Stained-glass ceiling

The Baltimore Sun

With her pearl earrings, spotless house and unfailingly friendly manner, Andrea Johnson doesn't seem - at first glance - to fit the description of a revolutionary. The 61-year-old lives in Annapolis with her husband, a retired Navy captain, and her aging dog. The mother of three grown children, she is retired from a job as a program officer at the Fulbright Program. She's a devout Catholic who doesn't especially relish making waves.

But for decades, Johnson has felt that something was amiss in the Roman Catholic Church - that the exclusion of women from the priesthood was unfair and self-defeating.

Since 1984, she has been involved in the movement to change the church's stance, and last year, she took an even more radical step: She was ordained a Catholic priest in a ceremony that church authorities do not recognize.

Now Johnson, along with Gloria Carpeneto of Catonsville, presides over a monthly Mass for about 40 people in borrowed church space. They have been alternately gathering in Annapolis and Baltimore; in October, they began meeting regularly in Catonsville. In addition, they meet in private homes some weeks, and Carpeneto, who was ordained in July , also holds services at Faith Community of Peace in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood.

The Vatican decreed in May that women priests such as Johnson and the bishops who ordain them immediately excommunicate themselves, but Johnson determinedly views her ordination - and others organized by the advocacy group Roman Catholic Womenpriests - as valid.

Officially, the women reject the excommunication, arguing that while the ordinations break canon law that prohibits women priests, the group's first members were ordained by bishops in good standing and therefore the subsequent ceremonies have all been legitimate.

"We're saying we're going to break this unjust law and call it into question," Johnson said. "If the church is going to retain its character, we need more ordained people."

The monthly Mass draws a mix of people including Catholics who are divorced and remarried, gays and lesbians and women who feel excluded in some way in traditional parishes.

"I think there are people out there who you might call disaffected or disenfranchised and they're very welcomed," Carpeneto said.

Seeing a woman preside at Eucharist was "a thrilling moment for me," said JoAnn Valaske of Severna Park.

"The fact that a woman was doing this after so many years of only seeing men made me feel so much more part of the celebration," she said. "Also, women have a different perspective on things. It's so important to hear our Scripture and faith discussed from those perspectives."

Jerry May, a retired lawyer, regularly attends Mass at an Annapolis parish, but after a friend told him about Johnson and Carpeneto, he enthusiastically began going to their Sunday services with his wife. "I'm very supportive of that movement," he said. "I have believed for some period of time that the church's attitude toward women becoming priests and married men becoming priests has been counter-productive."

The ordination of Carpeneto and two other women over the summer attracted some media attention and was promptly denounced by the Roman Catholic Church. In a statement, the Archdiocese of Baltimore said that women have long held leadership positions in the church and "their dedicated and able service remains and will continue to be an integral component of our ministry."

A spokesman added in an e-mail that "While this may create attention, it does nothing positive to advance understanding of ordination, consideration of which must be according to theological principles rather than current social norms."

In the United States, 33 women have been ordained as priests, six as deacons and one as a bishop, according to Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, doubts the women's ordinations are significantly influencing the discussion about women in the Catholic Church.

"In terms of ultimately getting the church to change, I don't think this is going to have any effect one way or another," he said. "In the long term, what will have an impact on the laity is if they have any priests. Priests are getting older and older and they're getting fewer and fewer." But Carpeneto, 60, believes people are beginning to notice. "We're seeing little cracks in the stained-glass ceiling," she said.

Carpeneto, who is married with two adult daughters, has doctorates in ministry and human development. For years, she was the pastoral associate at a Baltimore Catholic church, and she currently works as a spiritual director, which she describes as akin to being a spiritual life coach.

She had long felt a call to become a priest when she read an article about the women's ordinations.

"It really was, 'Gosh, I would do that if I could,' and then when I found that I could, well, I did," she said.

It made so much more sense to her than leaving the Catholic Church to become a minister.

"The culture and the tradition means a great deal to me, and it doesn't feel like it's fair that to follow a call from God I'd have to give that up and profess a belief in another denomination that doesn't represent where my heart is," she said.

For Johnson, the decision came after witnessing one of the women's ordinations. "I thought, 'This could happen in this country. People will understand this.' "

She also had a coterie of family members at her ordination, a ceremony she said left her feeling "absolutely peaceful and very joyful."

Yet sometimes Johnson's situation puts her in an uncomfortable position. She goes to a Catholic church in Annapolis, but avoids talking about this other piece of her life there. She was reluctant to have her photograph taken because she fears some kind of reprisal.

But make no mistake: She's quite assured that getting ordained, presiding at Masses and being a woman priest is the right thing for her to do.

"It isn't about me, it's about moving the Catholic Church forward," she said. "I'm called to bloom where I'm planted and help open the way for the Catholic Church."

women priests

The group Roman Catholic Womenpriests formed in 2002.

In the United States, 33 women have been ordained as priests, six as deacons and one as a bishop, according to a group spokeswoman.

In Canada, 10 people have been ordained as bishops, priests or deacons. Others have been ordained in Europe.

Locally, two women have been ordained in ceremonies organized by the group. Andrea Johnson of Annapolis was ordained in July 2007, and Gloria Carpeneto was ordained in July 2008.

In May 2008, the Vatican decreed that women priests and the bishops who ordain them immediately excommunicate themselves.

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