The Table

The award-winning documentary, Radical Grace, made its Italian debut at the 19th annual Religion Today Film Festival last Thursday evening in Trento. As the foremost international film festival dedicated to showcasing religion and culture, Religion Today brought together 53 films from 26 countries, selected from more than 270 applications during its two-week run. At the heart of the festival is education and interfaith dialogue on issues of peace, human rights, and gender.

Radical Grace screened as part of a double-feature with the 2016 Israeli film, Measures of Merit, telling the story of Ruth Colian who set out to establish the first ever-political party for the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi women and her campaign to run for the Israeli Knesset in 2015. Haredi women are the only segment of Israeli society that are not represented in the Knesset. The influence of the Rabbis depicted in the film is extreme: in one case the film showed Ruth canvasing for herself, when a woman told her, “I will take that when my rabbi hands it to me.” Most striking was the language that the Rabbis used to define gender roles and “divine patriarchy,” which could have been swapped seamlessly with the reasoning from some members of the Catholic hierarchy. 

Religion Today Film Festival Poster seen around Trento

Religion Today Film Festival Poster in Trento

Between the films, Italian journalist Adele Gerardi briefly interviewed Ruth Colian and me as a representative of Radical Grace and WOC. Gerardi asked about the Women’s Ordination Conference and our mission, how one can be a feminist and a Catholic (a classic), and how the sisters are doing now. Not wanting to spoil the film, I shared just how unified the U.S. sisters have become, and now especially, how they know Catholics are behind them.

Radical Grace screened late into the night but the audience stayed until the very end. Afterwards, the woman next to me gave me a tearful hug, “Brava, brava grazie!” and groups of students and younger viewers came up to me to talk about the movement. One university student in particular, first told me how many times she cried throughout the film, but also how she is so thrilled to know that WOC exists, that people are working in this issue. The next morning I had an email from her, subject line: “How do I support your cause?”

I had worried that the “Ryan budget,” the “ACA,” and more American-focused themes might be confusing for an Italian audience, but I realized that while those issues are confusing, what the Nuns on the Bus (“suore in Pullman”) were doing is not. Social justice, courage, and humility translate just fine. (My WOC title of co-executive director, however, doesn’t quite translate as well and I suspect I got a promotion to executive producer in some translated conversations! Sorry Susan Sarandon!)

The next day, the Festival organizers arranged a short walking tour of Trento where I got to speak to more of the judges, film-makers and actors. There was great interest to bring Radical Grace to other festivals in Italy, India and Bangladesh, and in particular to have discussions around women’s ordination. True to the mission of the film festival, this cross-pollination of creative people and tools brought great dialogue and sharing. It was a true honor to represent WOC and the film Radical Grace at such an important nexus.

Radical Grace is now available on itunes and for community screenings, with discussions guides on economic, social, and gender justice for download. 


forcades-siamotuttidiversi-coverAt la Casa Internazionale delle Donne in Rome, Benedictine sister, Teresa Forcades spoke with Italian feminist theologian Marinella Perroni about a new interview-book, Siamo Tutti Diversi! Per una teologia queer (We are all different! For a queer theology), featuring Forcades. 

For those keeping close notes, these two powerhouses are a convergence of WOC’s recent programming: Teresa Forcades, a keynote speaker at WOW 2015 and Dr. Marinella Perroni, a panelist at our Jubilee for Women Priests. The October 3rd event took place in the same space as the Jubilee for Women Priests (although about 30 minutes late and with a cat and dog also present!).

Teresa entered the room like a complete rock-star, with flashing cameras following her to the front of the room. She spoke for nearly an hour in Italian, only deferring to Spanish a few times when answering very personal questions from the audience.

The heart of this new theology book, as she described, is understanding “queer” as a liberating identity that one continually creates, outside of categories and socially prescribed roles. Teresa described many of our saints and the historical importance and mobility of their queerness, their rejection of norms: Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, for example.

“Theology has always been queer,” insofar as it is a personal re-centering, interpreting agency of identity to the subject (the person) rather than the projected label.  Queer identities and embodiment are continually renewing, continually dependent on a relationship with God. The sacramentality is in every day.

In a separate interview with “Female Wor{l}d,” Marinella Perroni described queer theology as “an application of the criteria of liberation theology, a liberation understood as a promise from God and as a practice of freedom before God, for all individual human subjects understood and respected based on their most profound particular traits, those related to sexual development.” 

Sr. Teresa Forcades and WOC co-director, Kate McElwee

Sr. Teresa Forcades and WOC co-director, Kate McElwee

The audience, however, focused their questions on Sr. Teresa’s journey to the Benedictine monastery and her relationship with the hierarchal Church. Raised under the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco, her family considered the Catholic Church “a place of Franco,” and a place of the past that will die. Perhaps a similar comparisons to how many communities look to the Church today — imperialistic and aging.

However, not unlike many Catholic feminists, Teresa found excitement and joy in her experience of Catholicism through studying theology, particularly with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and through encounters with prophetic and pastoral sisters. When discerning her religious life, Teresa described conversations with nuns, questioning how they would respond to communities with AIDS and LGBT groups… and the nuns’ response was one of kindness and pastoral curiosity: “I wanted to learn to be like this, to look at people in their eyes…” 

Outspoken on the injustices of ordination, Teresa reiterated a common mantra of hers: power is linked to ordination and ordination is linked to gender, and that is misogynistic and must change. The ways women are “kept out” is unacceptable, she said. Though Teresa did not go into depth here, I would recommend revisiting the Teresa’s WOW 2015 keynote on a Trinitarian approach to “Feminist Ordination.”

The evening was truly an intense experience of the life-force of Teresa: a brilliant theologian weaving body, feminism, sexuality, autonomy, and liberation into a revolution called queer. Not another label, but an invitation to radically recreate one’s self in every moment as a projection of God.

