Knocking on Rome's Door

Not since medieval times has the transition of power in Rome commanded such attention from those in power as well as from common people.

We watched Act I, death of a holy man, followed by Act II, the world's great and humble paying tribute to Pope John Paul II, whose contributions earned international respect. Now we await Act III, election of a new pope.

But one question haunts many of us: Where are the women in this drama?

Not among the cardinals who marched in red.

Not among the 320 priests who fanned out to give the Eucharist to the faithful assembled in St. Peter's Square for the pope's memorial mass.

Not among the choir members singing in Latin or even among the gathered heads of state, for the most part, except as spouses.

Our first reflex may be to despair as we watch a powerful church barring the door to women in this ancient ritual.

But take heart. We were there not only in the crowd but several times at the mike.

For example, the face of Alejandra Correa filled the TV screen as she read in Spanish from the Acts of the Apostles. Four or five other young women, some with long hair tied back or flowing, one with a close-cropped cut, later read various prayers of the faithful.

Women didn't get to play even these bit parts 60 years ago. The old boys' club was even more exclusive then. Women's active presence this past week was a sign of change, as was the presence of many rabbis and leaders of other faiths.

Just 60 years ago, as the Holocaust ended, the 2000-year-old breach between Jews and Catholics was filled with tension. But cultural change and the efforts of John Paul himself have created much tolerance. He ordered that these words be read at his mass: " ... in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God" (Acts 10:34-35).

Given that kind of change, it is possible to imagine that, despite Pope Benedict XVI's conservatism, in another 60 years women will be serving as Catholic priests.

Here's the evidence:

The Women's Ordination Conference, a powerful organization now 30 years old, is gaining momentum. It demonstrates for female ordination at every annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and puts persistent pressure on the Church through letter-writing campaigns and mobilizing Catholics at the parish level.

Seven Catholic women (the Danube Seven) were secretly ordained on the Danube River in June 2002 by bishops still in good standing with Rome, just as the first Episcopalian women were ordained in 1974. Female priests are now commonplace in Episcopal churches.

The Vatican quickly moved to excommunicate the seven, but the Danube ordination movement continues to grow. In 2003 a Dominican sister was ordained to the priesthood in Spain and in 2004 six more women were anointed as deacons--the step prior to priesthood--on the Danube. All the rites and procedures laid down by the Vatican were strictly observed so their ordination can someday be accepted by the Church.

There were also underground ordinations of women in Eastern Europe during the communist era, legitimate at the time though the Vatican now forbids the women to act as priests. Ludmila Javorova is one of the most outspoken of these today.

In July more women will be ordained to the priesthood, this time in international waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway, by two of the Danube group: bishops Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Gisela Forster of Germany.

These ordinations will take place in conjunction with the second Women's Ordination Worldwide International Ecumenical Conference in Canada. As part of that event, organizers will hold a seven-day caravan from Washington, D.C., to Ottawa with public demonstrations at bishops' headquarters along the way.

Watch out, Rome, the women in your church are gaining a sense of their own power and refusing to be silent. After all, they fill the pews, polish the candlesticks, and wash the altar linens. Many also do pastoral ministry and manage parishes where priests are unavailable or elderly.

And it's likely that the immense, unavoidable news coverage of the Vatican this month will make male control of ecclesial power ever more visible and obviously out of step with the world.

U.S. Catholics, in particular, may have a strong reaction to the spectacle of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, forced to resign as head of the Boston archdiocese in the sexual abuse scandal, given the honor of leading a memorial Mass for the pope from the altar of St. Peter's Basilica.

The shortage of priests is the biggest factor pushing Rome toward ordaining women. In the United States, 16 percent of parishes have no priest; they are instead run by a layperson, often a woman.

Some parishes are losing members to growing evangelical churches, especially in Central and South America. In Ireland, 58 percent of priests polled support women's ordination, to prevent the church from "dying on its feet."

Amid all this, the cast in Rome is conspicuously full of bald heads and bearded faces. Repeated references to "the Holy Father" and "Our Father in heaven" underline the maleness of the whole scene.

Noticing this is the first step.

Then comes reflection: God is not male. The leader of the Catholic Church need not be male. The people casting secret ballots in the Sistine Chapel next week need not be male.

As in so many other households, the church can just as easily be led by "la mamma" as "il papa."

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