Thursday, June 15, 2006
By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On July 31, a dozen well-educated, experienced Roman Catholic women will pass into uncharted spiritual waters on a boat cruising Pittsburgh's rivers.
On that afternoon, three women in vestments will lay their hands on the heads of the 12 women and anoint their hands with oil during an ordination ceremony that will be the first of its kind in the United States.
Among the participants is Joan Clark Houk, 65, of McCandless, who with seven other women are answering a call to be priests; the other four are candidates to be deacons.
It will be the fourth such ceremony in the world since 2002, all unrecognized by the Vatican. The women are part of a growing international movement to push for women's ordination.
The Women's Ordination Conference, based in Fairfax, Va., will announce today its support of the Pittsburgh ceremony, which will be held aboard the Gateway Clipper boat Majestic. Pittsburgh was selected because of its central location.
In a three-page letter dated May 9, Mrs. Houk, a member of St. Alexis in McCandless, advised Bishop Donald Wuerl of her plans. She has received no response. Mrs. Houk also sent a copy of the letter to all 360 priests in the diocese.
"It is a sin for the Church to discriminate against women and to blame God for it," Mrs. Houk wrote.
The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said the church "has determined that the ordination of males is a part of the faith handed down by Christ through his apostles and therefore the church is not free to change it. Ordination to the priesthood can only be conferred on a male."
The participants in the July 31 ceremony, Father Lengwin added, are ignoring church teaching. "I would say they have freely chosen to separate themselves from the church," he said.
Mrs. Houk is a cradle Catholic and mother of six. She has served as a pastoral director in two Kentucky parishes, worked on a marriage tribunal, taught catechism and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and worked with her husband, John, to prepare engaged couples for marriage.
"The church has to take a stand for women ... that they are the image of God and are to be respected and treated on an equal, human level. This is really why I have to do what I am doing," she said in a recent interview.
Presiding at the ceremony will be Patricia Fresen, Gisela Forster and Ida Raming, who live in Germany and are bishops in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an international group of Catholics who support women's ordination.
The women claim they are part of the church's valid apostolic succession because Roman Catholic bishops in good standing ordained them secretly. The women refuse to name those bishops to protect them from reprisals by Vatican authorities in Rome.
Ms. Forster and Ms. Raming joined the "Danube Seven," a group of women ordained on the Danube River near Austria in August 2002.
In January 2003, all seven were excommunicated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The women appealed but the decision was affirmed.
Ms. Fresen belonged to an order of Dominican nuns for 45 years. But she left her order in 2004 after she was ordained a priest in Barcelona, Spain, in a secret ceremony. Since 2004, she has lived in a small village outside of Munich, Germany.
In Roman Catholic tradition, priests and deacons are ordained in churches, but the Roman Catholic Womenpriests' previous ceremonies were held aboard boats, on the Danube in 2002 and on the St. Lawrence Seaway near the Canada coast in August 2005.
"To be honest, the main reason is that no Catholic priest or bishop is brave enough to give us a church," Ms. Fresen said about the ceremonies on water.
A boat is one of the earliest Christian symbols of the church. "Jesus ... taught from a boat. Some of the earliest disciples were fishermen," she added.
One of the outspoken disciples in the women's ordination movement is Ruth Steinert Foote, a board member of the Women's Ordination Conference.
In March, Ms. Foote brought Ms. Fresen from Germany to the United States for six speaking engagements in the Midwest.
"Everywhere that we went, she was received joyfully and loved. She is a wonderful, holy and grace-filled woman. Patricia Fresen is the person that will change hearts," Ms. Foote said.
In a recent telephone interview from her home, Ms. Fresen said her religious order's struggle against apartheid when she lived in South Africa taught her "a great deal about how to fight against gender discrimination. For me, they are parallel."
Ms. Foote, an active member of a Catholic parish in Cincinnati, is a medical technologist and married to an Episcopal priest.
"This movement is not just about the ordination of women. It is about making the Roman Catholic Church a just institution. If women are made in the image and likeness of God, they have the same potential to be called by God that men do," she said.
Christine Schenk, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and executive director of Future Church, which attempts to effect change within the church, will not openly support the ceremony in Pittsburgh, she said.
Last year, she attended the International Synod on the Eucharist in Rome.
"We took 35,000 signatures to Rome to petition for the ordination of married men and opening the diaconate to women. There was, much to my surprise, a very vigorous discussion about a married priesthood."
Last summer, Ms. Schenk attended the Roman Catholic Womenpriest ordinations in Canada because a friend of hers was among the candidates.
"I thought, if she had been ordained in the Methodist church, I would have gone. I have had a number of women Catholic friends who complete their master's of divinity and then are ordained in other faiths."
The Roman Catholic Church, Ms. Schenk added, has changed more than most people realize.
"Taking interest on a loan -- that used to be the gravest of sins. It was OK to have slaves. Some bishops fought to keep slaves. Eventually, church teaching changed on that. 'The Mass will always be in Latin,' [Pope] Pius XII said. Six years later, it was in English."