Fighting Tradition, A Catholic Womanpriest Leads Mass in East Village

Friday, December 16, 2011

This is not a traditional church. In fact, it’s just the community room of a residential building in the East Village. Paper signs taped to entrance read “Private: Prayer Service in Session. Do not disturb.”

But on the second Sunday of the month, a small group gathers at 175 E. 4th Street to celebrate a Catholic mass, creating a sanctuary by dragging chairs into a circle and setting up a makeshift alter. A woman, Gabriella Velardi-Ward, leads the celebration, which is part of a growing movement worldwide that's changing who can lead a Catholic church.

“I was 5-years old when I told my sister I wanted to be a priest when I grew up,” Ward said. “She said ‘Ha, you can’t you’re a girl.’  I couldn’t put words to it then, but on reflection I realize that rejection formed my life.”

Ward was ordained in 2008 as part of a movement called the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The movement dates back to 2002 when a group of women in Austria and Germany wrote to three bishops seeking ordination.  

Two of those bishops -- whose identities are not known to Rome -- conducted the first ordination on a boat aboard the Danube River.

Seven women were ordained and since then the movement has grown to 120 people globally.

While these people consider themselves Catholic, their work is not recognized by the church in Rome. And that holds true here in New York, according to Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  

“There are people who are constantly pushing for changes, renewal revision in the church,” Dolan said. “They’re some things that can change, and then there are some things that cannot.”

At a food giveaway just before Thanksgiving, Dolan elaborated on the church's position.

“Pope John Paul II was very, very resolute about 15 years ago and he said ‘No’ The best I can do in justice is to say we can’t do that. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I, too, as Pope, am a man under authority and I must obey the Tradition with a capital T of the Catholic Church.”

(Photo: A non-traditional church in the community room of an East Village residential building. Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

The argument in support of what Dolan calls tradition is the one most often used to reject the possibility of women priests. It was largely the basis of a letter written by Pope John Paul II in 1994 about reserving the priesthood for men alone.

Women's ordination is a violation of Canon Law 1024, which says only a baptized male can be ordained.  

In July 2010, with approval of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican issued a revision to church law which puts women's ordination on the same list of "grave crimes" as the sexual abuse of children by priests.

In the subsequent uproar, the Vatican did attempt to clarify that it did not consider these crimes on par with one and other. But the Vatican does consider support of women's ordination as grounds for automatic excommunication.

Take the case of Father Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest for 39 years with the Maryknoll Order and based in Columbus, Georgia. Three years ago, he attended the ordination of a Janice Sevre-Duszynska, whom he described as a long time friend.

By attending this ordination, and speaking out in favor of women priests, Bourgeois has been reprimanded by the Vatican and instructed to recant his position.

He's refused, and has written responses back to Rome and to the head of his order, the Maryknolls, explaining how he can not in good conscience support the church's position.

“The church stated for centuries that it was not against the will of God to have slavery. Well today, of course, we realize that that was a church’s teaching that was wrong,” Bourgeois said. “What we have here is another church’s teaching that is rooted in ignorance and in this case, sexism.”

Bourgeois said he is willing to embrace the consequences of his actions even if that means excommunication, although he has hired a Canon Law lawyer to defend his position.  

But even for those who are open to the idea of women priests — there's ambivalence.  

(Photo: A sign outside 175 East 4th Street. Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

“I can’t accept it at this point,” said parishioner Florence Rowe, who, despite her doubts, attends the monthly masses celebrated by Ward in the East Village.

The two are friends and neighbors on Staten Island.  Even though she participates in the services, she struggles with the idea of priest who is a woman.

“Because my upbringing, my whole life, a man taught the word not a woman,” said Rowe, “so it’s hard for me to change to take this as a concept. Although I respect them, and I respect Gabriella, but otherwise it’s very hard for me.”

This is not a new debate.  Among the scholars who have weighed in on the issue, Paul Lakeland wrote a book 37 years ago called, Can Women Be Priests? He's the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Connecticut.

“There is no sound theological reason why women can’t be ordained,” Lakeland said.

He continues to support women's ordination and knows another woman priest who runs a small parish just outside of Boston.  

“Most theologians would say that Jesus didn’t ordain anybody,” Lakeland said.

He added that the development of ministry took several centuries, and given what we know about men and women today compared to what we thought about men and women 2,000 years ago, “there’s no reason that ordination could not be extended to them. But there are many conservative Catholic theologians who would not agree with me.”