Read More:

Teresa Forcades, the revolutionary Catalan feminist theologian, says: “We are all different!”

poster-rt-2016_1In its 19th year, the Religion Today Film Festival is set to launch in Trento from 7-17 October under the title, “We all loved each other so much. Religions and gender issues.” According to the festival website, the title is an homage to Ettore Scola, and “explores the portrayal of women and the female condition in different religious contexts and the challenges of gender diversity.”

A WOC favorite, the documentary film Radical Grace is included in the festival this year, screening with Italian subtitles for the first time. Earlier this week, I was honored to speak on behalf of the film and WOC at the festival’s press conference at the prestigious Casa del Cinema (where WOW screened Pink Smoke Over the Vatican for the first time in Italy in 2011).  

As the only guest speaker, my invitation was a curious spotlight on a single film, especially in light of some of the sponsors in the crowd. Nevertheless, I spoke about the pain of the investigations and the resilience and heart of sisters who follow a higher calling of social justice, (and the masses who support them!). It was an incredible opportunity to share the organizing efforts of the Nun Justice Project and the dedication of the women behind the film, who followed Sr. Simone Campbell, Sr. Jean Hughes, and Sr. Chris Schenk (and Erin and myself — I still love this montage!) for several important years.

After I spoke, one woman in particular came up to me to share that she had followed the U.S. sisters closely during the investigations. She said although she is not a feminist, she supports the sisters. As is true around the world, the language and labeling of feminism is culturally triggering and challenging in different circumstances. The word and the movement are so central to WOC’s mission and in particular Sr. Chris’ storyline in the film, I will be curious to see how the film is received here in Italy — praying that it draws out those faith-driven feminists I have been searching for!  (I’ve written about my conversations with Italian feminists and the pitfalls of language across cultures before on the Table, here).

The screening takes place on October 13th, where I have been asked to offer short commentary to the film before what should be a stellar interfaith panel discussion: “From Eve’s point of view: Religions and gender relations.” Speakers include: Nibras Breigheche (Muslim theologian), Elena Seishini (Buddhist monk), Selene Zorzi (Catholic theologian and former nun) – in dialogue with Anna Fedele (Center for Research in Anthropology – Lisbon University Institute).

Radical Grace has screened at 45 film festivals and 80 community screenings, driving deep conversation around feminism and faith.  The film is now available for community screenings and on itunes with discussion guides for Catholic-rooted and interfaith groups on themes of  women’s equality and social justice. 


cspjrspwiaetlifOn Tuesday, September 20, 2016 I was honored to be present at a special forum at the United Nations entitled, “Keeping the Faith in Development: Gender, Religion & Health”. As President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board, I went to support the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, as their director, Dr. Luca Badini Confalonieri, participated in this panel and presented a summary of the recently published Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives.

The streets leading to the extreme east side of mid-town New York were vibrating with the kind of excitement that only the coexistence of a sunny day in Manhattan, the convening of the UN General Assembly, the President being in town, and a street bombing just two days before could produce. A similar vibration of anticipation filled the hall where we gathered to hear ten interfaith panelists discuss the intersection of human rights, religious traditions and the UN’s goals for sustainable development.

Earlier in the morning, as I boarded the train from Connecticut, I had wondered to myself if the trip was really “necessary” and within the parameters of the mission of WOC. Although the link between supporting a document that champions inviolacy of conscience and WOC’s advocacy for women whose conscience calls them to priesthood seemed important to me, I could also see that some might see this as a peripheral issue and, perhaps, even a distraction.

Once the panel presentations and discussion started, however, I was in no doubt that I should be there and that pieces of WOC’s vision and values were on the table. My eyes were opened to a much larger theater than I had imagined, where “gender equality” is not a hashtag or placard in a march, but the reality of one toilet for women in a village of 16,000 people. My notes are filled with phrases like, “religious authority”, “sustainable goals”, “promoting health care”, “culture”, “dignity”, “scientific evidence”, “human rights” – but if we could make a wordle from that afternoon, the phrase that would dominate our cluster would be “GENDER EQUALITY”. These eminent scholars, authors, religious leaders and development experts from around the globe all used the phrase and emphasized that gender equality is the transformative vision needed for all societies. While undoubtedly there would be disagreements about the process of achieving this, there was unanimity in admitting the primacy of this goal.

I left the auditorium somewhat discouraged by the enormity of the challenge, but also proud to be part of WOC’s efforts to change the oppressive hierarchical and patriarchal system of the Catholic Church. We know that not practicing gender equality in the church contributes to the contexts and cultures around the world and here in the U.S. that tolerate oppression of women in very fundamental ways. As Azza Karam, the moderator of the panel said at one point, “Faith communities are signals of hope and therefore very necessary – but this also creates a deep need to interrogate the structures of patriarchy in faith spaces.”

We can all feel proud of WOC’s forty years of “interrogation” and, as we celebrate our 40th Anniversary, we look forward to renewed efforts to take the challenge of creating gender equality in our church and world into new places of collaboration and accomplishment.

Note: For a full account of the proceedings of this event, please see Jamie Manson’s article in NCR.

More than 150 folks gathered at Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines to hear Fr. Roy Bourgeois tell 253882_327964550650964_533596931_nhis story of activism, and the price he paid.  Though he spent four years – four years! – in prison form protesting the School of the Americas, when he tells of being released from Maryknoll, his hurt is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.  This man, so clearly called to be a priest, lost his official Roman Catholic credentials because he supported women’s ordination in a public way. (Read Fr. Roy’s statement from 2012 on his dismissal from Maryknoll)

That began a pretty amazing weekend, honoring the Des Moines Catholic Worker’s 40th anniversary.  WOC was invited to participate in and co-sponsor  this great event, and to moderate a panel on women’s ordination.  Iowa has a vibrant Catholic Worker movement, with several houses of workers in Des Moines, as well as locations in other cities, and at least two farms!  All of these ministries are attracting college and graduate school interns, young adults in permanent positions, older folks, people who volunteer regularly (many for dozens of years!), older folks, all races and ethnic groups, and folks all over the GLBTQA spectrum.  An amazing and wonderful array of God’s children!!  When folks in traditional Catholic parishes moan: “Where are the millennials?”, they need look no further than the Catholic Worker in Des Moines!

