Prayerful quest for acceptance

Female priest does battle with Catholic Church

November 11, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Eileen McCafferty DiFranco doesn't look like a radical. But once she dons her vestments, this wife, mother, grandmother and school nurse becomes a revolutionary in the battle to expand the role of women in the Catholic Church.

There she was on a recent Sunday morning, standing before the altar in a suburban Philadelphia chapel, violating the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church by celebrating Mass, a role reserved for men.

DiFranco was among eight women who were ordained priests in July, in a ceremony the Catholic Church does not recognize. Some of the approximately 40 other women in Europe and North America who have taken this step have been excommunicated. But the Philadelphia native says the women are willing to risk separation from the church because of their devotion to it.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions about the debate over ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church misspelled the name of activist Bridget Mary Meehan.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I think that the failure of the church to recognize the priestly service of women is spiritual abortion," she says. "It cuts off what might have been."

The crusade for the ordination of female priests comes to Baltimore tomorrow for the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. One national advocacy group plans to gather in "prayerful protest" with women conducting a liturgy outside the Basilica of the Assumption while cardinals and bishops celebrate Mass inside.

Advocates for female priests believe that the position should be open to all baptized Catholics, particularly considering the personnel issues now confounding the Catholic Church. The current population of priests is graying, and religious vocations are declining in the United States. Yet Catholic authorities insist that the church has no authority to change centuries of unbroken tradition and doctrine that states that priests symbolically represent Jesus, and therefore cannot be women.

So far, the daily life of DiFranco, a 54-year-old mother of four, hasn't changed much. She spends about 20 hours preparing the homily for Masses she celebrates every other week at an Old Catholic congregation. The denomination broke from Rome in the 19th century.

DiFranco grew up in a blue-collar, ethnic neighborhood of Philadelphia and attended Catholic schools. She describes her family as "very observant," but "not in awe of priests or nuns."

"They just regarded priests and nuns as very human beings."

She was moved by a desire to help the oppressed and rally against injustice, but her high school experience alienated her from religion, particularly the cruelty she witnessed in certain priests and nuns.

"If these people are examples of what religion means," she thought, "I don't want any part of it."

But her faith was reinvigorated on an intellectual level as a student at Immaculata University, a Catholic college outside of Philadelphia. She came to admire the poetic language of the King James Version of the Bible. And she found herself engrossed by the Gospels for the first time, thanks to a Protestant professor.

"I didn't have to put my brain on hold to understand the Gospel," she says. "I was hooked - I was hooked on the Bible."

But her Catholic religious observance remained more dutiful than heartfelt. She even considered converting to the Lutheran Church after enduring "one too many really stupid sermons" at her neighborhood parish.

"I looked at my husband and said, `I am never coming back here,'" DiFranco said.

But at age 34, she found St. Vincent de Paul parish in Germantown, where she says "the people and the priest were living out the Gospel" through their social justice work and meaningful worship.

"I thought, I can belong here," she says, and she stayed for 20 years.

One day, a close friend suggested she enter a nearby Lutheran seminary. DiFranco said she had always had a yearning to preach but as a woman, "you've been told you don't have a call," she said.

She enrolled in the Lutheran seminary in 2000, "never, ever assuming I would be ordained." Now DiFranco is three classes away from a master's degree in divinity.

As her four children, who range in age from 17 to 29, grew older, she began to devote more time to causes such as Catholic women's ordination. People kept asking when she would pursue the priesthood herself.

"People said to me, `We think you have a call,'" DiFranco says. "When are you going to do this? We need you."

"I felt very validated by that," she says. "It wasn't something that came from me. It came from others."

Through her activism she met Patricia Fresen, a Catholic woman who was ordained in 2003 in a ceremony not recognized by the church. Male bishops who supported the women's cause had performed that ceremony. Fresen later became a bishop.

DiFranco was invited by Fresen to prepare to become a Catholic priest, which required additional study beyond her training at the Lutheran seminary. In July, three female bishops anointed DiFranco and seven other women on a Pittsburgh riverboat.

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