But for Gabriella Velardi Ward — and the other Roman Catholic Womenpriests — they are not waiting for permission from Rome. The change has happened. Ward defines herself as a Catholic priest, leading a parish, looking to enhance the ministry she provides to her congregation.

While the Vatican has clearly stated its position against women priests, the future of this movement will depend on whether everyday Catholics are open to embracing a new tradition.


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Comments [24]

Sir Knight

Shame on her this is so wrong!!!!

Jan. 12 2012 11:26 AM
john varela from Bronx NY 10459

non female ordination is as silly as the Bronx Parish Our lady of Mt. Carmel hosting the Sunday mass for hispanics in the basement between the boiler and the toilet while the latin, english and italian mass is held in the main chapel. I have lost respect for the catholic church. Incidentally, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel hired as a principal for its catholic school noe other than frank Borzillieri a published hate monger.

Dec. 21 2011 08:58 AM
Anne Dowling from Bronx

To those who say it will never happen let's look at the progress made in the last few years. Not too long ago conversations, media coverage, public displays of support were rare. Now the issue of Womens Ordination is clearly on the radar screen. The Vatican's labeling it a "grave sin" on a par with child molestation, outraged many and served to generate more support. The Church needs the leadership of women. It just makes sense.

Dec. 20 2011 11:07 PM
Liz from Washington

That women cannot be ordained is not an infallible issue. John Paul made a statement but he did not render that statement infallible. In early church history women were acting as priests and bishops and that history is now coming out. Rome has tried to hide much of the history that is now coming out. These women were ordained by a Bishop from the RC church and their ordination is valid. It does go back to apostolic succession. The men who do not want to recognize women's ordination are close minded and do not recognize that the Spirit is moving and changing things. In studying church history the RC church is regressing and trying to put their priests back on a pedestal. There was a lot of abuse in medieval church history and the RC church continues with abuse today to keep control. They need to wake up and realize that God came for ALL, not only men.

Dec. 20 2011 12:17 PM
Mzee Mzima from Africa

I hope when this is done, the new will arise, i.e., demanding God to also let men be pregnant.

Dec. 20 2011 07:22 AM
Michael from Upstate New York

I belong to a group that conducts home masses on a regular basis. We have priest present when we can. Those occurrences are few and far between, given their scarcity. Often, out of necessity the liturgies are officiated by members of the group, male and female. Our faith journey is remarkable. Dolan and the Roman Tradition are leading themselves down a path of irrelevance. I will not be a part of that journey.

Fabulous article, Brigid. Consider following up with a visit to Spiritus Christi church in Rochester. These are the folks doing Christ's work, every day. They are inclusive. Doing His work, every day. Their tremendous success is underscoring the shameful misguided edicts of our (male) Rome church leaders.

Dec. 19 2011 07:39 PM
Jim McCrea

Ed from Larchmont: there are NO valid theological reasons why women cannot be ordained.

What there are, however, are a lot of self-serving, self-protecting excuses offered by the males who continue to make the rules. Nothing valid - just protecting the Old Boyz Clubz that continue to Occupy the RC Church.

Fie on them.

Dec. 19 2011 04:21 PM
LOUIS JEROME from Staten Island, New York

These ladies have very little respect for the Church as the Bride of Christ. The Church in her wisdom through her Supreme Pontiff, has declared infallibly that women cannot be ordained to the holy priesthood! (Pope John Paul II-1994). The great Saint Teresa (little flower) expressed a desire to be a priest as well! But she knew that it was not God's will as expressed through his Holy Church! Sincerely, Father Jerome

Dec. 18 2011 01:17 PM

If Jesus was the sacrafice for ALL sin and sinners, then how is it one half of our population is still unforgiven?

Dec. 18 2011 10:12 AM

cool...............about time !

Dec. 18 2011 08:11 AM
Tom Kelty

There are no convincing theological reasons why
women can not be ordained. There is one over-riding factor most to you ignore.
"Bless me sister,for I have sinned."
You can not imagine what a difference female priests would have brought to Catholicism.
Male priests would cringe at the very notion of seeking absolution from the very misnamed
weaker sex.

Dec. 17 2011 04:21 PM
Barbara Blough from Chicago, IL

Well, Ed from Larchmont, exactly which biologic feature of a man's body, not shared by women, does he need to be a priest? You are correct about your first comparison because women have a womb and men don't. Men provide the seed, which women cannot, right? It takes two, right? But that's to assure biological diversity, essential to continued life. This has absolutely nothing to do with the priesthood, which is a CAREER/CALLING. Again, which part of a man's anatomy, not shared by women, is essential to being a priest?

