Radical Roman Catholic women buck Vatican to become priests

By Kay Steiger
Friday, June 21, 2013 14:02 EDT
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Martha Simpson (courtesy Martha Simpson)
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When Martha Sherman was a School Sister at Notre Dame, she talked to her then-70-year-old Aunt Monica, who suddenly turned to her and asked if Sherman felt better suited to the priesthood.

“Here’s this woman, it’s 1984, and a 70-year-old woman saying I should be a priest, not a sister. Like I was settling by entering the convent. So I just laughed,” Sherman told Raw Story. “I just said, ‘Auntie, women can’t be priests. You know that.’”

The words stuck with her, through the years, however, and one day, while filling out her membership renewal card for the Women’s Ordination Conference, she looked at the card.

“At the bottom of the form, it said, ‘Do you feel called to the priesthood?’ It just — I don’t know if it was the right time or whatever. I just started crying, and I’m not a crier, you know?” she said.

It was then that she got in contact with the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a Catholic organization that first began ordaining women ten years ago, when it allowed seven women to enter the priesthood on the banks of the Danube River.

This weekend, Sherman will become one of three more women in the Midwest who are getting ordained into the priesthood—even though the Vatican doesn’t recognize their ordinations, she feels it’s an important act of civil disobedience. Bishop Regina Nicolosi will ordain three women — Sherman, Bernadyne “Bernie” Sykora and Corene Besetzny — at the parish of Mary Magdalene, First Apostle in St. Cloud, Minnesota on Sunday.

“Being ordained on Sunday is a response to God’s call to serve as a priest and it’s also a response to a call to do canonical disobedience,” she said. She wants to “bring the church back to a fullness that it did experience for the first 1,200 years of its history where women were also ordained.”

The Vatican says that by ordaining themselves, these women are excommunicating themselves from the church. Sherman said, “I don’t view myself as excommunicated. It’s just totally meaningless to me.”

But while the Church hierarchy isn’t so friendly to the radial act and of Sherman and the two other women who will be ordained on Sunday, she does hold out hope that the church is changing.

In May, Pope Francis told a group of nuns from 75 countries that, “The ordained woman is a mother, she must be a mother and not a spinster! You are mothers, like the figures of Mary and the Mother Church.”

Sherman, of course, sees a different path for herself, and plans to continue holding mass at the RV park she owns with her partner in South Dakota. More an more women are taking the radical path of ordination in the face of the Vatican’s orders, with another joining their ranks this fall and seven more in the lengthy application process. She hopes the Vatican will see what they’re doing and change their mind. And she’s still heartened by what she sees as a change in tone from Francis.

“I feel like Francis is listening to the Jesus of the Gospel because it says we need to love one another and be inclusive,” she said. “I have hope that with Francis there won’t be the same weaponization of the sacraments that there was under Benedict and John Paul II.”

“He’s speaking the party line but with a different slant,” she said.

[Correction: This story originally referred to Martha Simpson and said she was in the School Ministry at Notre Dame. We regret the errors.]

Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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