Thursday, October 20, 2011

The First Colombian Woman Priest

UPDATE 10/21/2011: Rev. Olga Alvarez gave an interview with W Radio (see audio link below) where she talked about her formation as a priest and how RCWP led communities differ from traditional Catholic parishes. Amusingly, Rev. Alvarez doesn't give Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan's last name and so an enterprising W Radio reporter writing a synopsis of the interview concludes that she is referring to Brigitte Boisselier who is also a bishop...of the Raëlian sect!

Meanwhile, the Colombian Catholic Church has put their position out there. In an article in El Tiempo, Monseñor Rubén Salazar, president of the Colombian Bishops Conference, called women priests a "fraud". He told the newspaper that women priests, like some denominations that include the word "catholic" in their names, have misappropriated the Church's books, rites, and vestments. He asserted that the Catholic Church does not discriminate against women when it denies them the priesthood. "There are roles in the Church that are reserved for males; that doesn't mean there's discrimination. They [women] have a different important role in the Church, as they have had over the centuries."

By María Ximena Plaza (English translation by Rebel Girl)
October 19, 2011

They rang. Before turning the doorknob, she took a breath and repeated to herself: "I'm sure and every time I feel more certain." It wasn't the first time she had repeated these words. They were the literal translation of the inner strength that prompted her to make the decision that changed her life. Two Christian bishops pushed the doorbell a second time. Olga Alvarez, the woman who would become the first Colombian Catholic woman priest, didn't make them wait any longer and opened the door.

Once settled in the living room of her house, one of them asked without much of a preamble:

"Do you know what you've gotten yourself into?"

Olga noticed that the cleric's tone of voice was not a question, but a warning. The second bishop continued:

"I'm opposed to women's ordination" -- citing, in some way, the cases of women clergy in the Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. "I'm not going to ordain women because experience has shown that they aren't successful. People don't accept them."

The Colombian woman tried to give a convincing answer:

"Yes, I know what I've gotten into and my experience has been different."

A month before her ordination in the United States, the bishops had already phoned her. The hierarchs of two Christian churches had expressed their concern about rumors of her intention to take on the role of a Catholic woman priest. Rev. Judy Lee, coordinator of the movement's preparation program, says that the path of initiation into the priesthood started in early 2010, when Olga contacted the organization [Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests] via the Internet. Alvarez had known about the movement since 2008 through Elfriede Harth, a German-Colombian friend, but she wasn't persuaded.

She looked for publications that would explain in detail the revolutionary news of female clergy within Catholicism, and an article published in the Spanish journal Concilium gave her all the answers. But two years later, and after a brief journey through the Anglican Church, this 70-year old woman realized that her true calling was to be a priest and in no other church than the Catholic one. The process of achieving it wasn't easy.

She had to certify her religious and theological education and pastoral experience. Beyond spiritual preparation, in this document, she also had to demonstrate the support of her husband or partner -- if she had one, provide letters of reference from professors, a criminal background check, and a medical certification of good physical and mental health.

The meeting between Olga and the bishops took place when there was no turning back. She had already followed all the steps to join the movement to the letter, including a visit in July by Rev. Judy Lee to the Catholic woman priest's community in Colombia. Nonetheless, the two bishops still hoped to make her desist. They told her that there were other ways than betrayal to serve God. She didn't heed them. When the prelates were getting ready to leave, one of the bishops said:

"We're sorry we've lost you."

Olga's first approach to life in a religious community took place in Santa Marta.

"I was very young. I was 20 and working as a saleswoman for Tejicóndor. One day, I decided it was time to take a couple of years to give a new look to my life. I went to the coast with a missionary companion. The plan was to meet with other missionaries from the Unión Seglar de Misioneros [Lay Missionaries Union]."

In the sierra, they sat down with missionaries and indigenous people around a bonfire.

"I listened to the indigenous people's accusations against the missionaries. The village leader, Dionisia Izquierdo, said forcefully to Father Lorenzo, the Capuchin missionary, that her people weren't against development, but that they couldn't agree with building highways on sacred land or with several children having been taken to the San Sebastián de Rábago orphanage."

That conversation didn't let her rest. She felt that she should be a bridge between the Catholic faith and the values of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. She joined missions in the Cauca and Chocó valleys. Two years of trips became 40 years of religious pilgrimage that started with missions led by Catholic bishop Gerardo Valencia Cano and the Fundación Unión Seglar de Misioneros, then became rooted in an administrative job as secretary in the office of Teología de la Liberación in Bogota, founded by the same bishop, which is now known as the Servicio Colombiano de Desarrollo Social.

But Olga's vocation came practically from the cradle. Her mother had been a Carmelite nun and her house was run with "the discipline of a convent". The Christian influence on all the family's daily activities was such that her three brothers and two sisters played at celebrating Mass and held processions throughout the house. In the orchard, the funerals of pets, especially of their birds, displayed the religious imagination of the whole family -- her mother made ornaments from newspapers and all her brothers and sisters turned jars into bells and unleashed a fierce competition with the barking of dogs and the neighbors' music.

