“Is the candidate worthy?” intoned Bishop Patricia Fresen ceremonially, as lifelong Catholic Juanita Cordero stood before her in a pure white gown, about to be ordained as a priest. The question was asked three times during the ordination ceremony on Sunday, July 22, as one female priest and two female deacons were invested with the power to perform sacraments-a function forbidden to women under canon law. They are part of a movement from within the Roman Catholic Church that has been ordaining female priests since 2002, though those involved say that the tradition of women priests and bishops dates as far back as Mary Magdalene, whom they consider an apostle of Jesus. The participants in this movement fervently hope to be embraced by the Vatican, as other splinter groups have been before them.
Sunday’s ordination, witnessed by more than 100 invited guests, took place at an interfaith center in Santa Barbara that reporters agreed not to name in exchange for an invitation to attend. (Reporters also agreed not to print the names or orders of the nuns in attendance.) The women ordained Sunday join 18 others in North America who belong to an international organization called Roman Catholic Women Priests, which counts among its number approximately 50 female priests and deacons worldwide, including a few whose identities remain undisclosed in an effort to protect their jobs within the church. Also secret are the identities of the male bishops who ordained Bishop Fresen. Film and documentary evidence of that ceremony is being kept by a notary public, not to be released until the deaths of the male bishops.
At least two Santa Barbara women are studying to be ordained, perhaps as early as next year. Besides their gender deviating from the Catholic priest norm, neither the priest nor the two deacons ordained on Sunday-who are scheduled for re-ordination as priests on July 28-is celibate. Norma Coon, of San Diego, has been married for 40 years. Toni Tortorilla, of Portland, lives with her lesbian partner. Cordero, a newly anointed priest who lives in San Luis Obispo, is a former nun who has been married for 30 years to a former Jesuit priest.
The ceremony, which took place on the feast day of Mary Magdalene, also differed from the standard Catholic ordination in the names the presiding clergy used for God, who is ordinarily referred to as “the Father.” The female priests instead referred to “Mother and Father” and to “God/de.” (The latter is pronounced like “God,” with the silent, extra letters hinting at a goddess that those in the ceremony declined to refer to explicitly.) Jesus Christ retained his masculine identity, however.
The reason that the women are determined to remain Roman Catholics, instead of forming their own church or joining another-such as the Episcopal Church, which ordains female clergy-is that they consider the Roman Catholic Church to be their family, albeit a dysfunctional one, and they have no intention of abandoning it. “It’s in my bones,” said Fresen. “It’s in my blood. There are a lot of things wrong within the church, but I love it, and the only way to change it is to stay.” They added that excommunication, contrary to popular belief, does not remove one from the church; it only means that one cannot receive the sacraments. “Nothing can put you out of the church once you have been baptized,” said Fresen. However, after the first seven women priests ordained on the Danube in 2002 were promptly excommunicated, none of the other ordained females has been excommunicated.
“The meaningfulness of the Catholic tradition to me is the long history of mysticism in the church,” said priest Victoria Rue, who also teaches theology and theater at San Jose State University. She finds particular inspiration in the women mystics of the Middle Ages. “Priesthood,” added Rue, “is about leadership within the community.” There are many types of ministries to which people are called, she said, concluding, “I feel called to the ministry of the liturgy,” which she described as communal worship.