This St. Louisan Became A Female Priest

— And Defied Centuries Of Catholic Tradition

Elsie McGrath said becoming an ordained Catholic priest was “a monumental step forward in educating people about what the church really ought to be.”

Elsie McGrath never thought of herself as a rulebreaker.

But in 2007, she broke one of the most fundamental rules in Roman Catholicism when she became an ordained priest.

She was later excommunicated, along with fellow priest Rose Marie Hudson and Bishop Patricia Fresen, who ordained the two.

Women are barred from joining the Roman Catholic clergy, but McGrath is hopeful that will change. Last month, Pope Francis caused a stir when he said the Vatican would explore the possibility of female deacons, a class of ministry allowed to oversee weddings and baptisms but not provide Communion.

McGrath spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about her call to priesthood and her hopes for the future of the Catholic Church.

On converting to Catholicism

I became a Catholic in 1956 after I married a Catholic at the age of 17. There was nothing to it, because Catholics in those days were very “tunnel vision” and out to save the world all by themselves. Nobody could be saved if they didn’t join the fold, and there was nothing to joining the fold except saying, “Yes, yes, yes” and not questioning anything.

Having been raised as, “Do what we tell you and always obey the rules and everything will be wonderful,” I thought: “This is pretty good. I’ll just be Catholic, and I will do as they say and obey the rules and everything will be good.” And then Vatican II happened, and everything started falling apart. I felt they were abandoning me, taking away my security blanket of having all the answers and leaving me looking for my own answers. And then I started getting enlightened and got on the bandwagon for changing things.

On watching her husband, Jim, become an ordained deacon

I had already gotten an undergraduate degree in theology from St. Louis University. My plan was to go into a master’s program after I got my undergrad degree, but because (Jim) was going into the diaconate, I put that off until he was finished because we went through his diaconate formation together. All of the women were encouraged to do the classes with their husbands, which was a four-year preparation at that time. I went through the whole thing with him because he was so enthusiastic about it, and I was so happy for him that he was making this move.

Jim became a deacon in 1996. I was good with it right up until the very moment that we went into the cathedral for the ordination ceremony. We walked down the aisle together as couples. When we got to the altar rail, the women got to move out of line and sit down in the pew and the men advanced up onto the altar. At that point is when I first realized how absolutely awful and unjust this whole thing was. I felt like I had been stabbed. I was totally unprepared for the reaction I would have.

McGrath converted to Catholicism at age 17, when she married her husband, Jim. When he became an ordained deacon in 1996, she said she realized “how absolutely unjust and awful” it was that women were not allowed to join the Catholic clergy.

On meeting Bishop Patricia Fresen, the leader of the women priests movement

Becoming a priest was literally the farthest thing from my mind, except for the injustice of women not being allowed to. In 2006, Patricia Fresen came to St. Louis, and I thought, “I really need to go hear what this woman has to say, because I have discounted these women priests, but I really don’t know anything about them.”

My friend called and said, “I’m going to have a little wine-and-cheese party at the house on Friday evening for Patricia Fresen to be able to meet a few people. Why don’t you come over?” Well, I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t want to meet her up close and personal, but I went. I walked into the front door of the house, and Patricia was sitting right there. As I walked in, we locked eyes with each other. I had no idea it was her, but I said to myself, “I have got to meet this woman.” The funny thing is that I had not an inkling that this was ever in my mind or my heart until I locked eyes with Patricia Fresen.

On being called to the priesthood

I questioned my own motives, especially because this all happened so quickly and I was completely unprepared for it. I kept wondering, “Why are you really doing this? Are you trying to prove something? Does this have to do with your ego?” It took me from June until November to come to the conclusion that this was something that I really, really was being called to do.

This had nothing to do with me personally; this was what the spirit within me was leading me to, and it made perfect sense. Why else would I have spent all of those years getting all of those theology degrees? Everybody would say, “What are you going to do with that? I guess you think you’re going to be a priest or something?” I would say: “I just love theology. I can’t get enough of it.” The more I know of it, the better I can help the people that I’m working with in the church. This was a monumental step forward in educating people about what church really ought to be.

On her ordination ceremony

[Archbishop] Burke made it clear that anyone who even attended this “attempted ordination ceremony” was going to be excommunicated right along with us. Some of them knew that they were treading on thin ice, but they wanted to be there anyway. [Editor’s note: McGrath’s husband died in 1998.]

We had scads of religious sisters there. We had a drum circle before the ceremony in the corner of the synagogue, and most of them were religious sisters. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t look up, they didn’t look around. And when it came time for everything to start, they just kind of quietly disappeared again.

The whole ceremony was just otherworldly. It was almost like I was floating above somewhere and looking down on what was happening. We processed back out of the sanctuary and the three of us are standing there, Patricia and Ree (Rose Marie Hudson) and me. Here comes this guy straight up, almost ahead of everybody. He works his way through all of those people, and he serves all three of us with the latest document from Burke, the summons. It said, “You have just committed the gravest of sins and you have until,” I believe, “December the third to recant.” In March, the actual decree of excommunication showed up.

