First United Church of Oak Park hosted an ordination on Oct. 10 that most members of the congregation — and most Christians, for that matter — had never witnessed. The bulletin cover for the service read:

“Celebration of Ordination to the Roman Catholic Order of Priests of Mary Michele Regina Foley, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Great Waters Region.”

The newly ordained Rev. Foley recounted the spiritual journey that led her from being a student at St. Giles School to the decision that will get her excommunicated. 

“I grew up in Oak Park, the first born of eight children. My parents intentionally chose this community as the place they wanted to raise and educate their children because Oak Park was already (in the 1960s) known for its integration policies, something valued by my parents, who were both involved in the civil rights movement. I graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School.

“When I was a young child in Catholic school, we used to have vocation talks all the time. I always believed I had a religious vocation although I could not understand it when I was young. For girls, having a religious vocation meant becoming a nun and that was not something I wanted to do. It would not have been possible for me to think of being a priest because that was only for boys. I prayed to know what kind of religious vocation I had. I did not get an answer. I did have a spiritual experience at the age of 7 while alone in church and in prayer that left me feeling very peaceful and knowing things would be all right even though I still did not know the answer to my question.”

Her journey took several “detours,” as she put it, serving at various times as a pastoral minister, campus minister, pastoral associate and parish director — always in Catholic parishes. In 1996, however, after the ban on women’s ordination was affirmed by the Vatican, Foley explored the Episcopal Church, where she was “recommended for discernment for priesthood.” But she believed “my Catholic identity was too strong for me to be ordained an Episcopal priest.”

She returned to ministry in the Catholic Church and earned a Doctor of Ministry degree. Her thesis “proposed a spirituality for dialogue about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church in the United States. This spirituality was grounded in an expanded view of Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, a vision that recognized the full dignity of women and encourages their voices and ministry.”

In the early 2000s, Foley heard about Womenpriests, who chose to be ordained on bodies of water like the Danube and the St. Lawrence Seaway. “I used to think of these women as the ‘crazy boat ladies,'” she recalled. “I just could not imagine taking this step, which would result in excommunication.”

But Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) inspired the last stage of her journey of discernment.

“Over the past 10 years,” Foley said, “I have come to believe that women’s ordination is a justice issue. Women are called to be Christ everywhere in the world except behind altars. This makes no sense. Catholics have a right to the pastoral ministry of women at every level of the church. And I believe that Catholics have a right to church governance and the development of church teaching and laws that includes the full participation of women.”

So a few years ago, Foley contacted an RCWP bishop and discovered that womenpriests weren’t crazy boat ladies after all. 

“I discovered that they were women very much like me who were highly educated and who had served in ministry for many years. They are women who continue to claim their Catholic identity even as they take a stand in conscience to promote a church that is more inclusive and welcoming.”

Rev. Beverly Bingle, an RCWP priest and one of Foley’s mentors, said, “Mary is a deeply spiritual, eminently practical, highly intelligent, and basically loving woman, a superb model of Christ-like action in the world. It’s my conviction that Mary’s priesthood will open new ways for her to continue serving the people of God in the compassionate and competent way that been her practice to this point.”

What is striking about the 145 ordained women worldwide associated with the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is that they deeply love the church that has resisted their full participation. The RCWP website states that the organization is holding up “a new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.”

The ordination liturgy held at First United Church followed closely the post-Vatican II order of service, with a homily delivered by RCWP Bishop Joan Houk.

RCWP women go to great lengths to explain that their ordinations are valid. “The principal consecrating Roman Catholic male bishops who ordained our first women bishops,” the website states, “are bishops with apostolic succession [a direct line from St. Peter] within the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, our bishops validly ordain deacons, priests and bishops.”

Rev. Mary Keldermans, RCWP, said, “We Womenpriests are sometimes thought of as women who have become ordained merely to protest the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Not so! Each woman who has been ordained has spent years developing her relationship with God, of listening and discerning what God may be calling her to do. Mary is no exception. I observed her during her ordination as she prayed the Eucharistic prayer for the first time as priest. She stepped into her new role as if she had been doing it for a lifetime. She was so natural, so prayerful, so connected to the moment, how could this not be of God?”

Rev. Marty-Gentile, who gave a greeting to the assembly on behalf of First United, was impressed by the “physicality” of the liturgy — the laying on of hands, the blessing of oils, Foley’s father and stepmother putting a chasuble on her — moved her. During the Litany of the Saints, Foley lay prostrate in front of the altar. “I read that,” said Marty-Gentile, “as an incredibly powerful sign of humility in taking this on.”

RCWP did “tinker,” as Marty-Gentile put it, with the language of the traditional service to make it gender neutral and non-hierarchical. For example, what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father began with “Our Father-Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kin-dom come …”

First United’s new lead pastor, Rev. John Cole, said, “The courage and conviction of Mary Foley displays the kind of faithful discipleship we seek to encourage and embrace.”

Lil Lewis, a former Oak Park resident who was ordained a womanpriest last year said in an email, “Mary Foley is the third Catholic woman to be ordained from Oak Park [Foley, Lewis and Marty Meyer-Gad]. Mary is an accomplished woman who very consciously chose priesthood as the Holy Spirit chose her. 

“The movement is growing.”

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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...