Fr. Roy sharing his story of activism and witness to more than 100 people gathered in Des Moines

Fr. Roy sharing his story of activism and witness with more than 150 gathered in Des Moines

The panel we moderated included Rev. Janice Sevre-Duszynska, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Rev. Mary Kay Kusner, and two young local women from the Catholic Worker and Drake University, Mary Traxler, Clio Cullison, neither of whom identifies wholeheartedly as Catholic.  We discussed a variety of issues, from the Pope’s commission on deacons to who each one of us finds inspirational in this work.
for blogWe also touched on Dorothy Day, the founder of the CW, for whom women’s ordination was not a big issue.  Of course, she was absolutely a woman of her times, having died in 1980.  A couple of audience members were quick to point out that the CW movement would see women’s ordination as a justice issue, just like racial equity, for sure, but that feeding the poor and listening to every person we meet is what they are all about.
Board Member, Marion Flynn moderating the panel: "More Listening, Less Judging: Imagining a Church of Gender Justice"

Board Member, Marion Flynn moderating the panel: “More Listening, Less Judging: Imagining a Church of Gender Justice”

I told the story of my college graduation, at Newton College of the Sacred Heart.  Dorothy Day was our commencement speaker, and I spoke on at the same podium.  She was a powerful and challenging speaker.  My talk is lost to eternity, but I know my call to the priesthood was apparent to everyone (and it was, after all, 1974, when we thought priesthood for women and married people would soon be a reality).  After the ceremony, Dorothy Day approached me, and asked me to think about the Chicago Catholic Worker, and she offered to make the connection.  As flattered as I was, I also knew that my call was different.  But I also knew that I had met the most significant woman I would ever meet, and that she had blessed my heart.

We are all so grateful to the people at the Des Moines Catholic Worker for the inspiring witness, and congratulate them for 40 years of service to the poor.  We love you all!

Further reading:
Roy Bourgeois in the Des Moines Register: Struggle for justice, equality continues in Catholic Church

Marion Flynn, WOC Board Secretary, studied theology in the 1970’s – and was certain there would be a path to the priesthood, having been called at a very early age.  She has worked as a banker and fundraiser, is active in her parish, and is honored, beyond words, to serve the cause of women’s ordination.  Marion lives in the Chicago area, but was born in Massachusetts.  She holds a BA from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

This is a report from Pastor Nancy Corran from the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community (MMACC) on the recent, “Church for Our Daughters” launch at the U.S. bishops’ meeting June 14th, in Huntington Beach. Nancy and several members of the community drove from San Diego to join the action… and then intrepidly took matters into their own hands.

unspecified-2Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community was beautifully represented at the “A Church for Our Daughters” demonstration in Huntington Beach outside the Hyatt Regency where the U.S. Bishops are meeting for their general assembly.  Thank you to those who went, to those who wanted to go, and to all, – it is your spirit we carried with us.

Those connected to MMACC who participated in the march were Carol Kramer, Vinka Valdivia, Evi Quinn, Catherine Murphy, Agatha Graney, Jane Via, Grace and Paul Prine, Tim and Ali Kirkpatrick who invited along Ali’s sister, Amy, and their 2 year old Tess, and me with Elizabeth.  We sang songs with our marching guitarist, WOC board member, Margaret Johnson.  We held posters and pink carnations as we processed along the boardwalk to the back entrance of the Hyatt.  

Our plan was to climb the staircase and cross a bridge into the Hyatt courtyard where bishops would be, but as we approached, staff security were already waiting for us, perched upon the stairs.  It had been decided by the leaders of the demonstration that this particular action would not be confrontational or involve civil disobedience.  While there is certainly place for such action, it was decided to proceed in the Spirit of Pope Francis who called for respectful dialogue and open encounter.  We hoped the bishops might also seize upon this opportunity to respond to the Pope’s exhortation.

Nancy & Tim K, 6-14-16 IMG_0257 (1)

Nancy Corran (and Elizabeth) and Tim Kirkpatrick from MMACC marching toward the Hyatt

Organizing groups from Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR) had: 1) bought a room at the hotel; 2) made lunch reservations at the hotel restaurant for 14; and 3) scheduled an appointment with one of the lead bishops at 1pm to deliver the declaration, extend an invitation to dialogue, and offer him a pink carnation.  However, the booked room did not afford our humble band hotel entry; we were told that our lunch reservation had been cancelled by the hotel; and we were told that the bishop denied making the appointment (although it is unlikely security interrupted the bishop during liturgy to check).  Bottom line, we were forbidden entry.  It was disappointing.  We read our declaration from the steps of the bridge to the Hyatt, about 5 individuals shared profound stories that illustrated the need for change in the church for girls and women, we sang more songs, and shared together in a ministry of presence. (Read Erin Saiz Hanna’s testimony here).

While the group action was unsuccessful in terms of our efforts to engage in dialogue with bishops, it was yet a peaceful witness which disquieted the patriarchy, forcing them to respond to us, even if it was with silence and silencing (and going back on their word).  However, some staffers blocking our entry softened to us and were even seen tapping their feet to our tunes.  The police presence was also supportive.  There were some onlookers from the hotel and on the beach.  Our pink mass stalled at the steps would have been seen from several dozen hotel rooms and balconies.  The Co-Directors of WOC, Kate and Erin, will send all our invitations and a bouquet of carnations to the bishops with our regret we could not meet.

