In a ceremony that one participant hailed as an act of “holy disobedience,” Toledoan Beverly Bingle was ordained Thursday night (Sept. 13) as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement.
The 90-minute service led by Bishop Joan Houk of Pittsburgh, held at First Unitarian Church in South Toledo, marked a transitional step in Bingle’s effort to become a priest.
But the Roman Catholic Church reserves the sacrament of Holy Orders, encompassing deacons, priests, and bishops, for baptized men.
Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo diocese issued a statement Thursday unequivocally rejecting the ordination of women, and stated that anyone involved in such a ceremony is excommunicated from the church.
Citing papal letters, the Bible, and the church’s constitution, Bishop Blair said “the simulation of a diaconal ordination” of a woman “is utterly null and void, and incurs the penalty of excommunication for those who attempt to confer the sacrament and for any who would attempt to receive it.”
He added that “the presence and the role of women in the life and the mission of the church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”
The Vatican’s ban and the penalty of excommunication did not appear to dampen the joy and celebration of Bingle’s ordination.
With a beaming smile, the 68-year-old old retired Toledo diocesan pastoral associate entered in a procession led by crossbearer Chris Schaal and which included four Roman Catholic Womenpriests -- Rev. Dagmar Celeste, the former first lady of Ohio; Rev. Mary Ellen Robertson of Muskegon, Mich.; Rev. Elsie Hainz McGrath of St. Louis, and Rev. Mary Grace Crowley-Koch of Chicago -- and Houk, who is bishop of the U.S. Great Waters Region.
Another Roman Catholic womanpriest, Rev. Alta Jacko of Chicago, played piano during the service.
The ceremony included congregational singing and responsorial psalms, readings from the biblical books of Isaiah, Mark, and James, Communion with a choice of grape juice or wine and regular or gluten-free bread, and a 16-minute sermon by Houk in which the 71-year-old bishop spoke of the challenges and obstacles women face when they feel called by God to be priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
“If you want the world to change, then you live the change you want to the world to be,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard. You are defrocked because you choose to do the right thing.”
She said that although change appears impossible at times, she saw the Berlin Wall come down and the Roman Catholic Church convene the Second Vatican Council.
As the womenpriest movement grows, Houk predicted, it will become like isolated candles joining together to create one large flame.
Crowley-Koch, the priest from Chicago, said that her church supports Bingle in her “act of holy disobedience” to the restrictions imposed by the Vatican.
At one point during the service, Bingle lay prostrate on the floor in the center aisle of First Unitarian for 14 minutes as the congregation sang a responsorial song.
Afterward, she sat in a chair facing the pews as Houk laid hands on her and prayed silently.
The bishop then invited anyone in the audience to follow her lead, and more than 50 people lined up to take a turn placing their palms on Bingle’s bowed head and offering a quick, silent prayer.
Bingle said afterward that “it was like I could feel God’s spirit in them coming to me, and I wanted to send it back to them” during the prayer session.
Her brother, Bill Bingle, placed the deacon’s stole -- white with gold-colored crosses – around her neck, after which Houk and Hainz held Bingle’s hands aloft to introduce the first Toledo woman deacon in the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement.
Bingle, who has a doctorate in ministry from Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, now has authority to conduct baptisms, funerals and weddings. As a deacon, she cannot celebrate Mass or hear confession.
But she expects to complete her formation program and be ordained a priest next spring, which would give her authority to perform all of the church’s sacraments.
The female priests generally preside at Mass in people’s homes or hold services at sympathetic Protestant churches. Some serve as chaplains at hospitals and nursing homes, or lead spiritual retreats.
Nationwide, more than 90 women have been ordained as female Catholic priests in the movement that began in 2002 with the “Danube Seven” – of which Celeste was a member. The seven women were ordained by a male Roman Catholic bishop on a boat in the Danube River, and the female priests lay claim to legitimate apostolic succession.
They consider themselves to be a renewal movement within the Roman Catholic Church, proclaiming the motto of “a new model of ministry in a renewed church.”
Rev. Beth Marshall, First Unitarian’s parish minister, said her church was glad to host the ceremony because Unitarians support all those who feel God’s calling and are qualified.
Before the ceremony, Houk said it is “the right thing, the just thing, that we are moving forward.” She said women are leading the Roman Catholic Church, not leaving it.
Celeste, speaking afterward, said she never considered becoming a priest until after her 1995 divorce from former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste, who was governor from 1983-1991.
Being single allowed her time to pray and discern, she said. Had she remained married, she would have been too busy supporting her husband’s political career. While living in Columbus, she said, she earned a master’s degree in theology as “personal entertainment” to get away from politics.
After several trips to her native Austria, during which she chanced to meet with women involved in the womenpriest movement, she was invited to join them in pursuing ordination.
Skeptical at first, she said she eventually felt herself say yes and was one of the first seven women ordained by a male Catholic bishop aboard a boat in the Danube River on June 29, 2002.
Celeste, now 70 and living in Lakewood, Ohio, said she was surprised when the women priests were excommunicated by a Vatican conclave of 13 cardinals.
“We were just seven little old ladies on a boat in the Danube that nobody cared about -- until we were excommunicated by the Vatican at the highest level,” she said. “After that, it became a story.”
Asked why she chose to stay in the Roman Catholic Church rather than leave for a denomination that allows women priests, Celeste replied: “For the same reason I didn’t leave America when Nixon was president: It’s my home!”
She said it is more effective to work within the system, something she learned from the political world.