A radical event took place Saturday in a most traditional setting: a tiny, white, classic New England church in Shelburne. Mary Catherine White was ordained and now considers herself a Roman Catholic priest.
With about three dozen - sometimes tearful and proudly independent friends and relatives watching - White became one of just over 200 ordained women worldwide who say they are Roman Catholic priests. The Vatican says they are not priests because priests have always been - and must always be - men.
But the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests - which ordained White - says there is evidence – such as paintings – that show some women priests and bishops in the early church. And, they say, the Bible has Jesus treating men and women equally.
“Jesus treated women as spiritual equals,” said Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, who presided. “It is time for the institutional church to go back to its roots and do the same.
“The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is not leaving the church, but leading the Catholic Church into a new era of justice and equality. No punishment, including excommunication, can stop this movement of the spirit.”
The Diocese of Manchester declined to allow anyone to be interviewed.
But a written statement said the church does not recognize ordinations such as White’s as valid and the priesthood “has always been reserved to men in fidelity to Christ’s example and to apostolic practice since the time of Christ.”
The statement also said “while it is unlikely” formal excommunication proceedings will be started White is “choosing to leave the church and put herself outside its communion.”
White says she would not recognize excommunication anyway.
White, 54, grew up watching men as priests and she’s dreamed of becoming one of those priests for decades.
“I felt called my whole life to priesthood, but it was not something that was allowed,” she said.
So, she got involved in other ways.
“I have done numerous roles within the Roman Catholic Church over the years, everything from director of religious education. I worked for a period at Catholic Charities up in Berlin. Pretty much any role that the official church allowed me to do I did, in addition to things like spiritual direction and so forth.”
But being a priest didn’t seem possible, and that struck White as terribly wrong.
“I think it is more than a civil rights issue. It is a justice issue. It is an issue that says ‘God created everyone equal. In my heart I know it was supposed to be different.”
But White, who is married and has two children, didn’t want to leave the Roman Catholic Church for another religion that would allow her that role.
“I am Roman Catholic inside and out. It is how I relate to and understand God.”
Then in 2012 the impossible suddenly seemed possible for White.
That’s when she heard about “The Danube Seven.” They were seven women who – ten years earlier - were ordained. Five became priests. Two became bishops.
It took place on a boat on the Danube - between Austria and Germany - and was carried out by a bishop supposedly in good standing with the Vatican – but a bishop who has chosen to remain anonymous.
Hearing about the Danube Seven was all White needed.
“When I saw that was possible, I knew that was my answer.”
The Danube Seven also prompted the formation of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, of which Mary White became its forty-first priest.
While The Vatican says women cannot be priests, White says the Bible refutes that assertion.
“I think the one scripture that I would say, more than anything, is Galatians. And, it basically said ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free.’ That is a very clear depiction of what Jesus taught us.”
White won’t be accepted by The Vatican but she plans to hold services, including communion, in homes. And, she says, her faith community will be “all-inclusive and non-judgmental” including welcoming the LGBT community and those who are divorced.
That receptivity is true of all women priests, says Bishop Meehan.
‘Women priests are living Jesus’ vision of God’s full partnership and providing hope for a renewed church in the 21st century, where everyone is welcome and everyone belongs and everyone can receive Sacrament.”
Novak Chabot said her ordination ended a long period of yearning.
“I spent many years wondering, frustrated, a lot of tears were shed. It would be so difficult to go to Mass and watch the men at the altar and know that the only reason that I could not be there was because I was a woman.
Every Catholic woman, I feel, should have the opportunity at least once in her life to see a woman at the altar because it is something that is totally taboo in the Roman Catholic tradition that it gives people hope.”
White and Novak Chabot are among about 200 women worldwide who consider themselves to be Roman Catholic priests. They were ordained by either the Roman Catholic Women Priests or the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.
There are about 100 in the United States.
And there are five in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire and one in Connecticut.
A spokeswoman for the association said the movement is “flourishing” and is aiming at millions of Catholics who left the church over issues such as gender equality, divorce and LGBT.
However, there is no sign that the Vatican is likely to change its position on women priests anytime soon.
And the movement is still “fairly isolated,” said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.
But White and Novak Chabot figure they’ve at least started on what they see as the long journey to equality.