Tess & Elizabeth IMG_0263

Tess and Elizabeth holding their ground

After disbanding, Carol K. Vinka, and I (with Elizabeth) decided to go into the hotel through the front door.  We were cautioned by the hotel not to take our carnations or paper invitations as we would not be permitted to hand anything to the bishops.  We walked into the hotel, still very pink looking (we all wore pink, the color of the campaign) and were permitted entry.  In the courtyard we saw a few bishops, including Bishop Bob McElroy, San Diego’s own!  After he got off the phone, we approached him. Carol initiated the conversation and explained that we were from his diocese and we were at the Hyatt with the campaign.  He expressed support for what we stood for, shared that there was (hidden) support at every level for our concerns, and believed the church needs to change.  Carol shared that her daughter had left the church and had no interest in returning.  He said he was surprised not more had left (!).  We would have spoken longer than the few minutes we had with him (as we had more dialogue in us!), but he had another phone call.

The four of us sat down to have a drink. Providentially, at just that time, all the bishops passed in front of us, mostly in twos, across the patio from the hotel lobby to the conference room where they were gathering.  I was able to approach about 4 of them individually.  I introduced myself, shared very briefly about our campaign, and encouraged greater support for girls and women in the church.  Vinka also shared with another bishop who declared, “I don’t support that.”  She also chatted with two other guests at the hotel (in German) who wondered at our pink presence in the midst of a sea of bishops.  Happily, they were very supportive!

We were told several (we do not know how many) bishops were made aware of our campaign and demonstration beforehand (which may have been the reason for the systematic shut down), so we hope our presence in pink inside the protective hotel walls may have made a few more bishops pause in wonder, if only for a moment.


Nancy Corran holds a Diploma in Theology from Oxford and a MDiv from San Francisco Theological Seminary of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley.  She received scholarships to continue studies in biblical languages at the GTU and also in exegesis, church history, theology, and praxis at the Universite of Neuchatel. Having long been attracted to many aspects of Catholicism, but holding untenable the church’s theology and treatment of women, Nancy made a profession of faith into the Catholic Church as embodied by MMACC during the Easter Vigil liturgy in 2010.  A member of MMACC from its first gathering, and having worked as a pastoral assistant at MMACC for 3 years, the community called her to ordination in 2010.  She was ordained on July 31, 2010.

The following “A Church for Our Daughters” testimony was given outside of the USCCB meeting in Huntington, CA on June 14, 2016 by WOC Co-Director, Erin Saiz Hanna:  

This September I am expected to bring a baby girl into this world. Like so many moms, I dream of a world

Left to right: Glen Northern, Regina Bannan, Erin Saiz Hanna

Left to right: Glen Northern, Regina Bannan, Erin Saiz Hanna

that is better — more equal — for our daughters than the one we had growing up. As an advocate for women and girls, it has been my mission to help shatter glass ceilings wherever the exist in Church and society.

As a young girl, I used to play priest all time. I baptized Cabbage Patch Kid dolls and the officiated the wedding ceremonies of neighborhood pals. I knew I could make a great Catholic priest but I also knew that because of my gender that being a priest was simply not an option. For many young girls this translates as “well, there must be something wrong with me then” or “I guess I am not good enough because I’m a girl.” The phrase “if she can see it, she can be it” is powerful one. The only way to truly empower girls is for them to see women in all levels of leadership and authority.

Having spent my entire childhood in a Catholic bubble – a small Catholic school, in a small town, in the smallest state and the most Catholic one  – it wasn’t until college that I saw an Episcopal woman priest in clerics. I sobbed throughout her entire service. The sight of woman who was able to answer her call to serve was a sight that I had never realized I was so desperate to see and was missing in my life. And yet I left that day knowing woman priests were still not an option in my religion.

My 5 year old son, Nico, has been fortunate enough to grow up knowing Roman Catholic Womenpriests. I am grateful to the RCWP/ARCWP movement for modeling what our institutional Church could be. He only recently learned that these women are not welcomed and excommunicated by the official Roman Catholic Church. It makes absolutely no sense to him because he knows them as good, compassionate priests and friends. It’s hard as mom to sit down and explain to my child that this is what sexism is and looks like.

Women’s leadership is imperative in all aspects of church and society and it is long overdue that our Church opens the door to the ordination of women.

We call out sexism when we see it in our schools, the workplace, and in politics, but when it comes to the Catholic Church, far too many look the other way. Women make up over 80% of parish administrators positions and yet, women are leaving the church in record numbers at the same time. Young girls are told that “you can be anything that want to be” and they believe it and see it to be true. How can I tell my daughter she can grow up to be anything she wants if it is not true in our own religion?

Earlier this month, here in the U.S., girls witnessed a woman become the presumptive presidential nominee of major party for the first time in our history. Ceilings are shattering in our society but the stained-glass ceiling of our Church is a thick as ever. Many young girls will not stay in Church that denies them equal dignity and worth. Our church has crisis on its hands and the only way we can begin to solve the crisis is by working together to shatter the stained-glass ceiling and to build a church for daughters that is truly justice and equal.

I pray the our Bishops receive our message today.


 Yesterday, Pope Francis made headlines when he agreed  to set up a commission to study opening the diaconate to women. The unexpected news brought much joy to the many women who are called to serve as deacons in the Church.  Maria Angelika Fromm is one of those women. Upon hearing the news, Angelika wrote to WOC:

My first reaction was joy. There is movement. My second reaction was that women need ordination too, not simply a blessing, and not something separate or different from men. The permanent diaconate should be the same for men and women, and together they can minister for the special needs of the people. This would be a step toward ministries without hierarchy. Lastly, the Commission should include theological, pastoral, and historical specialists, men and women, who have worked for decades on this issue.

