Fifteen people from Oak Park — students, friends and former neighbors — traveled to Three Oaks, Michigan on May 31 to support Lillian Lewis as she was ordained a priest by Bishop Joan Clark Houk from the Great Waters Region of the Roman Catholic Womanpriest (RCWP) movement.

Lewis’ husband, Steve Shimek, described the backyard of their home, where the liturgy was celebrated, as “festive with three canopies, yard umbrellas and lots of parasols.” They set up 120 rented chairs and some tables. An ensemble of six musicians played as the people gathered. 

“One of our granddaughters remarked to my wife, ‘You and Grandpa have so many friends!’ That was the atmosphere, one of joy and friendship, an intermingling of many communities overlapping in their affirmation of Lil,” Shimek said.

Not everyone in Michigan, however, was in a mood to celebrate. Bishop Paul Bradley sent a letter to the parishes in the Kalamazoo Diocese the week before the ordination saying that the event would “undermine the unity of the church” and threatened anyone directly involved with excommunication.

“His ‘pastoral’ letter,” said Shimek, “was the ignitor of hate mail and calls, forcing us to change the venue from the Congregational Church in town to our backyard and arranging to have the local police keep an eye on our celebration as well as on the Congregational Church.”

 “My main purpose in attending,” Oak Park resident Paul Moroney said, “was to support two fine friends I have known for over 40 years. In threatening excommunication, the Bishop of Kalamazoo unwittingly attacked a couple dozen of the finest Christians that God knows how to make. Christ was not exclusive … he was inclusive. He hung around with all the wrong people.”

Lewis herself identified two issues as causing the uproar surrounding her ordination, one of them being the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church. 

“The Vatican pronounced,” she said, “that any woman who attempts ordination to the priesthood commits the gravest canonical crime — on par with sexually abusing a child. How do you like that after thousands of priests have [abused] children?!”

“The real issue,” she wrote in an email, “is the fear of the authority, which is punishing and has little to do with the Gospel and all to do with Patriarchy. This is what the RCWP is fighting against and what my prophetic disobedience challenges.

“I was raised to be an activist to truth,” she added, “my father being a Jew and my mother a Catholic. I was taught to live prophetically, to be a pioneer. What I mean is that the Catholic Church is not the paragon of virtue it pretends to be. Thousands have left the Church because of this transparent hypocrisy. More of us must read the signs of the times and interpret them in light of the Gospel, a premise of Vatican II. Sixty-one percent of Catholics believe the time has come for women’s ordination. My ordination is merely another symptom of the inevitable.” 

Shimek noted that the liturgy in their backyard was “strictly proper,” dotting every liturgical “i” and crossing every “t,” so as to give the Vatican no excuse to invalidate the ordination because it wasn’t done according to the church’s guidelines.

“Despite what some bishops may lead the faithful to believe,” declares that RCWP website, “our ordinations are valid because we are ordained in apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church.” Shimek noted that the first RCWP bishop was consecrated by three male bishops with “valid” ordinations. The names of those three men have so far been kept a secret. 

“Roman Catholic Womenpriests,” adds the website, “are at the forefront of a model of service that offers Catholics a renewed priestly ministry in vibrant grassroots communities where all are equal and all are welcome.”

As if in response to Bishop Bradley’s contention that the actions of the womenpriests is undermining the unity of the church, the RCWP website begins with the words, “Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) is an international movement within [italics added] the Roman Catholic Church.”

 “The RCWP maintains they belong to the Roman Catholic Church,” Shimek explained. “They do not consider themselves to be some extrinsic cult. They are not going into schism. 

“At the very beginning of the ordination, Bishop Joan said: ‘Put down anger and hostility toward the local bishop for doing what he had to do as bishop. He reminded everyone of the laws and penalties. We are doing what we have to do in the face of this unjust law.'” 

RCWP considers itself to be within the Roman Catholic Church even though breaking some of its rules. Its mission, the statement declares, is to “support primarily women who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to a renewed priestly ministry rooted in justice and faithfulness to the Gospel.” In other words, these womenpriests are shifting their source of authority for discerning God’s will from the hierarchy to the Holy Spirit, to religious communities and to the Gospel.

As Oak Parker Bob Walsh observed, “The ordination of women will come. We just have to be patient. We have a difficult situation. Our younger people say to us, ‘Why do you stay?’ It’s very difficult to be a Catholic these days.” 

Nonetheless, he said, “I love being a Catholic. I love everything about it,” noting how inspired he was by what happened at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. “Someone said that maybe we should have another Vatican council. If we do, it should not be held in Rome. If change is going to happen, it has to happen outside of Rome.” 

Lewis was trained as a theologian at Marquette University where she received a master’s degree and where one of her professors, the highly respected Jesuit Bernard Cooke, told her in 1963, “Women’s ordination is just around the corner.”

“Fifty-one years later,” said her husband, “Lil’s ordination is recognition and affirmation of a life in service of the Word. Her creative way of fulfilling her call includes the authorship of a memoir/novel and a midlife Ph.D. in Depth Psychology. She has been an inner-city pastoral associate, trainer of priests, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd teacher, spiritual director, mother, etc., etc.” 

Lewis said she fully intends to do the work of a priest — that her ordination is not just symbolic. “I have been invited to concelebrate with the ecumenical Catholic Bishop of the Cathedral of St. Anthony’s in Detroit, and he has asked that I preach the gospel at the Sunday liturgy. 

“I don’t think I will have trouble finding work.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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