Catholic women priests fight for inclusion — for all

Catholic women priests fight for inclusion — for all | Di Ionno

Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger 
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on May 03, 2015 at 7:22 AM, updated May 03, 2015 at 8:59 AM

 Seven women were ordained Roman Catholic priests by a dissident organization called the Roman Catholic Womenpriests at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Morristown. The ordination ceremony was led by Bishop Andrea Johnson of RCWP. Morristown, N.J. Apr. 25, 2015. (Andre Malok | NJ Advance Media for
I was tired of people telling God how to be God.’ Susan Schlessler, ordained woman priest

The call to religious vocation came at different times in different ways. For some, it was a thunderclap, a great moment of clarity. For others, it was a building crescendo after a lifetime of being in harmony with their faith.

But the seven women ordained as Catholic priests last weekend in Morristown all agree on this: Their call to a religious pastoral life was genuinely sent by God and is as pure as any man’s.

“For me, it was when I received my first Holy Communion,” said Susan Schessler. “In that instant, I felt a very personal bond with Christ that was not breakable. Christ was there to me, and I was there to Christ. Like any relationship, we’ve had our ups and downs.”

Schessler’s communion was 68 year ago at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Orange. What followed was a life of religious service with the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell. She taught school, directed religious education and then immersed herself in helping children in the inner cities.

But she — like the other women ordained last weekend and their sister priests around the world — had a growing dissatisfaction with the “lack of inclusivity” and “ego domination” of the male hierarchy.

“I was tired of people telling God how to be God,” she said.

Two years ago, at age 73, she made the decision to seek priesthood and said “the freedom that came with that decision is the freest I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Inclusivity is a word the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) organization is built upon. The movement began in Germany in 2002 with seven women who were ordained on the Danube River by an Argentine Catholic bishop who cut his ties to Rome and began a church he believed would be more progressive.

Those women chose ex-communication by Rome, which, simply put, is like leaving a club you were never allowed to join.

So they started their own branch of the club and there are now 208 women priests worldwide, following Saturday’s ordainment.

“We did not leave our religion. We love being Catholic; it is a faith of great hope and great promise,” said Andrea Johnson, a self-described “Jersey Girl” from Ventnor, who is bishop of the Eastern Region of the RCWP in Annapolis, Md.

Again, simply put, the women believe the Catholic faith is to the Vatican what democracy is to the U.S. government. One is a philosophy, the other is a hierarchical bureaucracy.

Johnson ordained the seven women at Morristown’s (Episcopalian) Church of the Redeemer. In her homily, she described the “mission of Roman Catholic Women Priests (as) standing firmly within Roman Catholic tradition, yet pushing the envelope and creating a safe and welcoming space for all.”

“We are obedient to the Holy Spirit and disobedient to unjust laws,” said Kathleen Gibbons Schuck, 59, a Summit native now living in Blue Bell, Pa.

Her moment of clarity came in 2012 after Mass one day. She was deeply involved in her local parish as a Eucharistic minister, Gospel reader, teacher and fundraiser, but the monsignor always greeted her husband first.

“My daughter (Ann, then 15) asked, ‘Why is that monsignor treats Daddy so differently than he treats you?’ ” Schuck said. “That was like the wake-up call. I remember in my own (church) upbringing that the women did the work and the men made the decisions. I thought it was time to stand up.”

The entrance hymn to the ceremony was “All Are Welcome,” as a procession of clergy accompanied the seven women through the ornate stone edifice and nave of the Gothic church. It’s interesting to note that the Church of the Redeemer started in 1852, breaking off from another Episcopal church in Morristown that was pro-slavery.

That progressive tradition is obviously still alive, as the church welcomed not only the women priests but a group of married male Catholic priests who also practice outside the reach of Rome.

One is Michael Corso, who was ordained in the Archdiocese of Newark in 1983, but left to marry. He is the pastor of Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community in Sparta. The church was founded by Mary Ann Schoettly, New Jersey’s first RCWP member who was ordained six years ago. Schoettly, a mother of three and a grandmother, died last July.

The ceremony followed the rituals of ordainment for male priests. The women lay on the church floor in “prostration,” a symbol of humility during the long Litany of Saints. In the most emotional moment of the ceremony, the congregation joined in the “laying of hands” on the women, a tradition that invokes the Holy Spirit. The women had their hands anointed with oil and received their vestments, chalices and patens. Then, with hands clasped together and held high, they were celebrated as new priests by the estimated 400 people in attendance who stood and cheered.

But the differences between Rome-scripted ordainment and the RCWP’s ceremony were apparent. One was the gender-neutral liturgy. The word Lord was absent. God was not exclusively called Father, but Creator God, Creator Spirit and Life-Giving Mother, Gentle Father. Christ’s disciples, a heavily male-oriented word, were described as friends. The prayer over the Eucharist is said by the whole church, meaning the congregation shares the power to bring the body and blood of Christ into their midst.

The women priests and other clergy also received Holy Communion last, not first, a RCWP tradition that speaks to a “leadership of servanthood” rather than “privilege,” as Johnson said in her homily.

Most important, the RCWP does not believe their priests are more godly than anyone else. In the Roman Catholic Church tradition, male priests are said to be ontologically changed by the Holy Spirit when they are ordained.

“I’m no more or less divine than I’ve always been,” said Schuck. “We believe the Holy Spirit is equally present in everyone.”

The women, and the men who support them, don’t see themselves as pioneers as much as the first standard-bearers of inevitable change.

“Most of these women were already (experienced) ministers; for them, this is a reality that already exists,” Corso said. “This is just the beginning of their acceptance.”

All the women hold various or multiple masters or doctoral degrees in education, health, social work and theology. Some came from the business world, like Schuck, who was a telecommunications executive; others, like Schessler, spent years in religious service. Now, they will serve in what they call “inclusive Eucharistic ministries” in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

“We bring an aspect of inclusiveness that people want,” Johnson said. “We are as capable, if not more capable, of doing the pastoral work our communities need.”

And like any social change, the old rules will seem archaic to future generations.
“I think when people look back in, say, 100 years, they’ll ask, ‘What was the big deal?’ ” Schuck said. “And really, what was the big deal?”

Mark Di Ionno may be reached at Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.

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