to the priesthood.
Three years later Patricia Fresen was chosen to bring the movement to North America after she was ordained a bishop. The former Dominican nun and social justice warrior was previously jailed for her efforts to end apartheid in her native South Africa.
The first ordination in North America took place that year on a boat on the St. Lawrence River. Security was tight, and a second boat was on hand to remove any disruptive elements, but the ordination proceeded without a hitch. Fresen was fired from her job, lost her pension and was excommunicated by the Vatican for her involvement in this historic event. But now, just under 10 years later, nearly every U.S. state has a Catholic community led by a female priest.
Dyer is a member of the St. Praxedis Catholic Community of New York, which gathers for a monthly Mass in a rented room in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church, a progressive Christian church affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches and United Church of Christ. The Mass follows the same structure as a standard Roman Catholic Mass, with a few subtle differences. “We invite participation, everyone is welcome, and we always use inclusive language,” said the Rev. Gabriella Velardi Ward, the resident pastor. “We don’t do victim theology. Instead of saying ‘Lord, I am not worthy,’ we say ‘Lord, you make me worthy,’ and we refer to God as both our father and our mother.”
This more inclusive and forgiving approach appeals to the St. Praxedis congregation, many of whom are lifelong Catholics who also celebrate with their local parishes in the official church. Clare Hammoor, a 24-year-old theater director, is a regular at Ward’s Mass. He grew up in a family of conservative Catholics who still attend a Latin Mass, but he finds Ward’s services more spiritually rewarding.
“For me, it’s about figuring out how I’m doing Catholic,” he said. “Having a shared homily, being invited to sit in a circle instead of facing an altar in a one-direction spiritual push — these are small changes that are very important.”
Maria Johnson, another St. Praxedis regular and the host of a radio show, “Reasonably Catholic,” makes the two-hour drive from Connecticut every month to attend the Mass because she believes what the women are doing is vital for the future of the Catholic Church.
“We have to support these brave women who are putting their body and soul on the line,” she said. “They are leading a social justice revolution. I feel a moral obligation to be part of it.”
But supporting female priests can come at a price. At one of Ward’s recent Masses was a young seminarian who asked not to be identified by name, since his presence could lead to immediate excommunication from the church to which he has devoted his life. But it was the start of Holy Week, and he said he wanted to honor the women.
“Many of us support allowing women into the priesthood,” he said, referring to his fellow seminarians and male priests. “But we are forbidden from even discussing the issue.”
Having to conceal their support is a struggle, he added. “We have to wrestle with our conscience. When is God calling us to be silent, and when is he calling us to say something?” For now, he feels he must remain silent.
Despite the opposition from Rome, Dyer believes the RCWP movement isn’t going away.
“We already have succeeded,” she said, gesturing at the hundreds of Catholics who risked excommunication by attending her ordination. “Of course we hope the Vatican will eventually come round, but the people are already saying yes.”