From 2002 through 2016, the Vatican has condemned the ordination of women priests. Since the ordination of “The Danube Seven” in 2002, the Vatican has tried a number of strategies to quash our movement: excommunication, silencing, shunning, firing and ignoring. Now ten years since the first U.S. ordinations on the boat in Pittsburgh, the door has been opened for the first time.
During Holy Week, March 24, the feast day of Oscar Romero, in the era of Pope Francis and his Year of Mercy, a conversation — turbulent at first — began.
Outside the Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. on Holy Thursday, March 24th the three of us — two women priests – Jane Via and Janice Sevre-Duszynska, and one excommunicated male priest –Roy Bourgeois — washed the feet of supporters on the sidewalk in front of the embassy as cars and buses passed on the busy road.
We prayed and shared our statement of purpose to Pope Francis and the Catholic Church calling for the full and equal inclusion of women and LGBT people. We read from Scripture, and prayed again this time that church leaders would remember Jesus’ teaching to be servant leaders and love all disciples as Jesus had. We thanked those who gathered with us, re-read our statement of purpose lifted up our signs, and – still in albs and stoles – stepped onto Vatican property and walked toward the door. We had no idea how our action would play out.
Before we crossed the circle drive, suddenly filled with police vehicles, we were surrounded and intercepted by Secret Service officers announcing we were trespassing on private property and had to leave. We walked past and through them to the door where Roy posted our statement then rang the doorbell. To our surprise, the door opened and Roy was able to hand in a manila envelope with a signed copy of our statement asking that it be forwarded to Pope Francis. Then, we turned to face the street holding our signs for passing traffic to see. They read: Pope Francis: Ordain Women, God IS Calling Women To Be Priests and God Created US All Equal – Gay & Straight.
The officers began the ritual notice: “You are on private property. If you don’t leave, you will be arrested. Do you understand?” Over the next two hours, one supervisor after another, each higher than the former, arrived at the embassy and spoke with us. There were pauses for radio calls, the arrival of even higher supervisors and then the announcements would begin again. The highest authority, who arrived in a suit, announced that he was from the State Department. He threatened us with the dire state of the D.C. jail and “the very bad people” we would share space with if we were arrested.
Intermittently, two to three officers would disappear around the side of the palace-like building to confer with the Papal Nuncio and staff. Eventually, the officers told us the Nuncio would like to meet with one of us, specifically a woman. We declined the invitation, suggesting the officer tell the Nuncio we would meet if all of us were invited. After all, we were only three people, not a crowd of protesters. Told, “That was not the invitation,” we remained silent.
The day became hot. We were dressed too warmly in order not to be cold in jail if we were held. The sun beat down on us. Above, the Papal flag, yellow and white, fluttering in the breeze, provided occasional relief, blocking the sun.
More negotiations between the officers and the Nuncio followed, until officers announced the Nuncio would come to us.
He came up the steps and onto the porch alone, while his staff remained in the driveway. Officers joined him on the steps, standing on either side and behind us. Wearing a Roman collar, the man introduced himself by title and, although we asked him several times, he declined to give his name.
He engaged Roy first, who tried to speak for LGBT people, how they suffer because of church teaching, and of God’s love for all people. The Nuncio kept interrupting him. He was arrogant, insolent in style and tone, lecturing us on church teaching, as if its truth was self-evident. The exchange became heated, raised voices talking over one another. Officers closed in on Roy, ready to restrain him if needed. Janice intervened: “The Church’s teaching creates suffering for LGBT people and they are murdered in Africa and Latin America.” “They commit suicide,” Roy said and shared the difficulties of someone in his own family. The Nuncio replied that the church didn’t kill anyone; these people had their own consciences; they made their own decisions.
The Nuncio then invited one of us women priests to talk with him inside the embassy. We looked at each other, then said: “No, it would have to be all three of us in solidarity.”
Roy told him that the church was hurting women and itself by not ordaining women. The Nuncio said that issue had been a closed door since John Paul II.
“You need to read Catholic theologians Gary Macy and Dorothy Irving,” Janice said as he looked at her intently. “Their research gives evidence of women’s leadership in early Christianity including deaconesses, presbyteras and bishops up until the 12th century.” His face revealed no hint of surprise. “The US church has lost 33 million Catholics because its leadership has refused to hear the voice of the Spirit within the people who embrace women priests and LGBTs. There is a connection,” Janice said, “between the church’s oppression of women and violence toward women and their children in the world.” He responded that the church isn’t responsible for violence in the world.
When the Nuncio finally approached Jane, after again refusing to give his name despite very polite inquiry, told us he had been Nuncio since 2011, disclosing his identity as Carlo Maria Vigano, the Nuncio responsible for inviting Kim Davis — who refused to follow federal law and give marriage licenses to GLBT people — to meet Pope Francis, sparking a media firestorm and public outrage that the Pope embraced Davis and encouraged her to keep up her good work. Then Vigano, in an indignant and derisive tone asked, “Where did you get those?” in reference to the alb and stole Jane was wearing. The irrelevance of the question resulted in Jane’s blank stare and his move away. His comment reminded us of the Rome police asking Janice the same question in front of St. Peter’s Square before detaining her during the March 2013 papal Conclave.
As he was leaving, we told the Nuncio we would stay until we were assured Pope Francis received our statement of purpose. He said Francis would eventually get the statement – which he said he already read. As he neared the side of the building to return into the Embassy, he said, “You can stay as long as you like. If you need something to eat or drink let us know.”