Olga's parents use their single daughter's religious preparation as an effective icebreaker in any conversation. They start by telling of her baccalaureate years at the Colegio de la Presentación, various courses and seminars in catechesis, to then highlight the two degrees in theology and youth ministry from Javeriana University.

The Colombian woman priest is very cautious about sharing specific details of her personal and family life, because she doesn't want to "incite conflicts generated by the misinterpretation of a competition between the women priests' movement and existing roles in the Catholic Church." Also because she believes that women priests are going through a "catacombs era", like the clandestine life the first Christians experienced in face of the constant threat of persecution from the Roman empire.

"This memory is even more relevant with the rise of fanaticism in religion. At the time of Turbay Alaya's presidency, I had to leave the country for six months due to the raid on the office of Teología de la Liberación and those of the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP), Casa de la Juventud, and Parroquia Alemana. At that time, they also arrested two Jesuit priests, Jorge Arango and Luis Alberto Restrepo."

On December 11, 2010, dressed in a white alb and a red stole, Olga walked up to the altar. Elfriede Harth, her friend of over 15 years, presented Olga to the hundreds of attendees. In the sanctuary, Reverend Judy welcomed everyone and explained the order of the Eucharist. There, women priests and male Catholic priests -- some of them married -- listened to readings from the Bible in Latino and African-American voices. They were representatives of communities who had come from another city in Florida, who had been brought by the movement just to participate in the Eucharist.

The Litany [of the Saints] honored the memory of Latin American martyrs such as Monseñor Oscar Romero and the Jesuits from San Salvador. The most solemn moment of the day's act came: Bishop Bridget Mary presented the chalice and paten, while all the faithful spoke the words of consecration. At the end of the Mass, the bishop lifted her hands and took Olga's and presented her as a woman priest to the community. The ceremony was concluded through the laying on of hands on the head of the one who was now the first Latin American woman priest.

According to Bishop Bridget Mary, this moment was a hit for the movement, because it marked the opening of room to grow in Latin America. Olga, the bishop says, wants to serve the Colombian people, loves Roman Catholic and apostolic theology, and works in solidarity with the poor and for the end of oppression of marginalized people.

Bishop [Bridget] Mary began her ministry with the first ordination of women priests in the United States, which took place in 2006, where, for the first time, she asserted vehemently that there is a "a great social justice movement" within Catholicism for the poor and women in the Catholic Church, based on the belief that Jesus called both men and women to receive all the sacraments equally.

"We should have greater visibility on the altar," the bishop says. "We aren't going to wait any longer, we aren't going to ask permission any longer, we aren't going to leave the Church we love. We are going to lead the Church according to God's word." The hierarch justifies the existence of women priests by going back into the annals of history which show that women served in ministry during the first 1,200 years of the Church.

"Read Romans 16: Paul greets Phoebe and she is referred to as a deacon, the same way Timothy, another leader in the Church, is mentioned. Please don't let male priests and bishops tell you that there weren't any women apostles. Junia...Mary Magdalene and Joanna are named in Luke 8."

For [Bridget] Mary -- one of the first four women bishops in the United States -- the communal character of the Church changed during the era of the Roman emperor Constantine, when it acquired a formal structure and religious men started to be leaders in the public space.

"Suddenly only those men had something like magic powers, that granted them the authority to preside at the Eucharist. Likewise, the prohibition against married men was a precaution so that their children wouldn't inherit the property of the Church."

The photos of Janice Duszynska, the woman who scandalized the clergy by sneaking into several ordinations of priests and challenging the bishops by taking off her coat and revealing her alb and stole in order to be ordained a priest, had been recurrent in the North American media.

But the news in July, published in the online version of The New York Times, of the beginning of women's ordination, was the real bomb. Father Roy Bourgeois, from the Maryknoll order, participated in 2008 during the ordination of Janice, one of the participants at the religious ceremony for Olga in Florida. The Vatican gave Bourgeois 30 days to retract his public statements in favor of women's ordination, but he never did.

In the summer of 2011, the media announced that the Maryknoll order had urged the priest to stop his campaign for Catholic women priests or else he would be expelled. At the close of this edition, Bourgeois was traveling to Rome to learn the Vatican's final decision with respect to his excommunication. [Translator's note: Actually, Fr. Bourgeois' trip was to bring the signatures of over 15,000 people calling for women's ordination to the Vatican.]

The women priests' movement hopes that Father Bourgeois' symbolic act of support will set a precedent. An internal e-mail from the organization informs members that Janice will also travel to Rome and ask for a new non-authoritarian, non-patriarchal and non-hierarchical model of church, an end to the celibacy requirement and obedience to the bishop, for financial self-sufficiency so that there are "no salaries or formal jobs in the church" and ecumenical inclusion, that is, of all sectors of the Christian religion.

The secretary general of the Colombia Bishops Conference, Monseñor Juan Vicente Córdoba, told DONJUAN that "it's possible that the Roman Catholic and apostolic Church might accept women priests, since it is not an essentially dogmatic matter of doctrine and the gospel."

