You Gave The Virgin A New Heart

By Giulia Bianchi

On January 17th 1998, her 48th birthday and the day C.W. Howell Jr. was being ordained a priest in Lexington Kentucky, Janice Sevre-Duszynska resolved to present herself for ordination at the Cathedral of Christ the King. “I was in the Cathedral with all the candidates for priesthood, sitting in the pews.” She recalled, “I stood up, I threw my coat away, and I went towards the Bishop. “I’m called by the Holy Spirit to present myself for the ordination. I ask this for myself and for all women,” to which he said “Get back to your seat, you’re disrupting the service!” Instead I prostrated in the nave with a tiger lily in my hands. The people came acting like I was a crazy woman. I hoped when I was prostrating that some of my friends who were priests would make a circle around me and show their solidarity. Nothing happened at that time. They weren’t ready.”

For her entire life, Janice spoke loudly about her vocation to the priesthood to everyone she knew. She even went to United States’ bishop conference meetings, showing banners to ask for women’s ordination. With the people that suggested she entered the convent, she disagreed because sisters are secular laity, they cannot preach and cannot consecrate the Eucharist.

In this last century we are witnessing the transition (not without quakes) from a patriarchal society, where women were considered to be inferior to men by scientific and theological point of view, to a society where men and women will be legally granted the same rights and duties and certainly equal respect. Nonetheless every day women’s agenda, needs, experiences, gifts are still dismissed and ignored. Women and girls are still the most vulnerable and most invisible, the most hungry and the most desperate people. 84% of women around the world identify with a faith group, and we have somehow come to accept the natural denigration of them within the practices of world cults and doctrines. Religions are evolving slowly, but we can see some women of faith, all over the world, asking today for spiritual equality: they are Jews, Christians, Mormons, Muslim, Indus, Buddhist…

The Roman Catholic Church have fought fiercely against feminism and against the ordination of women. The Vatican’s Holy See is one of the last governments in the world (along with Yemen, Haiti and Qatar) to be led exclusively by males. Women do not receive the sacrament of the order in any of its three degrees (the diaconate, presbyteral, or episcopal) and it is a prerequisite to occupy most of the administrative roles and governance in the Church Institution, in order to be part of the formulation of the doctrine and the Church's global vision. After an initial opening during the Second Vatican Council in 1963, a time when women were first admitted to pontifical universities to study theology, in 1994 Pope John Paul II formally closed, in all Catholic institutions and official contexts, any discussion on women’s ordination with the Apostolic letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" in which he writes that the Church magisterium has no authority to change its traditions. It refers to Canon Law 1024, which explicitly says only a baptized male can receive sacred ordination.

Thus, it came as a surprising historic opening when on the 12th of May 2016, Pope Francis promised in front of an audience of 900 nuns that he would open a commission to study the role of women deacons (the first step in being ordained) in the dawn of Christianity and the possibility to apply it today.

In the summer of 2002, after a 2 years program organized by Austrian former nun Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, seven women (from Austria, Germany and United States) were controversially and illicitly ordained priests by an independent Roman Catholic Archbishop, on a ship cruising the Danube River. Shortly thereafter, three women were ordained bishops in great secrecy, so that they could carry on female ordinations without interference by the Vatican. As a consequence of their refusal to repent, the Vatican excommunicated the women in 2003. Since then, several similar ceremonies have been held by Roman Catholic Women Priests, a group of suffragettes performing religious disobedience in favor of women's ordination.

At first, the ordinations were held only on boats in international waters, but since 2007 other Christian denominations, and one Jewish synagogue, have provided hospitality to women priests by opening their spaces for ordinations and worship. Today, the movement counts more than 215 ordained women priests and 10 bishops worldwide, about a hundred of independent Roman Catholic communities. The numbers are still growing.

Most candidates for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement are mature women, many former nuns, missionaries and theologians. They work in social justice, in ecological movements, in non-profit organizations, education, or assistance of refugees, for example. Activism is often intertwined with missionary work.

