Defying canon law and a Vatican decree that promised excommunication, four Roman Catholic women took vows as priests Saturday during an elaborate ordination ceremony full of song and messages of inclusiveness at a Protestant church in Catonsville.
Andrea Johnson, presiding as bishop, ordained two women from Maryland, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, one from Pennsylvania and one from New York in the sanctuary of St. John's United Church of Christ. The church was filled with family members — including husbands of three of the ordinands — and friends, including some who are employed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore but who support the ordination of women. Photography was limited to protect the privacy of those attending the ceremony.
In 1994, Pope John Paul II said the church has no authority to ordain women, "and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." In 2008, the Vatican further decreed that women who seek ordination or any bishop who attempts it immediately excommunicate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.
But the organization that arranged Saturday's ordinations, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, believes Canon Law 1024, which limits priesthood to men, is unjust and self-defeating.
"And we don't believe we can excommunicate ourselves," said Mayers, who was employed as a campus minister and religion instructor at a Catholic high school until her superiors learned of her affiliation with RCWP last year. By then, she was well on her way toward the priesthood. "We are still Catholic. We do not choose to separate ourselves from the church."
Mayers, who grew up in Chicago and Baltimore, worked for more than two decades in campus ministry. "About 10 years ago," she said, "I became very conscious and aware of a new calling — to be in full ministry alongside my brothers as a priest."
Mayers considered converting to the Episcopal Church, which permits the ordination of women. "But the more I thought about it, I could not bring myself to leave the Catholic Church," she said. "I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I wanted to remain faithful to the traditions and the way my parents brought me up. I was a child of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII."
Mayers, whose parents are deceased, said her siblings and other relatives "had a lot of questions" but were "very supportive" of her decision to seek the priesthood.
Roman Catholic Womenpriests traces its origins to the so-called Danube Seven, a group of women who were ordained aboard a ship in the river in 2002 by three male bishops. Two of those bishops were never publicly identified, while the third, an Argentine named Romulo Braschi, was called a "founder of a schismatic community" by the Vatican. The seven women were excommunicated, but RCWP believes their ordinations were legitimate, providing the "apostolic succession" that made all subsequent ordinations legitimate.
Andrea Johnson, the woman who presided at Saturday's ordination, was ordained a bishop by a woman who traces her legitimacy to the Danube Seven. RCWP claims more than 40 ordained priests and four ordained bishops in the United States, and more in Canada and Europe.
Asked for comment, Sean Caine, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, did not specifically address RCWP or Saturday's ordination. "Women have long held positions of leadership and authority in the archdiocese," he said. "They serve as Catholic school administrators, directors of centers of charitable outreach, as well as diocesan and parish leaders. Their dedicated and able service remains and will continue to be an integral component of our ministry to the people of this Archdiocese."
Gloria Carpeneto, a grandmother and leader of a Baltimore spiritual community who was ordained three years ago, says the RCWP mission is less about protest than about establishing "a renewed vision of church" and "a renewed vision of priestly ministry." It's an inclusive vision of what a church should be.
The women who've been ordained through RCWP have day jobs and families, husbands or partners; they are out in the community and not confined to a building or parish, Carpeneto said. They are teachers, social workers, spiritual directors. They do all the things Catholic priests do, and they celebrate Mass twice a month — usually once at St. John's, once at someone's house — and with anyone who wishes to attend.