Chicago active in underground movement to ordain Catholic women priests

March 29, 2013

By Judy Valente

WBEZ/Justin Mitchell
Jeff Halter and his fiance, Carrie Werner, came to see Mary Grace Crowley-Koch, and her husband Ron. The engaged couple's marriage ceremony will resemble a Catholic service in all aspects except one important detail: One of the priests presiding will be a woman: Mary Crowley-Koch.

An engaged couple nestled together on a loveseat in the living room of Mary Grace Crowley-Koch’s suburban home. They sat so close that their arms and legs touched.

“Did somebody special introduce you to each other?” asked Crowley-Koch.
“It was a completely random encounter that just worked,” said the bride-to-be, Carrie Werner.
“It worked,” echoed her future husband, Jeff Halter.
“Stepped out in faith and got a wonderful surprise,” Mary Grace said.
“I think we just pulled each other’s Lotto ticket, is what happened,” Jeff said.

Mary Grace and her husband, Ron, sat across from the couple, who were looking for someone to officiate at their upcoming wedding.

“Well, what we’re going to do tonight is we’re going to give you a booklet of options because we believe this is about your gift of love,” she said. “And so there are options for prayers, there are options for the readings, the vows, blessings and everything.”

The marriage ceremony will resemble a Catholic service in all aspects except one important detail: One of the priests presiding will be a woman … Crowley-Koch.
 
“I think it’s very sad the Catholic Church has not recognized the ministry and the gifts of women because Jesus did,” she said.

The Roman Catholic Church has said the ordination of women is not up for discussion. The church argues women can’t be priests because Jesus chose men as his first apostles, so only men can validly be priests. Pope John Paul II officially declared the church doesn't have the power to ordain women. 

But a growing number of women are pushing the issue through an underground movement. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the first underground ordination. At that time, a male Catholic bishop surreptitiously ordained seven women – including one American – on a boat in the Danube River.

Afterward, two of the women priests were secretly ordained as bishops. Those female bishops, in turn, have ordained more women as bishops and priests. So far, there are 73 American women in the priesthood. Chicago has been active in the effort, with three already ordained and another in the pipeline.

All the male bishops involved in the ordinations have remained anonymous under threat of excommunication. But the women have been quite vocal and public, openly ordaining other women even though they face automatic excommunication. They’re also speaking out and organizing protests, like a recent demonstration at Holy Name Cathedral seeking a greater voice for women.

The women celebrate Mass, baptize babies and perform other official acts reserved for male priests, like hearing confession. The marriages they preside at aren’t officially recognized by the Catholic Church, but they’re legal in Illinois – the women priests belong to the Federation of Christian Ministries, which is recognized by the state. Like any other couples, the people they marry still have to obtain a civil wedding license.

“It’s just so strange that a person’s gender would be considered as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ whether you could offer comfort and support,” Crowley-Cook said. Women priests often serve those who feel marginalized by the official church, she said, including couples like Carrie Werner and Jeff Halter. They are practicing Catholics but can’t wed in the church because Jeff’s first marriage was never officially annulled.

“I didn’t want to just get a justice of the peace and feel disconnected,” Jeff said.

That’s why the couple sought out Crowley-Koch and her husband, who will perform the service together.

“We’re still bringing our upbringings to the event, and it allows us to move forward,” Jeff said. “It’s also coming together with how society is today. It’s still traditional and we still have those values, and you can’t change what’s inside, but it’s bringing today into our situation.”

“Perfect, I agree,” Carrie said.

Crowley-Koch felt the first stirrings of a call to the priesthood as far back as nursery school. She imitated a priest at Mass, and passed out white Necco candy wafers as a substitute for the communion host.

“My mother had to tell me that I was not to continue to playing church at nursery school anymore because it was upsetting to some of the families,” she said. “So we just did it at home then. (Laughs.)”

Her road to the priesthood was long and full of surprises. She spent 17 years as a Dominican sister, earning a master’s degree in theology, and later served as a hospice chaplain.

“Oftentimes I would hear confessions,” Mary Grace said. “They knew I was there for them. They felt comfortable telling me what was on their minds. It validated me because it was the people of God saying, ‘Yes, we choose you.’”

Back in her living room with the engaged couple, Mary Grace shares the story of how she met her husband. At the time, she was still a Dominican sister and Ron was a Norbertine priest.

“Down the line, one day Ron just said after working together for a couple of years, Ron said, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’ “

Carrie Werner oohed in sympathy.

“The hard thing for me was that I knew Ron was going to have to give up his priesthood,” Mary Grace told the couple. “And I wanted him to make really sure that was it, because if you love ministering to people and celebrating prayer and Eucharist for them, and to have that taken away from you just because you’re getting married …” Her voice trailed off.

She recalled the moment she and Ron had to face their parishioners with the news.

“There was dead silence,” Mary Grace said. “We were planning to be ostracized but then all of sudden someone stood up and said, ‘Well, Mary Grace and Ron, we can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for us.’ And everyone applauded and that was the end of the meeting.”

Crowley-Koch now offers Mass, often alongside her husband, once a month at their home. She said they’re just following a tradition dating back to the earliest days of the church, when services in homes were the norm.

“It was a very simple thing, and at a certain point in time, we’ve added on and added on and made it more than Jesus ever had in his mind, I’m sure. And by doing that and making rules as we went along that were never there from the very beginning, we’ve eliminated half of the population.”

Crowley-Koch said she doesn’t think the clergy sex abuse scandal would have been covered up if women had been part of the hierarchy, and she believes that having women serve as priests is not just a matter of justice, but of creating balance as well.

“Male and female he (God) created them,” Mary Grace said. “And when you’re together as a couple, and when there are men and women working together on things, there is a balance there, and things come out much better than when one person or one gender makes all the decisions. So it’s my hope we can find a balance in this world and in our church.”

It would mark a momentous change if the new Pope Francis addresses Crowley-Koch’s concerns. Many church observers say the Vatican will probably approve a married priesthood before it allows women to be ordained.

NOTE: Justin Mitchell and Jennifer Lacey contributed to this report. Greta Johnsen produced it.