Reverend Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortez from Colombia, for example, works with “mujeres de la prostitution”, sex-workers, and with afro-Colombian women living in extreme poverty. She doesn’t provide for them as a charity, she educates them to be free individuals, to fight for their rights, to be feminists. She doesn’t teach them to be Christian, but to be like Christ.

The Vatican considers female ordination a serious crime, issuing an order in 2010 to clarify that anyone who participates in the “attempted” ordination of a woman automatically excommunicates themselves. That statement included the severity of the sin of the attempted women’s ordination as at the same level of a crime as the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

For the crime of involvement with women’s ordination, employees of the Catholic Church often lose their jobs. Pastoral associates, professors, chaplains, nurses, and even nuns, lose pensions, support and housing issued by any Catholic organization, including schools and hospitals. They cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery with their own families.

Despite this, most of the women that have been interviewed do not want to leave the Catholic Church. In the words of Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, former nun, writer of more than 20 religious books, and founder of the Catholic Community Mary Mother of Jesus in Sarasota, Florida: "Does that mean they can take away our faith? My faith is in my DNA. I'm an Irish Catholic woman and I am passionate about my Catholic faith. I'm as much a Catholic as the pope is. We’re not leaving the Church, we’re leading the Church"

To understand what “leading and transforming the Church” means, it is important to understand what is at the heart of the mission of women in priesthood, and why this model is so frightening to the Vatican.

According to feminist theologians, if God is always considered a masculine figure -- macho, warrior, dictatorial, perfectionist, distant, all knowing, all rational, all powerful -- this narrow image shapes our understanding of the entire world. This model of power and punishment reinforces inequality and violence. Yet, every major spiritual tradition carries a deeply rooted, ancient and arguably feminist understanding of the divine: God as mystery, wisdom, spirit, pure life, pure passion for life, love. A feminist spirituality rooted in equality and inclusivity, is inherently nonhierarchical, and honors collaboration and compassion over power. It comes with a sense of co-creation and co-responsibility in the world, respecting all people as part of the divine Mystery.

Women priests ask for a new model of cooperation between men and women, a new model of leadership based not on power, but pastoral and responsible love. They envision the Church as an all-inclusive and egalitarian community, a model that could be closer to early Christianity, therefore not clerical, where priests are servants to the people of God. They did not shape a new cult, but organically gathered people from the grassroots, from the suburbs, and the people who no longer feel welcomed by the Official Church. The historical Jesus did not exclude anybody from his life, and therefore they do not exclude any person from their communities: it is quite common in their communities to see Catholics that are divorced, lesbian, gay, transgender, or women who have had an abortion.

We live a critical moment in history for Roman Catholicism. The Church increasingly feels like an obsolete model, far removed from the spiritual needs and realities of today. It defends dogmatic formulations in the face of the religious tolerance necessitated by an intercultural world; and offers outdated rhetorical language and aesthetic to young people who are educated in science and philosophy. The result is the steady decline of believers in Western countries. The fate of the Roman Catholic Church seems to hinge between: the current establishment disappearing into a cult of a few conservatives, or a deep transformation and renewal in its administrative and religious shape.

At the center of these debates and these possibilities, is the battle for a renewed priesthood that would include women as well.

Since 2012, Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi has been working on a web documentary and book project called “You Gave The Virgin a New Heart”. She met so far more than 70 women priests in the USA and Colombia, photographing and interviewing them. She’s planning to continue her documentation in Europe and South Africa in 2018. The final book and website will present photographs, interviews, drawings, archival photographs and documents, theological and feminist essays becoming a reference point for this topic.

She choses specifically to document the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement because it’s the religion of her childhood, but also because she wants to stress the importance of civil and religious disobedience. We live in a society where obedience is rewarded anywhere. In her opinion, dialogue with the past is vital, but it must be a critical dialogue. We are in charge to shape the future starting from the primacy of individual consciousness.