This is Maria Angelika Fromm’s story about her call serve in the diaconate.

Ifromm was born into a very Catholic family in the German Democratic Republic, known as East Germany, in 1951. In those days, everyone who disapproved of Communism could mainly chose between fleeing the country or retiring to a private life. For my family, living the Catholic faith and having a close bond with our church community was radical in the political climate. My naive-pious grandmother in particular gave me the foundation for a deep faith. Instead of joining the youth organization “Junge Pioniere,” I went to religious education classes in the afternoons and realized that politically, this was not approved of by the teachers. This made me stand up for my faith and live with the negative consequences from an early age.

When the political pressure increased, my family decided to risk the flight. As poor refugees, we moved to a Protestant neighborhood of Lower Saxony in former West Germany. Again, I found myself in the position of being an outsider, as the daughter of poor refugees and as a Catholic in a Protestant community. I continued to stand up for Catholicism, in a very traditional way, before the Second Vatican Council. My faith gave me strength in this position as an outsider.

I started reflecting on my faith in my teenage years, and, caught in the spirit of Vatican II, started studying the bible intensely. I soon discovered the question of women’s rights in the church. I asked myself, why are women so irrelevant in the Roman Catholic Church when Jesus of Nazareth had no problem including them in his circle of disciples and as leaders in his ministry? I also became aware of the fact that in the early church, women were deacons.

Full of enthusiasm, I decided to study theology in Münster, where many important theologians of Vatican II were teaching. In their traditional way of thinking, my family could not understand this decision and I had no financial support. Regardless, I knew being in charge of a parish was my vocation. Following Vatican II, I was full of hope that the church would allow women to hold office. At that time, a feminist approach to theology was not known in Germany. However, I wrote my thesis on the role of women in the New Testament. This thought was new and had to be approved by the University.

WOC_Rome 111I completed my studies in 1973 and took a position as a middle-school teacher for German and religious education. The office of pastoral associate had not yet been established, but I was volunteering for pastoral care at my school and in the parish. Regardless of my title, I was in charge of my parish’s liturgy without a problem, and I could feel the spirit of change within the German church. With my own family growing, I continued teaching and developed children’s and family church services. I was happy whenever I could read books about feminist theology, which was established in Germany in the late seventies. I lived my visions of holding an office through my volunteer work developing liturgies, and as a teacher for children and youth catechesis. The longer I established myself within my parish, the more I began to win over many of the parishioners with my new findings concerning feminist theology and women’s rights.

Then in 1994 I was hit by disappointment when women were officially excluded from clerical office by the Roman bulletin Ordinatio sacerdotalis, despite all the beautiful words about women’s dignity from John Paul II.  It was now obvious that the unjust canon – Canon 1024—was going to remain untouched and that the gaps within the hierarchy of the church were going to increase. I had reached a dead end.

Hope emerged in 1995, when the We Are Church movement started in Austria and Germany. It seemed like a new chance to get the rigid church moving again together with like-minded people. From its beginning, I enthusiastically participated within the movement, pushing for equal rights for women within the church.

In 1996, I was one of the co-founders of Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) at the European Women’s Synod in Gmunden, Austria. It was here that I noticed the purple stole on Myra Poole and Valerie Strout, women’s ordination advocates from the UK. Inspired by the idea,  I brought purple stoles  to Germany and together with other women of the We are Church movement, we expanded its meaning to be a visible symbol of demonstration for the equality of women in a changed and renewed Roman Catholic Church. Since the hierarchy denied feminist theologians from even discussing women’s ordination, the only thing left to do was to protest, in a public display of the truth.

During our demonstrations in the ensuing years, we have had hundreds of conversations with members of many parishes who do not have a problem picturing a woman pastor in today’s Germany.

In addition to my activism for women in the church, I continued to be committed to pastoral care and service to people on a volunteer basis. How I live and what I do is based on my vocation to be a deacon. The service of a deacon, the way of life, exemplified by Jesus, is a basic function of the church and is a viable option for women. Furthermore, a number of German theologians agree that administering the sacraments is part of liturgy—that women are already functioning as deacons. I do not believe that the 2000-year-old office of the priest, embossed by men, with exceptions in the early church, is desirable for women. Today, we need an office based on partnership. The permanent diaconate brought into being after Vatican II, has unfortunately not been opened for women yet. I believe opening the diaconate for women, based in partnership, would be a trend-setting way for the church to further develop this office and furnish it with new powers.

There is also a spiritual reason for my vocation. The phrase “scars are eyes” can be applied to my life. Many obstacles in my life, including flight from East Germany, divorce, and illness have opened my eyes to the misery of others. I consider it my obligation as a woman deacon to minister to those pushed to the margins and to meet them at eye level. After being pushed out of the parishes in my diocese because of my criticizing the church, I went back to university to study Islam and I have been participating in interreligious/intercultural dialogue for some years now. I have a vision of being a woman deacon who serves as mediator and bridge builder between the religions and cultures.

The continual unfolding of the healing feminine influence and the commitment to a joint understanding of peace and justice in our societies, despite crisis, are sources of energy for me, which let me prophetically live and endure in the Roman Catholic church.

Maria Angelika Fromm writes to us from Mainz, Germany. 

This is a guest post from Roy Bourgeois, Jane Via and Janice Sevre-Duszynska on their Holy Thursday witness outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2016.

From 2002 through 2016, the Vatican has condemned the ordination of women priests. Since the ordination of  “The Danube Seven” in 2002, the Vatican has tried a number of strategies to quash our movement: excommunication, silencing, shunning, firing and ignoring. Now ten years since the first U.S. ordinations on the boat in Pittsburgh, the door has been opened for the first time.

12042642_10156649068295368_1510251452953464461_nDuring Holy Week, March 24, the feast day of Oscar Romero, in the era of Pope Francis and his Year of Mercy, a conversation — turbulent at first — began.

