On June 29, 2002, seven women and two bishops were aboard a boat on the Danube river near Passau, Germany, with a plan to alter the course of history. On a body of water in no official diocese, nor in front of a governing body that might invalidate them,?Pia Brunner, Ida Raming, Iris Müller, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adeline Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, and?a woman under the assumed name of “Angela White” were ordained Roman Catholic priests by Bishops Ferdinand Regelsberger and Rómulo Antonio Braschi. This was a radical act: These seven women are believed to be some of the first to be given the right to oversee a parish since Ludmila Javorová was ordained in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia as part of the underground Catholic churches that sprung up under Communist control. All of the women on that boat had been baptized, gone through similar theological training as their male counterparts, and spent the requisite years getting their master’s degrees in divinity; some had served as nuns, and some as Catholic school teachers for several decades. Still, the church forbids the ordination of women to the priesthood, and so the “Danube Seven,” as they’re now known, were all?excommunicated after they refused to nullify their ordination by July 22, the day of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.?For the uninitiated, excommunication goes something like this:?The Danube Seven, and other women ordained after them, received word?from the Vatican stating that they had violated canon law (the set of principles enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic church) and so were forbidden from administering sacraments. Some who lived in a convent or were teaching in a parish school were kicked out or fired immediately, in some instances without severance. The social fallout was harsh, too: A few were told by their priest superiors that their sin in being ordained was equal to a clergy member sexually abusing a child.
A “calling,” or an inherent pull of the soul toward God and discipleship, plays a large role in the Roman Catholic faith—one that is not unique to men. Many of the women called to the clergy describe it as a?spiritual awakening that they first began to sense as a small child, listening to homilies from the church pews. For others, it was the urgent and necessary desire to be a part of the Catholic communities who dedicate themselves to nursing the sick, giving back to the poor, teaching the young. This is a reason enough to remain within a religion whose operatives have banished them; in effect, they answer to a higher power. As Jennifer O’Malley, a woman priest from Long Beach, California, explains, “I have stayed because being Catholic is part of who I am. Leaving would be abandoning who I am, my call to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and my call to be a voice for gender justice in our world.” Neither threats nor exile nor fear of unemployment stopped the Danube Seven or those who came after them from answering the call. They looked outside the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church and started their own independent Catholic churches and communities, beginning a movement for others like them who did not agree with the strict doctrines of the church, but who also were dedicated to its devotion to empathy, forgiveness, and divine love.
Today, there are approximately 145 women Catholic priests in the U.S. and about 204 worldwide, according to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, ranging from as young as about 35 into their 70s and older. These women are supported by RCWP, which holds conferences and demonstrations, and helps them with the task of fundraising for their churches as well as the postgraduate education that potential candidates for the Womenpriests clergy must complete. Every woman priest candidate must do the same work and schooling as required by a male in the seminary. The Womenpriests are adamant that their movement is not about being “anti-men,” but instead, building a community that values inclusion. As O’Malley notes: “Ordaining women means changing the structure of things so that the people in the pews can have a larger voice in the decision-making process—at our churches, everyone is welcome to the table regardless of gender or sexuality.” Aside from their duty to God, what is most important to these women is dissolving those lines drawn in the sand by the Catholic hierarchy. “Gender being more important than one’s humanity in serving humanity is deeply troubling,” says Nancy Corran, the former pastor at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego. “The ‘girls keep out’ of the priesthood is a man-made construction; a reality ordered by men, not ordained by God.”
The Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi first attended a service led by Diane Dougherty in Atlanta in 2012. Having grown up Catholic, she found herself personally moved by the RCWP and its cause. For the better part of the ensuing six years, Bianchi has been traveling around the world photographing these women priests, spending time with them, and learning about their journeys into the priesthood. She’s met women priests who are married to other women, women priests with children, women priests who believe in abortion, and women priests who are vehemently opposed. She’s met women priests who have been mailed death threats. In 2016, after Pope Francis stated that the decision on banning women from the priesthood was likely finite, Bianchi put up posters featuring her images around the city of Rome. She is currently working on publishing a book of her images, part of what she has named the “Women Priests Project,” and in June her work will be on display at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago.
“When you see a spiritual authority in a female body, that’s powerful,” Bianchi ?says. “I have to say, the first time I saw it, I cried.” The image of a woman leading a mass and giving communion (or one in any high-ranking leadership role within the church) is one of pure fantasy for most people who have grown up in the Catholic church and school system. Biblical stories and Gospel passages are mostly told with female names in the footnotes; women are spoken about only as saints, nuns, and saved sinners, usually in devout service to the male hierarchy of the church.?Though the number of people working in the mainstream?U.S. Catholic church has been shrinking,?the Catholic women’s representation and participation in society, particularly in America—where they serve as nuns or laypeople, as volunteers in inner cities and schools, community centers, and hospitals—has a direct effect on the next generation of leaders.
As Bianchi came to realize, their stories are just as important as their presence. “This project is really about breaking down the stereotypes of women in the church and listening to what they have to say,” she says. “Let’s challenge what the church says is sacred, what the church says is pure. Let’s listen to one another, and let’s acknowledge that the idea that women are not good enough to be in a position of power in the church, or that their body is shameful, or that they can’t define Catholicism on their own terms, is bullshit.”