By McClory, Robert
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 32, No. 10
The ordination ceremony of new priests at St. James Cathedral in Chicago Dec. 16 was Catholic in almost every sense --including the robing of the seven candidates with chasuble and stole, the anointing with chrism, the handing of chalice and paten to each, and their concelebration of Mass with the presiding bishop. In only one respect was it different: Six of the seven ordained were women, three of them former Roman Catholics.
Since 1977 women have been officially admitted into the priesthood in the Episcopal church in the United States; today they number approximately 1,500 among the 15,000 Episcopal priests in the country. The Episcopal diocese of Chicago has some 40 women among its 350 priests.
Yet the heavy concentration of women in this year's cohort at St. James Episcopal Cathedral seemed especially noteworthy partly because the ordination ceremony came so soon after the Vatican declared the ban on women in the priesthood to be infallible doctrine.
Officials at St. James said the Episcopal church does not keep track of how many of its women priests were once Catholic, nor do they attempt to lure Catholic women into the fold. Ecumenical relations between Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin are extremely cordial, and no one wants to upset the tranquillity. The three former Catholics, however, were happy to discuss their own journeys to priesthood.
Mary Lou Kator
Mary Lou Kator is a 52-year-old wife and mother of four whose background family and commitments had always been "100 percent Catholic." Then in the mid-1970s when she was intensely involved in developing a pastoral council at her parish in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, she became disillusioned.
"It was the absence of collegiality between clergy and laity," she said. "All this energy went into the council. And when it was finished it was nothing but an advisory body. The pastor retained absolute and total authority over everything. That was the law."
So Kator worked on liturgy preparation at the parish, and in the process was struck as never before by the "profound meaning of the sacraments and their importance to Catholic life." Yet here, too, stood an obstacle barring women from full equality in sacramental administration. Intrigued by this "unequal distribution of opportunity," Kator began working toward a degree in sacred scripture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Meanwhile, in 1985 she and her husband, William, started looking at other Christian denominations.
In 1988 they became Episcopalians, along with their youngest child; the three older children, grown and on their own, remained Catholics. "We found that the Episcopal church had real collegiality," said Kator. "It wasn't just a word. And it had an episcopacy and good liturgy-things we valued."
In 1992 Kator felt a call to full-time pastoral ministry and began fulfilling her academic requirements at SeaburyWestern Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. The experience of preparing for priest hood has been wonderfull, she said, thanks to the encouragement of family and friends. She still belongs to a predominantly Catholic prayer group in Des Plaines. "I,d like to be rector of a church someday," she said, "but I'm ready for anything."
Her whole family attended the ordination. Husband William, attired in alb, was thurifer for the liturgy.
Gina Volpe clearly remembers the first time she witnessed an Episcopal Mass .
The year was 1985 and she was a 22year-old student at Northern Illinois University, an active member of the Newman Club and a teacher in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program. In order to explain Protestantism to her students, she went to several non-Catholic services.
When she attended the Episcopal church, the liturgy seemed so familiar in every way, she said. "But there standing at the altar, holding up the Body and Blood of Christ, was this woman! …