Outside the Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. on Holy Thursday, March 24th the three of us — two women priests – Jane Via and Janice Sevre-Duszynska, and one excommunicated male priest –Roy Bourgeois — washed the feet of supporters on the sidewalk in front of the embassy as cars and buses passed on the busy road.

We prayed and shared our statement of purpose to Pope Francis and the Catholic Church calling for the full and equal inclusion of women and LGBT people.  We read from Scripture, and prayed again this time that church leaders would remember Jesus’ teaching to be servant leaders and love all disciples as Jesus had. We thanked those who gathered with us, re-read our statement of purpose lifted up our signs, and – still in albs and stoles – stepped onto Vatican property and walked toward the door. We had no idea how our action would play out.

Before we crossed the circle drive, suddenly filled with police vehicles, we were surrounded and intercepted by Secret Service officers announcing we were trespassing on private property and had to leave. We walked past and through them to the door where Roy posted our statement then rang the doorbell. To our surprise, the door opened and Roy was able to hand in a manila envelope with a signed copy of our statement asking that it be forwarded to Pope Francis. Then, we turned to face the street holding our signs for passing traffic to see. They read: Pope Francis: Ordain Women, God IS Calling Women To Be Priests and God Created US All Equal – Gay & Straight.

10649795_10156649068380368_3534668190522680447_nThe officers began the ritual notice: “You are on private property. If you don’t leave, you will be arrested. Do you understand?” Over the next two hours, one supervisor after another, each higher than the former, arrived at the embassy and spoke with us. There were pauses for radio calls, the arrival of even higher supervisors and then the announcements would begin again. The highest authority, who arrived in a suit, announced that he was from the State Department. He threatened us with the dire state of the D.C. jail and “the very bad people” we would share space with if we were arrested.

Intermittently, two to three officers would disappear around the side of the palace-like building to confer with the Papal Nuncio and staff. Eventually, the officers told us the Nuncio would like to meet with one of us, specifically a woman. We declined the invitation, suggesting the officer tell the Nuncio we would meet if all of us were invited. After all, we were only three people, not a crowd of protesters. Told, “That was not the invitation,” we remained silent.

The day became hot. We were dressed too warmly in order not to be cold in jail if we were held. The sun beat down on us. Above, the Papal flag, yellow and white, fluttering in the breeze, provided occasional relief, blocking the sun.

More negotiations between the officers and the Nuncio followed, until officers announced the Nuncio would come to us.

He came up the steps and onto the porch alone, while his staff remained in the driveway. Officers joined him on the steps, standing on either side and behind us. Wearing a Roman collar, the man introduced himself by title and, although we asked him several times, he declined to give his name.

524771_10156649068230368_4349012172086201206_nHe engaged Roy first, who tried to speak for LGBT people, how they suffer because of church teaching, and of God’s love for all people. The Nuncio kept interrupting him. He was arrogant, insolent in style and tone, lecturing us on church teaching, as if its truth was self-evident. The exchange became heated, raised voices talking over one another. Officers closed in on Roy, ready to restrain him if needed.  Janice intervened: “The Church’s teaching creates suffering for LGBT people and they are murdered in Africa and Latin America.” “They commit suicide,” Roy said and shared the difficulties of someone in his own family. The Nuncio replied that the church didn’t kill anyone; these people had their own consciences; they made their own decisions.

The Nuncio then invited one of us women priests to talk with him inside the embassy. We looked at each other, then said: “No, it would have to be all three of us in solidarity.”

Roy told him that the church was hurting women and itself by not ordaining women. The Nuncio said that issue had been a closed door since John Paul II.

“You need to read Catholic theologians Gary Macy and Dorothy Irving,” Janice said as he looked at her intently. “Their research gives evidence of women’s leadership in early Christianity including deaconesses, presbyteras and bishops up until the 12th century.” His face revealed no hint of surprise. “The US church has lost 33 million Catholics because its leadership has refused to hear the voice of the Spirit within the people who embrace women priests and LGBTs. There is a connection,” Janice said, “between the church’s oppression of women and violence toward women and their children in the world.” He responded that the church isn’t responsible for violence in the world.

Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 2013 Getty Image

Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 2013 Getty Image

When the Nuncio finally approached Jane, after again refusing to give his name despite very polite inquiry, told us he had been Nuncio since 2011, disclosing his identity as Carlo Maria Vigano, the Nuncio responsible for inviting Kim Davis — who refused to follow federal law and give marriage licenses to GLBT people — to meet Pope Francis, sparking a media firestorm and public outrage that the Pope embraced Davis and encouraged her to keep up her good work. Then Vigano, in an indignant and derisive tone asked, “Where did you get those?” in reference to the alb and stole Jane was wearing. The irrelevance of the question resulted in Jane’s blank stare and his move away. His comment reminded us of the Rome police asking Janice the same question in front of St. Peter’s Square before detaining her during the March 2013 papal Conclave.

As he was leaving, we told the Nuncio we would stay until we were assured Pope Francis received our statement of purpose. He said Francis would eventually get the statement – which he said he already read. As he neared the side of the building to return into the Embassy, he said, “You can stay as long as you like. If you need something to eat or drink let us know.”

Shortly afterwards, officers explained that the Nuncio declined to arrest us. We could stay. Most officers departed, leaving only two vehicles, on at each side of the circular drive.

Minutes later, we heard noise above us as we stood on the porch, holding our signs. Looking up, we saw the Papal flag disappearing into the embassy.

It was afternoon by now. We had had nothing to eat or drink since our early, light breakfast. We were glad we were fasting, delaying the inevitable as long as possible. We talked further about our witness here on the steps of the Vatican Embassy, the Nuncio’s choice not to arrest us, and how to proceed. We decided we would “occupy” the porch and lawn of the embassy for 24 hours from the time our trespass began. We would sleep on the porch of the Vatican Embassy on Holy Thursday.

