by Dennis Dalman
At the altar, the Catholic priest made the ritual preparations for the Holy Eucharist – the sanctified bits of bread members of the congregation would soon ingest.
It’s called transubstantiation, a mysterious process in which Catholics believe the bread and wine are turned into the “body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
The members of the congregation – about 30 of them – then left their seats in the church and walked to the altar where they formed a semi-circle, waiting to receive the Euchrarist from the priest.
It was a scene – Catholic Mass – that has occurred millions of times in the past 2,000 years. But this time, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in St. Cloud, there was a major difference. This time, the priest was a woman – Pastor Mary Frances Smith.
Smith was assisted during the Mass by Deacon Bernie Sykora of Sartell, who will herself be ordained as a priest, along with others, next year at the same church. Their “church” is actually called “Community of Mary Magdalene First Apostle.” The congregation is allowed to use St. John’s Episcopal Church as their meeting place at 1 p.m. the second Sunday of every month.
The congregation of Mary Magdalene First Apostle includes people of all ages, including numerous nuns from the greater St. Cloud area who believe women priests are long overdue in the Catholic Church, even though the Pope does not condone ordaining women as priests. In fact, critics of the international Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement, as it’s known, claim these women priests are not, in fact, women priests, that they are not legitimate and therefore the Masses they preside over are not the real thing. Women priests and their congregations, however, insist the opposite – that they are every bit as legitimate in the eyes of God as their male counterparts are.
Sykora said Roman Catholic women priests obey their conscience and they are “loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call to change an unjust law that discriminates against women.”
The women priests are trying, she said, to reform the structure of the church from within. Many consider the church “dysfunctional” because of centuries of patriarchal, hierarchical dominance by men. Women priests aim to reform through “ordination, re-imaging, reshaping and restructuring.”
Advocates also point out Jesus Christ did not ordain the apostles at the “Last Supper” and that churches throughout the centuries have discounted the important roles played by Mary Magdalene and other women. They also note during the earliest Masses held by Christians in Rome, often held surreptitiously underground in catacombs, women often presided at the ceremonies.
The Womenpriest movement, Sykora noted, emphasizes there is no hierarchy, no clericalism, no patriarchy and no authoritarian structure. There are no titles such as “Mother” or “Father” to designate priests. Bishops have no administrative power. There are no salaries given; women priests and bishops support themselves, and when they are ordained, they do not promise obedience to a bishop, as men priests must do.
Sykora has been a devout Catholic all of her life and spent five years in the Catholic Maryknoll community. After leaving that, she taught in various school districts in Minnesota for 25 years, earned a master’s degree in education of children with special needs and has studied theology, which has prepared her for her upcoming ordination. She and her late husband, Don, have four children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Celibacy for women priests is optional. Pastor Smith, for example, is married and the mother of several children. A registered nurse from Big Lake, she has worked in the field of psychiatry for 35 years. She also holds a master’s degree in theology. The Womenpriest movement notes celibacy was not always the norm in the Catholic Church. Celibacy did not become mandatory until the First Lateran Council of 1123 A.D., the movement likes to remind people.
Like many other women priests, Smith believes celibacy is irrelevant to a spritual connection through the Catholic Church.
“It has been as a Catholic laywoman that I have always experienced the Church, the powerful social institution that framed my spiritual life from my birth,” she said. “My belief in the progress of women in the Roman Catholic Church is very deep and strong. It’s my joy to stand with women and men who bring life and growth to the Church.”
There is another difference in the Catholic Mass as led by women priests. The words of the liturgy have been cleansed of male-dominant language. Jeanette Blonigen Clancy, a theologian and author who lives in Avon, is a strong adherent of the Womenpriest movement and a member of the Mary Magdalene First Apostle congregation. She scrupulously reviewed the liturgy of the Catholic Mass and removed male-dominant, hierarchical words.
“Language,” she said, “shapes the way people think.”
Blonigen Clancy, who earned her theological degree from St. John’s University, is the author of “God is Not Three Guys in the Sky: Cherishing Christianity Without its Exclusive Claims.” The book claims Christianity “mistakes its myths for history and its symbols for fact.” In that book, Blonigen Clancy explores many of the ideas that are the foundation for the Womenpriest movement, including a premise the Catholic Church and other religions have been warped because of what she believes are sexist, male-dominated hierarchies throughout history.
To old-fashioned Roman Catholics, the Womenpriest movement may seem shocking, rebellious and even sinful. However, many Catholics like Sykora and some nuns and male priests, welcome the movement, viewing it as a positive, healthy growth of the church into a more enlightened society. Even though the Pope does not approve of the movement, its adherents strongly believe in time the Catholic hierarchy will have to embrace the Womenpriest movement’s practices and goals or the Catholic Church will eventually wither, suffocated by what the Womenpriest adherents consider its inability to grow under the weight of a patriarchal system.
Women priests freely admit they have broken the Catholic Church’s “Canon Law 1024.” But they consider that law to be unjust and discriminatory against women. They insist their ordinations are valid because of “apostolic succession.”
The movement began in 2002 when seven women were ordained aboard a ship on the Danube River in Germany. One of the movement’s visionary founders and the head of the movement is Patricia Fresen, a doctor of theology and former Dominican nun, who is originally from South Africa and who founded the Womenpriest movement in North America. Fresen has been a guest speaker for Mary Magdalene First Apostle and will be present next year when more women priests are ordained in that church, including Sykora. Currently, ordained women priests are officiating in more than 29 states in the nation.
Many times women priests are asked if they have been excommunicated by the Vatican, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome.
The Womenpriest movement gives the following statement:
“Roman Catholic Womenpriests reject the penalty of excommunication issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on May 29, 2008, stating ‘women priests and the bishops who ordain them would be excommunicated . . . ‘ Our movement is receiving enthusiastic responses on the local, national and international level. We will continue to serve our beloved church in a renewed priestly ministry that welcomes all to celebrate the sacraments in inclusive, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered communities wherever we are called.”