For Monseñor Córdoba, the problem of women's direct participation isn't religious, but cultural. Religion and faith, according to the prelate, are part of the people, for example, the entire Old Testament is related to a Jewish society in which man is the most prominent; it is he who bears the genealogy and heritage.

"In the United States, currently, wives get their last name from their husbands. They marry Mr. Smith and stop using their maiden names. Although the church has expanded the idea that women must be given a greater opportunity, these changes can't be abrupt, since they're linked to changes in the culture." For him, it's impossible to imagine a woman presiding at worship in a Judeo-Christian society. Perhaps, with the persecution of Christians by the Romans, women temporarily assumed different roles such as reading the Bible in the catacombs.

Monseñor, a member of Commander Moncayo's surrender facilitation team, says his message to Catholics in Colombia is to not attend ceremonies celebrated by these women. And he explains it with the following parable: In a family, headed by a father and a mother, there's an attempt to include a rule that's different from those that they themselves instituted to protect the filial group. Thus, the parents would tell the children not to participate in what their brother is inventing for himself, because it's not of the family.

Unity and communion with the Apostle Paul and his succession through Pope Benedict XVI would be broken. Finally, the flock would be dispersed and various pastors would emerge, in other words, it becomes a confused doctrine that isn't clear and the faithful also take different paths.

"The women can ask the Pope for the priesthood with love and respect. But going on strike or taking positions against the Pope, through which they challenge his authority and the norms of the Church, is something else," the prelate says.

Experts and journalists have seen the expansion of the women priests' movement as a "domino effect" that started in 2002 when seven women were secretly ordained by two male bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.

According to an academic essay written by Cornell University professor Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, there have been several conferences on the ordination of Catholic women priests and some movements have emerged to advocate for that cause since the 1970s, but only at the beginning of this decade did a few women decide to take the first step towards taking the altar.

Bishop Bridget Mary says that every time the Vatican denigrates them, the movement grows.

"Just look for us on YouTube and in our blogs. On my Web page you can see over 88,000 hits."

She attributes the increase in women priests to around 100 women in the United States and over 130 in Europe, to digital activism.

"While the Catholic Church was trying to cover up child abuse, the playing field was being levelled by gaining more visibility on the Internet. So more women approached us to undertake the priesthood. That was the tipping point."

Karen Jo Torjesen, professor of Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont and Huffington Post columnist, told DONJUAN that in the northern part of the world there's disillusionment with the clergy, especially about issues of sexuality, and that has created a window for women priests. In Latin America, she thinks that the pressure on the Church comes from the successful Pentecostal movements.

Since her ordination last December, Olga Álvarez has performed over forty Eucharistic celebrations in the country. Reverend Lee affectionately calls her "Little Paula", because like the Apostle Paul she has traveled throughout the nation to bear his word. A second Colombian woman was ordained in March, in the country this time.

She doesn't disclose her name because she's afraid she will lose her job.

When traveling to Colombia for "Marta"'s ordination, Bishop Bridget Mary watched the installation of a bishop on TV, and both children and poor people embraced him. She understood that the bishop took up his ministry in an area threatened by the conflict, so she returned to the United States with the relief of knowing that "Colombia was fertile ground for the movement."

Along the same line, Monseñor Córdoba announced the good news that the Catholic Church has been designated by the government for the oversight and distribution of resources to aid those affected by the cold wave, given its presence in remote areas of the country.

The most recent Masses of the Colombian woman priest were in a school with more than 800 students. With a smile, Olga tells us that the community bought her a ticket to travel to close the conference on human rights organized by the school.

"I was wearing a stole with many faces of children on it. Some of the students approached me, looked me in the eye and then down at the stole. That stole fascinated them!"

She has no doubt that those children and adolescents are already curious about the priesthood and the incarnation of a priest in the image of a woman. Olga has now launched her revolution.

Photos: Juan Pablo Gutiérrez


  1. As translator, I would like to comment that I was surprised by the quotes from the secretary-general of the Colombian Bishops Conference with respect to women's ordination. Once this article gets a lot of buzz, I would be very surprised if a clarification weren't issued. Also, I would disagree with what the secretary-general is quoted as saying in this article with respect to Judaism. To the best of my understanding, Jewish identity is passed on through the mother. If the mother isn't Jewish, the child cannot be Jewish from birth.

  2. Katy Zatsick, RCWPOctober 23, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Thank you for posting an update with Rev. Olga.
    I do believe that our ordinations are the work of the Holy Spirit. It is another way for women to claim their own spiritual power on behalf of their faith community, the RCC.

    I am thankful to have been alive during this awakening of consciousness on behalf of humanity. I cannot believe other than the Spirit is "renewing the face of the earth"

    Blessings on Olga and her community and all the lives, especially of young women and girls, who seeing her and experiencing her ministry will claim their own spiritual lives and power for generations of humanity yet to be born.