Vatican8During the hours between 1pm and 8pm, Roy stood with his banner on the Vatican’s porch while Jane — whose arm was in a cast from her wrist to her elbow — and Janice held our signs for women priests and LGBT equality on the lawn until nightfall. We attracted the attention of thousands of drivers on busy Massachusetts Avenue, many who gave us thumbs-up or tooted their horns in approval. We also made friends with John Wojnowski, 73, who was sexually abused when he was 14 by a priest in Italy. John, who has been protesting with his huge sign – accusing the Vatican of protecting pedophiles — outside the embassy for 17 years, told us the incident changed who he was. “I’ve lived with the idea of committing suicide everyday (since),” he said.

As night fell, the wind picked up and it grew colder. We sat on the embassy porch bundled in our light jackets as a number of police squads pulled up. A plainclothes secret serviceman told us we would be arrested on his way to talk with the Nuncio. Meanwhile, friends arrived to take Jane and Janice to a restroom and provide water and blankets. We took only one blanket each, thinking we would spend the night in jail where the activists’ rule is: have your ID and metro card only. Roy had a different perspective. Throughout the day, he repeatedly told us, “The Vatican is not going to arrest women priests.”

Not long after our friends left, the secret serviceman announced, “The ambassador says it’s okay for you to stay overnight.” Initially too wired to sleep, we sat talking. About midnight, another friend and supporter arrived with wine and paper cups. Having had no solid food since early morning and few liquids, we drank cautiously. As the day had become night, the warmth became cold, and the wine warmed us and relaxed us.

Eventually, we laid down in a row, our heads next to the embassy door, with one thin blanket between us and the concrete and our stoles as our pillows. We cocooned ourselves in our individual blankets, warm but not warm enough, draped our signs over our blankets, and tried to sleep.

Friday morning, we woke to a cold but sunny morning. We left Roy to hold down the porch while we sought restrooms and coffee. Then we returned to the lawn and traffic for more witnessing.


Photo by Bob Cooke

At 10:00 a.m., 24 hours after our trespass began, we prayed with one another and packed to leave. As we stood on the sidewalk, the Nuncio came down the driveway toward us. His attitude was completely different. He acknowledged our courage and thanked us for being nonviolent. He said he wanted to shake our hands before we left.  He told us that Francis knew we were there and that Francis had received our statement. Another discussion began, but this time, he allowed us to speak. Though he never showed agreement, he listened. He expressed his belief that the demise of the Protestant churches is the result of the ordination of women and that LGBT people are as they are due to some sin in them. We gave him brief condensed versions of our most basic arguments. At his request, his priest companion, who was watching our interchange, took photos of us standing together and smiling.

As we were preparing to leave a cyclist passed us, then stopped and backed up. A young woman of about thirty, she smiled at us and asked if we were there the day before witnessing to women’s ordination. When we acknowledged we were, she thanked us and launched into a description of the theology course she was taking at Georgetown, their study of Canon 1024 (which says only a baptized male can be ordained) and her conviction that change in the church was so important. At that point, and for the first time, she looked directly at the Nuncio, the only one among us wearing a Roman collar, and said, “I hope that you decision-makers will be supportive.” With a smile and a wave, off she went. The three of us watched her go in amazement.

At one point in the conversation, Janice turned to address the priest who introduced himself as the Nuncio’s councilor. He repeated what the Nuncio had said before:  that the Church receives its instructions from God. Janice responded that Holy Spirit Wisdom, Sophia Wisdom, works through the church, especially the people of God, and transforms our thinking; that women are in need of feminine images of God because without them there is damage to our souls; that men can be filled with hubris and arrogance from not experiencing feminine images of God; that we need women to celebrate Eucharist – as womenpriests do – with our sacred, holy, feminine bodies.  Janice asked him if he was aware of femicide in our world. “We need the Gospels interpreted from the experience of women living and dying,” she said. “God speaks through the Church,” he replied.

Janice looked at him and smiled as a thought came through. “Didn’t St. Francis of Assisi teach the church?” she asked. His eyes lit up and he smiled. “So do women priests and the LGBT community,” she added.

Farewells said, including handshakes and Italian kisses on the cheeks, the Nuncio left and we climbed into a cab.

We reflected on how events had unfolded in unimaginable and remarkable ways. We think the Spirit moved all of us, in and out of the embassy, so that seeds were planted in the hearts of decision-makers; but only time will tell. For us, a night in the DC Metropolitan jail sharing a bare metal bed with herds of cockroaches, will have to wait for another day. Meanwhile, perhaps the Vatican is listening…Like the persistent widow of Luke’s gospel, we keep knocking at those decision makers’ doors.

More photos from this witness, by Bob Cooke

Holy Thursday Prayer Ritual, by Jane Via and Janice Sevre-Duszynska

Bridget Mary Meehan’s Blog on the witness, including the Statement delivered to the Nuncio

In it’s third year, the “Voices of Faith” project, hosted at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV on International Women’s Day, brought together men and women in this Jubilee year, under the theme “Mercy Requires Courage.” I was honored to be included as a guest for the second time, and am continually grateful for the powerful platform that the Voices of Faith organizers have cultivated to bring attention to women in our Church and in the world. 

voices-of-faith1“Our speakers show that it takes courage to overcome adversity and become a leader. It takes courage to break through traditional barriers to access and provide education; to venture into war- torn countries; to help war victims believe in peace.” – Chantal Götz, managing director of Voices of Faith, an initiative of the Fidel Götz Foundation (FGF).

The first portion of yesterday’s celebrations presented powerful witnesses to women’s tenacity and strength despite every opposition. The depth of spirit and courage of these women and the witness of their experiences will continue to inspire me. I have never doubted the strength of Catholic women, and these women’s extreme circumstances and passionate resolve brought a stark and emotional reminder to the realities of many of our sisters around the world. 