Alta Jacko is born on Good Friday, April 6, 1928 in Chicago, Il. Now she’s a widow with eight children, four girls and four boys, sixteen grand children and four great-grand children. She is also an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church since 2009. Jacko, who is an art and music teacher, earned her master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University, a Jesuit Catholic school. She says being a priest is what she was called to do. She’s 85 years old, beautiful, strong and really tall. When I ask her about disobedience to the Church, Alta sayes: “The Holy Spirit is calling women. it's not a one morning you wake up, no! your whole life is a preparation to the ordination and beyond. So with that strength, that courage that I have no choice as an African American woman, I have to go forward and follow the Holy Spirit.” During our 6 hours interview she’s been so strong, so tough. “It was told to me that I was given the gift of seeing. It’s not just seeing, seeing, like we see with our eyes, with our glasses, or with like a… it’s a deeper seeing. A seeing within. I’m teaching to change and to recognize change. It’s not the law. It’s not the law. It’s not… it’s you! It’s all about you and your belief. The signs of the times are all around you”


Visiting Disney Downtown in Florida, with women priest, January 2015. (God seems to be hidden everywhere)“Disobedience is a dialectical concept, because, actually, every act of disobedience[...], unless it is empty rebelliousness, is an act of obedience to another principle. I am disobedient to the idol because I am obedient to God. [...] The question is not really one of disobedience or not, but one of disobedience to what and to whom.” Erich Fromm


Diane Dougherty in her garden, Atlanta U.S. 2013Diane was ordained on the 20th October 2012, at the age of 67.She's a former nun of the order Sister of the Humility of Mary in Pennsylvania. From the interview with her: "Never. I never wanted to be a nun. Never, never, never, because I didn’t… I didn’t wanna dress like that, I didn’t wanna be a nun like that… I knew in my heart this was not for me, but there was no other model. In 1963 I entered and then I stayed there, and it was Vatican two so we were changing, we built a chapel. I stayed there 28 years.When you become a nun, you have to change your name. Yes I did. I was Sister Bryan Marie for about a year and a half, but then we changed back to our baptismal name because your vocation comes from your baptism; that’s the theology. The men made you change your name because they wanted you, as a woman, to give up all identification of who you are for the church. That was the old theology. That was their theology that was imposed on us."


The following text if from an homely of Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, 22nd June 2013. She read this text during an ordination: "Like Mary of Magdala, contemporary women still encounter disbelief and rejection from church authorities. Women are still second class citizens in our own church. Sexism, like racism and classism, is a sin that breaks our hearts today. More than ever we need the experiences and wisdom of women if our church is to become more whole, more balanced, more human.We are ordained in apostolic succession because our first bishops were ordained by a male bishop with apostolic succession, therefore our orders are valid. We are disobeying an unjust, man-made canon law, 1024. Women priests are visible reminders that women are equal images of God and that our God has a feminine face."


Photo captured in Washington DC, 2013, during the annual reunion of the american association ARCWP for the priesthood of women in the catholic church.The photo has been taken underwater during a massage in the pool between Donna LeMaster Rougeux and Dotty Shugrue. The colors and the background have been altered to obtain daylight tones.This image makes me think of the crucifixion. When i found it inside my camera I was very surprised, especially of the details such the red marks on Donna's feet. It was a small miracle. The camera saw what nobody else did.


Angela Bonavoglia, author of “Good Catholic Girls" book, said: “If you forbid a woman to represent the divine and the highest level of representation of the divine in the church, and if she cannot have power, real power and if you have an institution controlling women most intimate decisions, that doesn't end there: those positions have an influence on the way women are treated in the world, they contribute for the discrimination against women toward the view of women a second-class people and they also are devastating to women in their souls”.


Liturgies are strictly roman catholic, not protestant, but changes are applied to the language according to feminist and liberation theology.Jane Via said in an interview: “I learned of the emerging feminist studies in the post Vatican II era as women earned their doctorates in religious studies and began to become researchers and authors in theological studies. Just a phenomenal amount of studies was done on scriptures, on systematic theology, on every dimension of religious studies as it pertains to women in the history and in terms of envisioning what might be more authentic in light of the historical Jesus. Reading feminist theology and participating in local groups helped me to understand the radical importance of inclusive God language to the transformation of the church from a patriarchal monarchical classicist institution to the pilgrim people of God.”