Dec. 17 2011 11:25 AM
Patricia Russell from New York

Great commentary on RCWP. Great to hear that the only reason we don't have Women priests is "T"radition. Did Jesus follow "T"radition? Thanks Brigid.

Dec. 16 2011 06:28 PM
Keith P from NYC

My Aunt Donna Singles, or Sister Donna M. Singles, (December 8, 1928 and passed away on Saturday, January 15, 2005) left her convent in Nazareth Michigan to become a theology professor in France, where she supported the Ordination of women. In one of her editorials she wrote: “We are persuaded that the last word has not yet been said, that the Church is embarked, whether it wants to or not, upon a process which places it more and more in the position of having to accept and welcome the presence of women at all levels of public life of the Church and in all actions of the New Covenant. The institution cannot return to the past. It is already too late, for the idea is well launched now that there is no solid theological reason prohibiting Christian women from participation in all areas of the life of the Church. One day it will happen. The walls of resistance are already beginning to collapse. Is it, the more the Magisterium resists, the more it seems to give the impression that it is not in accord with the profound will of Christ? Too harsh an image? Perhaps, but the categorical refusal of the Magisterium to ordain women makes one think that it is perhaps motivated by some sentiments connected more to a nostalgia for the past and to personal reluctance than to the will of the disciple to follow his master.’’

She was an intellectual theologian, arguing this issue at the Catholic University in Lyon, and I am proud of her.

Dec. 16 2011 04:12 PM
Albert Cooper from Norwich England

These women have formed their own church,a protestant Church as thousands more in th U.S.A and elsewhere.Its Mother Church but not women priests,our Blessed Lady the mother of our Savior The Immaculate Conception

Dec. 16 2011 01:26 PM
Mary from Californai

Sadly, I have gone to some of these services and they are just a copy of the traditional mass and dogma. I agree, break free, become your own people. It can be so much more joyful. Jesus would want it that way.

Dec. 16 2011 12:51 PM
Mary Rosiland from california

To me it seems sad to see these woman clinging to this patriarchal, misguided denomination. Break free. Consiser the United Church of Christ. That denomination has long recognised the full human dignity of all people created in God's image.There is too much sin embedded in the structure of the RC Church for it to heal.

Dec. 16 2011 10:30 AM
glork from GlenRidge, NJ

Sadly, we all know deep down that this will never change- not for our generation or for our daughters and granddaughters. Look to the history and structure of the Church for an explanation. The Church is not obligated to change with the times but rather to uphold the ancient traditions as Archbishop Dolan pointed out. We must learn in turn to draw away from corporate worship and turn to private (and FREE!!) devotions.

Dec. 16 2011 09:44 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

The Catholic church will continue to lose parishioners if it keeps on track operating as a closed patriarchy. Any human being with an ounce of intelligence and humility should recognize that there is no intellectual, spiritual, or psychological reason why a woman - in any religion - cannot lead services and council their community.

Though raised Catholic, I do not consider myself one based largely on their discrimination of my gender. However, I applaud Ms. Velardi-Ward for doing the difficult task of embracing Catholic values and leading a spiritual congregation - even when she is not recognized as being "worthy" to do so by the church. I am also impressed by the bishops' convictions and Father Roy Bourgeois for standing up for women and being truly Christian.

Dec. 16 2011 09:44 AM
Angela N from New Jersey from North Bergen, NJ

I think this is amazing! The Catholic church needs to move into the 21st century regarding many issues. They are not a religion that is evolving with the times and because of this - are losing credibility and followers. Why the Vatican does consider support of women's ordination as grounds for automatic excommunication is ridiculous! So many people are forgetting what really matters because of some dated, sexist tradition.

Dec. 16 2011 09:38 AM

I do not understand why the words "Roman Catholic" are being used to describe this conventicle. Is the author just totally ignorant about the actual priesthood of the actual Church? Would she write a story about family life, based on the adventures of tiny children playing "house?"

Dec. 16 2011 09:22 AM
john from office

It is time for the Church, I am Catholic, to allow marriage for Priests and for women priests. It will end the attraction to the faith of the sick and perverted.

Dec. 16 2011 08:42 AM
Evelyn B from New York City

Like what?

Dec. 16 2011 07:05 AM
Ed from Larchmont

It's true, women can not be Catholic priests, just as men can't give birth. The women who were 'ordained' were not really ordained, though they went through the ordination rite. Perhaps they mean well.

There's lots of theological reasons why women can't be ordained.

Dec. 16 2011 06:23 AM

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