For several of the speakers, the undercurrent of their story was access to education and opportunity – which often was coupled with an intervention or encounter with women religious or Jesuits. As many of us can relate: the prayerful relationships and the ministry of those on the margins is a saving grace. While we heard many “success stories” of women pursuing education, families resettled into safe housing and secure countries, speaker Cecilia Flores-Oebanda reminded us that it is, “back to the battleground…” — our work continues. Painfully, the justice in these stories seemed too isolated, often foundation-driven, and without systemic support. Several omissions were obvious, especially considering the number of times pregnancy and young mothers and brides were invoked without a sense of pressure toward the Catholic Church’s role in sexual and women’s health around the world. 

I was reminded of a brilliant paper given by theologian Nontando Hadebe during a meeting of  the “Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa,” at the Jesuit-run Hekima University College this past July. Speaking specifically about the kidnappings and violence of Boko Haram, and the Black Lives Matter movement:

“How outraged are we?… There just needs to be an institution that says no — no more! We need an institution that is outraged and that sustains that outrage as a prophetic teaching.” – Nontando Hadebe

After last year’s event I also wrote: “If only the church could institutionally and spiritually support these women in their work, and in the world. Imagine if the church hierarchy actually expressed faith in these voices.”

The second half of the afternoon was meant to “stir the pot” a bit more and focus multi-generationally and introspectively on the theme of expanding women’s leadership in the Church. Moderated by the international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Fr. Thomas Smolich SJ, five women had a conversation about “What women want.”

The first round of comments seemed to express a great satisfaction and pride with all of the ways women are the “heart of the Church,” working on the margins and taking leadership in their communities. A common statistic of women’s achievements in the Church was used, citing that several Catholic organizations and institutions around the world are run by women, and moreover 80% of parish work is done by women.  Dr. Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, USA and panelist, reaffirmed that “women’s impact is felt.”

At this time, I wrote in my notebook: “So everything is fine?”

The panel continued with some familiar but important sentiments of women feeling (or being told to feel) they are not Catholic “enough,” stories of questions and doubt in one’s faith (“Why can’t women do this?”), the realities of Catholic women feeling unwelcome. Here was an obvious absence of clear reasons why one might feel unwelcome in a parish.  However, very quickly the panel seemed to answer its own questions with the antidote that women have vital work in the church as consulters, advisors, role models, and mothers. There was great enthusiasm around possible ways to increase women’s presence through advisory appointments, consultative roles, and specific mention of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Family.

Living in Rome, I have come to observe this linguistic dance as “Rome double-speak” — praising women, naturally, and then engaging euphemisms about what leadership might be available without specifics. It sounds good: “visible at every level,” “women’s leadership,” but vague enough to let the listener imagine (or wish) the subtext.  In particular, the energetic remarks of Yale Divinity School student Nicole Perone, which championed that women can aspire and achieve any position in secular society, fell short in mentioning ministerial positions for women, or the “ordination requirement” to most positions of authority in the Church.


“What women want: a multigenerational conversation on expanding women’s leadership in the Church”

Dr. Carolyn Woo then shared a powerful and frequent image of a closed door for women: women knocking, knocking, but someday “they will stop,” and we will have the silence of not knocking.  Dr. Woo then shared five points, which elevated the panel and, admittedly, broke some hearts:

  • Women in roles of authority in the Church must move from being the “exceptional to the habitual.”
  • Are women engaged as family, as guests, or as guest-workers in the Church? 
  • Are the voices of women seen as threatening or enriching?

“I think because so much of the conversation, particularly the dominant conversations and the loudest conversations, have focused on women’s ordination — which is off the table — but whenever women plead, or speak, or recommend, or propose there’s this skepticism or suspicion: Is this conversation leading to ordination? Is this a slippery slope so that everything women want is eventually to the priesthood?… I think that is unfortunate because along the way we fail to hear … the voices of the mothers, of the single mothers, of the lay pastoral associates.” – Dr. Carolyn Woo

At this point,  I was shocked at this hard line, which considering the coded language surrounding the rest of the panel, felt cruel to articulate.  Ordination for women remains an open, painful, and crucial issue for Catholics around the world. For those who care deeply about the Catholic Church, justice, and empowering women “at every level,” this anti-women speak is damaging to any collective vision and work for the equality and dignity of all women.

  • What is the feminine genius? Often it is confused with women’s sensitivity: “But what about women as social critics or social activists like Dorothy Day? What about women who are scandalous like Dorothy Day and Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well?”
  • A sense that we need to talk about women’s rights in the world, including owning land, and options outside of “being married off.” However, women should not seek titles or privileged statuses.

(What a rollercoaster!)

In an equally painful moment, Geralyn Sheehan later affirmed Woo’s point by saying that she doesn’t want to be a priest. This individual reasoning fails to grasp the broader scope of the discrimination of women in the Church, and frankly misses the point. 

While there were beautiful and empowering soundbites throughout the panel, an opportunity was lost to speak truth to questions surrounding why women (and men) leave the Church, namely by dismissing the vocation of priestly ordination (and its current link to roles of authority in the Church), skirting issues of LGBT Catholics, and omitting the reproductive healthcare of women. If women continue to speak in coded language about “what women want,” then I believe we are knocking on the wrong door. 

I encourage all of you to watch the recorded video and engage your communities in discussion. The Voices of Faith team use the hashtag: #AllVoicesCount, so in that spirit, please use that hashtag and share your reactions on social media.

Again, I am grateful for the platform Voices of Faith have continued to cultivate these past few years: it is an important witness for women everywhere and a step forward for the Vatican. We at WOC pray for the International Women’s Day where all voices count, and all issues are on the table.


Recommended Reading: