by Anne Hamre
Some of the differences are subtle: The congregation says “kindom,” not “kingdom,” of God.
Others decidedly are not. The priest at the front of the bright, cheerful sanctuary-the person who, among other things, transforms the bread into the body of Christ-is a woman. And that makes this small gathering, in the eyes of the Vatican, subversive and dangerous.
On an early summer Sunday, Linda Wilcox’s homily counsels patience, using a gardening metaphor. “We may have to wait a long time for the blooms,” she said, “but we will see them.”
Wilcox and Monique Venne are Catholic priests, ordained in 2009 and 2011 respectively, who co-pastor Compassion of Christ Catholic Community. They belong to Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP), an international movement. RCWP-USA’s mission is “to spiritually prepare, ordain in Apostolic Succession, and support women who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to a renewed priestly ministry rooted in justice and faithfulness to the Gospel,” according to its website.
Typically, 15 to 20 congregants attend Compassion of Christ services, held at a Methodist church. Nearly all are women, most in their 50s or older. A small group, but it’s just one congregation-and as Venne noted, the movement began 10 years ago with only seven women.
The “Danube Seven”-women from Germany, Austria and the United States-were ordained as priests by an Argentine bishop on a Danube River cruise ship in June 2002. The Roman Catholic Church quickly excommunicated them.
Venne, Wilcox and others believe the women’s ordinations-and their own-are valid (but not legal), because they were ordained in apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church (an unbroken line of succession beginning with the apostles and perpetuated through bishops for 2,000 years). The identity of a male priest who ordains a woman will be kept secret until his death, if he wants to remain active within the Catholic Church.
Wilcox, after a career as a librarian, earned an M.A. degree in theology at St. Catherine University. She grew interested in ordination through a “Call to Action” gathering (an organization of Catholics working for justice and equality in the church).
“When I saw a woman presiding at the altar, I could not get it out of my mind. That image haunted me,” she said. “It was a niggling that would not go away.”
Venne worked for years as a meteorologist while serving as a lay volunteer at a suburban Catholic church. After a job layoff, she entered United Theological Seminary, graduating in 2004.
Fear went away
“I thought about [ordination], but I was very scared of the excommunication thing,” Venne said. “That is a very existential threat to a Catholic.”
In mid-2007, Venne reached a crossroads, fired from a liturgy assistant job by a local parish pastor (“He didn’t like me, probably because I knew more than he did”). Around that time, she attended a female friend’s priesthood ordination-the first such event in Minnesota.
“Someone asked me if I was in the [priesthood] program, and my answer came out, ‘Not yet,'” Venne recalled. “Somewhere during that ordination, the fear went away.”
Wilcox calls herself a latecomer to questioning authority. “But once I started thinking for myself,” she said, “I realized I was sick and tired of asking for permission.”
The two women have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church, albeit informally, based on a Vatican-issued statement saying “any person who participates in the ordination of a woman (bishop or candidate) will automatically excommunicate herself,” Wilcox said.
The two priests are often asked: Why not leave the Catholic faith? After all, there are many traditions that ordain women. Venne acknowledged that when she started seminary, “I was ready to leave [Catholicism].” But during her studies, she found new appreciation for it, and “I discovered I couldn’t not be Catholic.”
Wilcox agrees. “It’s a dysfunctional family,” she said. “But it’s still my family.”
Times are tough for progressive Catholics. Witness the Vatican’s recent rebuke of U.S. nuns for emphasizing support for social/economic justice rather than opposition to abortion. Yet in apparent setbacks, the two priests find hope that change is afoot, and that they are helping it along.
“The church hierarchy is becoming more and more hysterical,” Venne said. “They’re losing their grip.” She noted that the Vatican ranks the “crime” of ordaining a woman priest as of equal gravity with clergy sexually abusing children.
Minnesota is something of a womenpriest hotbed. The movement has four active regions; the Midwest is second largest, after the West. California claims the most womenpriests-but Minnesota has the most per capita, with seven. Venne suspects the politically progressive roots of the state and region provide fertile soil for the womenpriest movement. Currently, a handful of Minnesota women are exploring priesthood.
Most womenpriests are midlife or retired. “You can’t feed yourself on this-there is no income associated with it,” Wilcox said.
“It’s troubling to us,” Venne added. “We know there are women out there who are constrained by lack of financial resources.”
Both priests count their husbands among their staunchest supporters. “It would be impossible with an unsupportive spouse,” Wilcox said.
It’s also challenging with an unsupportive church hierarchy-but for women who don’t ask permission, it’s not impossible. The seeds are planted; the blooms are on the way.