Translator's Note: This article is essentially a summary of a television program about Colombia's women priests that aired earlier this month and about which we reported on this blog.
By Marcela Belchior (English translation by Rebel Girl)
March 14, 2014
On June 29, 2002, the Argentine bishop Rómulo Antonio Braschi ordained the first seven women priests in the history of the Catholic Church. So that no diocese could revoke the sacrament, the ceremony took place on a boat on the Danube river, Germany. Almost 12 years later, there are 180 ordained women.
Among them is the Colombian Olga Lucía Álvarez, 72. Three years ago, she became the first woman priest in South America. As opposed to the powerful Catholic Church, Olga questions the role of women in Catholicism, rebelling against the policies of the Vatican and its hierarchy. She celebrates Mass and performs all the functions of any other Catholic priest.
These women's rebellion has cost them dearly. They have been excommunicated, the maximum punishment within the Catholic Church. The religious institution that is now under the leadership of Pope Francis believes that only men can be priests.
"Although the hierarchy tells us we are excommunicated, we don't accept it. It's absurd that they're refusing to let us render ministerial service within the Church. There's no biblical or theological reason for them to exclude us as we have been excluded. There's only a canon, within the Canons of the Church, 1024, that says that only baptized men can aspire to priestly orders," Olga argues.
The general secretary of the Colombian Bishops Conference, Monsignor Daniel Falla, explains that the Church sees priests as symbolizing Christ on earth and, therefore, the tradition of male representation should be maintained. The case of the women priests being the motive for automatic latae sententiae excommunication, that is, that which the believer incurs at the moment he commits the fault previously condemned by the faith. "We would say that they have excommunicated themselves. They are not in communion with the Church, with what we want to preserve throughout history. We can't call them members of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church," Falla explains.
For Olga, there's chauvinism in the Catholic doctrine, to which the general secretary of the Bishops Conference responds, "The Church isn't a social or political institution, but a divine institution that makes present the mystery of God, of Jesus Christ incarnate as a man." "If we forget this, it certainly could be seen as something chauvinistic, but when we try to conserve the essence of the Church, we understand that it's not a chauvinist position, " he counters.
The Colombian woman priest doesn't have a parish and rejects opulence. "I can work in the communities. They call and ask me," she says. She travels around the neighborhood communities in Medellin and Soacha, where she interprets the Catholic Gospel a different way.
Traditional Position vs. Inclusion
The Catholic Church, for thousands of years, has excluded women from any position of power. Currently the Vatican doesn't recognize women priests and the possibility that they will be accepted in the institution seems remote. Pope Francis appears to be the figure that represents the transformation and modernization of the Catholic Church.
Throughout the first year of his pontificate, Francis has reaffirmed his intent to enhance the role of women in the Church, expanding the opportunities for a more incisive female presence. "For me, the presence of Francis in the Church is very important. Not because he's going to ordain or accept us, because that's not easy for him. What matters most to me is that this man is pure Gospel," Olga states.
The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, although it is based on the same gospel as traditional priests, distances itself from the policies that have been implemented by the Vatican hierarchy. For them, for example, homosexuality isn't a moral issue, but a question of inclusion.
As if they hadn't sufficiently defied the Vatican, many of these priests are married women with children. For them, celibacy is an economic act so that Church property might not be shared with families. They have also tried to renounce the opulent and powerful image of gigantic cathedrals and valuable religious adornments. "Our bishops don't have miters or crosiers, which are power symbols. They're on the same level as us," says Olga.
Of the first seven women priests ordained, three were chosen to be ordained as bishops, so that they would have the authority to ordain new women priests. Recently, the first Afro-Colombian woman priest was ordained. Marina Teresa Sánchez is the third South American woman to be ordained a priest. "I decided to be ordained because it is part of the identity of representatives of God," she argues. "Being the first Afro-Colombian woman priest is a great commitment to our Latin American communities in general," she adds.