“In South Africa, in particular,” the bishop asserted in the silent, packed chapel, “we know that the only way to change an unjust law is to break it. And that is what we are doing today.”
Last Sunday the Volmoed (“full of courage”) retreat centre in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside Hermanus marked the site of an extraordinary act of religious disobedience: for the first time in South Africa, a woman was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
Mary Bernadette Ryan (60) became the second South African Catholic woman priest. She follows in the steps of the bishop who ordained her – Patricia Fresen – whose ordination took place in Barcelona in 2003, when support for the ordination of Catholic women in South Africa, at least publicly, was almost nonexistent. Fresen’s position was a sensitive one: she had been a Dominican sister for 45 years, and had taught at both St Augustine’s College in Johannesburg and the Catholic Seminary in Pretoria.
As a result of her ordination, Fresen was dismissed from the Dominican Order. Having lost her job and, consequently, her home in the convent, she was forced to leave the country. “[A fellow woman priest] in Germany said I could come and live in her home,” Fresen recalls, “and I didn’t know what else to do. So I went there.” In 2005, Fresen was ordained a bishop. She returned to South Africa last week to ordain Ryan.
Ryan and Fresen belong to Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) – an international renewal movement within the Catholic Church. The movement began with the ordination of seven Catholic women priests in 2002 by Argentinian bishop Romulo Braschi, and two other bishops acting in full apostolic succession. Two of these women were subsequently ordained bishops and, since then, ordinations of women have taken place through women bishops (many of the ordinations by Fresen herself). More than 180 priests in 10 different countries have been ordained into the RCWP movement, and its reach and numbers are growing.
Ryan is emphatic, however, that RCWP “is not solely preoccupied with women’s ordination. Women’s ordination is the vehicle for mission in our world,” she explains. “Women are equally called to mission and to leadership in that mission, and to celebrate the sacramentality of life. That’s really what this ordination is about … We believe we are gifted as equally as men to do that work.”
According to the Vatican, however, Ryan’s ordination and the ordinations of the women who have preceded her are strictly against church doctrine and are therefore illicit. Canon law asserts that the sacrament of holy orders, of which priesthood forms a part, can only be conferred on a baptised male. In 1994, an apostolic letter authorised by Pope John Paul II declared: “The church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”
Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican issued a decree in 2007 stating that attempted ordination of women would result in automatic excommunication (official exclusion from the sacraments of the Catholic Church) for the woman and the bishop attempting to ordain her. And last year, Pope Francis clarified the issue: “The church has spoken and said no … That door is closed.”
Ryan’s ordination was thus exceptional for its unlawfulness, but it was not defined by it. The mood that filled the Volmoed chapel was not one of righteous rebellion but of great joy and peace – exuded by Ryan, and reflected by her community. “It felt so calm,” Ryan noted afterwards. “I just felt such a sense of calm.”
Indeed, for Ryan, who holds a doctorate in theology, the ordination was a long time coming – the culmination of years of theological study, prayerful preparation and discernment. “It has been my life’s journey, really,” she says. “So now is just the moment of acknowledgment.”
The support of the community gathered for the ordination ceremony was palpable, particularly from her husband, sons and daughter-in-law – Ryan is a mother of four and has been married for 35 years. But the chapel was also filled with extended family, friends, mentors and mentees who had shared in various chapters of Ryan’s journey, many of whom participated in significant parts of the ordination.
One such mentor was Denise Ackermann, extraordinary professor of practical theology at Stellenbosch University, who fought for many years for women’s ordination in the Anglican Church. Another was Ryan’s former teacher, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur for 50 years, who taught Ryan religious education in grade 10 and has supported her spiritual growth ever since.
‘No place to go’
“There are so many women who have been hurt by the Catholic Church structures and who are outside it and have no place to go,” said the sister, who did not want to be identified. “So I’m here to support Mary, and to say I believe that this is the future. You have to do now as you want the future to be.”
Reflecting one of the RCWP’s key principles, the ordination was distinctively inclusive. Clergy from different denominations joined hands with Ryan and Fresen at the altar, and everyone in the chapel, regardless of religion, was invited to come forward to receive communion.
That the ceremony possessed a significance far beyond its law-breaking status for those present was nowhere more powerfully felt than in the Eucharist. The community of 100 family and friends at the Volmoed chapel witnessed, for the first time, a Catholic woman in priestly vestments standing behind the altar to lead the celebration of the Eucharist.
And yet, Ryan’s supporters note, there was something remarkably unremarkable about the moment. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, they say, was not exceptional by virtue of Ryan’s gender, it was invested with all the sacredness of this part of the mass by virtue of her calling.
The person responsible for communications at the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference was unable to comment by the time of going to press.