Shortly afterwards, officers explained that the Nuncio declined to arrest us. We could stay. Most officers departed, leaving only two vehicles, on at each side of the circular drive.
Minutes later, we heard noise above us as we stood on the porch, holding our signs. Looking up, we saw the Papal flag disappearing into the embassy.
It was afternoon by now. We had had nothing to eat or drink since our early, light breakfast. We were glad we were fasting, delaying the inevitable as long as possible. We talked further about our witness here on the steps of the Vatican Embassy, the Nuncio’s choice not to arrest us, and how to proceed. We decided we would “occupy” the porch and lawn of the embassy for 24 hours from the time our trespass began. We would sleep on the porch of the Vatican Embassy on Holy Thursday.
During the hours between 1pm and 8pm, Roy stood with his banner on the Vatican’s porch while Jane — whose arm was in a cast from her wrist to her elbow — and Janice held our signs for women priests and LGBT equality on the lawn until nightfall. We attracted the attention of thousands of drivers on busy Massachusetts Avenue, many who gave us thumbs-up or tooted their horns in approval. We also made friends with John Wojnowski, 73, who was sexually abused when he was 14 by a priest in Italy. John, who has been protesting with his huge sign – accusing the Vatican of protecting pedophiles — outside the embassy for 17 years, told us the incident changed who he was. “I’ve lived with the idea of committing suicide everyday (since),” he said.
As night fell, the wind picked up and it grew colder. We sat on the embassy porch bundled in our light jackets as a number of police squads pulled up. A plainclothes secret serviceman told us we would be arrested on his way to talk with the Nuncio. Meanwhile, friends arrived to take Jane and Janice to a restroom and provide water and blankets. We took only one blanket each, thinking we would spend the night in jail where the activists’ rule is: have your ID and metro card only. Roy had a different perspective. Throughout the day, he repeatedly told us, “The Vatican is not going to arrest women priests.”
Not long after our friends left, the secret serviceman announced, “The ambassador says it’s okay for you to stay overnight.” Initially too wired to sleep, we sat talking. About midnight, another friend and supporter arrived with wine and paper cups. Having had no solid food since early morning and few liquids, we drank cautiously. As the day had become night, the warmth became cold, and the wine warmed us and relaxed us.
Eventually, we laid down in a row, our heads next to the embassy door, with one thin blanket between us and the concrete and our stoles as our pillows. We cocooned ourselves in our individual blankets, warm but not warm enough, draped our signs over our blankets, and tried to sleep.
Friday morning, we woke to a cold but sunny morning. We left Roy to hold down the porch while we sought restrooms and coffee. Then we returned to the lawn and traffic for more witnessing.
At 10:00 a.m., 24 hours after our trespass began, we prayed with one another and packed to leave. As we stood on the sidewalk, the Nuncio came down the driveway toward us. His attitude was completely different. He acknowledged our courage and thanked us for being nonviolent. He said he wanted to shake our hands before we left. He told us that Francis knew we were there and that Francis had received our statement. Another discussion began, but this time, he allowed us to speak. Though he never showed agreement, he listened. He expressed his belief that the demise of the Protestant churches is the result of the ordination of women and that LGBT people are as they are due to some sin in them. We gave him brief condensed versions of our most basic arguments. At his request, his priest companion, who was watching our interchange, took photos of us standing together and smiling.
As we were preparing to leave a cyclist passed us, then stopped and backed up. A young woman of about thirty, she smiled at us and asked if we were there the day before witnessing to women’s ordination. When we acknowledged we were, she thanked us and launched into a description of the theology course she was taking at Georgetown, their study of Canon 1024 (which says only a baptized male can be ordained) and her conviction that change in the church was so important. At that point, and for the first time, she looked directly at the Nuncio, the only one among us wearing a Roman collar, and said, “I hope that you decision-makers will be supportive.” With a smile and a wave, off she went. The three of us watched her go in amazement.
At one point in the conversation, Janice turned to address the priest who introduced himself as the Nuncio’s councilor. He repeated what the Nuncio had said before: that the Church receives its instructions from God. Janice responded that Holy Spirit Wisdom, Sophia Wisdom, works through the church, especially the people of God, and transforms our thinking; that women are in need of feminine images of God because without them there is damage to our souls; that men can be filled with hubris and arrogance from not experiencing feminine images of God; that we need women to celebrate Eucharist – as womenpriests do – with our sacred, holy, feminine bodies. Janice asked him if he was aware of femicide in our world. “We need the Gospels interpreted from the experience of women living and dying,” she said. “God speaks through the Church,” he replied.
Janice looked at him and smiled as a thought came through. “Didn’t St. Francis of Assisi teach the church?” she asked. His eyes lit up and he smiled. “So do women priests and the LGBT community,” she added.
Farewells said, including handshakes and Italian kisses on the cheeks, the Nuncio left and we climbed into a cab.
We reflected on how events had unfolded in unimaginable and remarkable ways. We think the Spirit moved all of us, in and out of the embassy, so that seeds were planted in the hearts of decision-makers; but only time will tell. For us, a night in the DC Metropolitan jail sharing a bare metal bed with herds of cockroaches, will have to wait for another day. Meanwhile, perhaps the Vatican is listening…Like the persistent widow of Luke’s gospel, we keep knocking at those decision makers’ doors.
More photos from this witness, by Bob Cooke
Holy Thursday Prayer Ritual, by Jane Via and Janice Sevre-Duszynska
Bridget Mary Meehan’s Blog on the witness, including the Statement delivered to the Nuncio