On being excommunicated from the Catholic Church

Excommunication is literally a contract. It’s a legal document, and that means that it has to be accepted by both parties for it to actually be in force. We see ourselves as Roman Catholic women who have chosen to be ordained and model a new way of being in the church. We do not accept excommunication, and therefore, we’re not excommunicated.

We don’t need “the Church.” Whenever we talk about “the Church,” we’re literally talking about the hierarchy of the church. But the church itself is us. Our choice is to remain in the church and effect change from the bottom up, because that’s the only way change ever happens anywhere.

On leading Therese of Divine Peace, a Roman Catholic congregation in St. Louis 

We have about two dozen faithful members. Everyone is welcome at the table; that is the biggest thing. You don’t have to show papers to receive Communion. At the famous Last Supper, Jesus even served Judas before Judas left the room. If this is the sacrament of unity, how can anybody possibly be barred from the table? If you believe that you are in a community of people who are faithful to living the way Jesus did, what’s going to stop you from sharing bread and wine?

The Roman Catholic piece keeps a lot of people away from us for two very big reasons. One, they don’t want anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church anymore. Or two, they don’t want to take the chance of getting in trouble, because the Roman Catholic Church is so important to them.

On the possibility of women being ordained in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has done a lot to move things along from the stagnation that we were in with the two before him. He’s softening his stance because he’s understanding that we might have something important to offer the church.

We absolutely know that it will change. Anybody could throw out a figure of when this is going to happen. We’re not going to see it happen from this particular lifetime, but that’s what we’re doing it for.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope compares politicians who rage against gays to Hitler

The Catholic Church leader also denounced a resurgence in anti-Semitism in Europe

By Philip Pullella

Pope Francis said on Friday politicians who rage against homosexuals, gypsies and Jews remind him of Hitler.

“It is not coincidental that at times there is a resurgence of symbols typical of Nazism,” Francis said in an address to participants of an international conference on criminal law.

“And I must confess to you that when I hear a speech (by) someone responsible for order or for a government, I think of speeches by Hitler in 1934, 1936,” he said, departing from his prepared address.

“With the persecution of Jews, gypsies, and people with homosexual tendencies, today these actions are typical (and) represent ‘par excellence’ a culture of waste and hate. That is what was done in those days and today it is happening again.”

During the 1933-45 Nazi regime in Germany, six million Jews were killed and homosexuals and gypsies were among those sent to extermination camps.

Pope Francis did not name any politicians or countries as the targets of his criticism.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro had a history of making homophobic, racist and sexist public remarks before he took office on Jan. 1. He told one interviewer he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.

In May, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extended a moratorium on the death penalty to incoming legislation prohibiting gay sex, seeking to temper a global backlash led by celebrities such as George Clooney and Elton John.

The United Nations had warned Brunei it would be violating human rights by implementing Islamic laws that would allow death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality.

In recent weeks, Pope Francis has also denounced a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

On Wednesday, in improvised remarks at his general audience, he said: “Today the habit of persecuting Jews is beginning to be reborn. Brothers and sisters: this is neither human nor Christian; the Jews are our brothers and sisters and must not be persecuted! Understood?”

Last week, a Vatican cardinal said he was “disgusted” by anti-Semitic abuse directed at an 89-year-old Italian senator and Holocaust survivor, who was given police protection after receiving death threats.

In July, a European Union study said young Jewish Europeans experience more anti-Semitism than their parents, with a rise in abuse coming in emails, text messages and social media postings.

More than 80% of Jews of all ages said they felt anti-Semitism had increased on the Internet over the past five years and around 70% said they faced more hostility in public, the study found.

Complete Article HERE!

A tale of two priests and the future of the Catholic Church

By Bob Kustra

Recent news of the Vatican defrocking a Boise priest now serving 25 years without parole for possessing violent and extreme child pornography brought back memories long forgotten. Raised in the Catholic Church, I spent my youth as an altar boy with clergy officiating at daily Masses, funerals, weddings and who often assumed administrative or teaching roles in the Catholic schools I attended.

One priest, the principal of my high school, invited his favorite students to his cabin on the river to fish and enjoy water sports in the summer. Looking back on it all, it never once occurred to me during those outings that some of the questions he would ask about our personal lives might be an indicator of some repressed sexual desires that the church seemed to ignore with its vow of celibacy for priests.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read an account of the director of the film, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, James Gunn, that I realized the same priest/principal who was befriending boys in my high school was also prominent in the young life of this successful director in a parish across town from my experience. According to Gunn, that same priest would give young boys in his class alcohol and pornography.

In July 2019, the St. Louis Archdiocese would release the names of St. Louis priests with “substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.” And there on the list was the priest that James Gunn and I encountered in our formative years. He had risen to a top administrative post in the Archdiocese, but it was only after his death that the Archdiocese would identify him as a child abuser.

He died of cancer in 2000 in retirement and was never held accountable. Like Gunn, I was never victimized by this priest, but how many young students around us were violated by this man and had their lives ruined or destroyed in the process?

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Boise, Idaho)

Years later, when I was lieutenant governor of Illinois, the flip side of this sad tale of priestly abuse would enter my life when I was asked by Father Mike Ivers to walk the streets of the near west side of Chicago to see firsthand the impact of failed government policies on the powerless and the poor. Father Mike was pastor of a parish in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, drug- and gang-infested at the time. It was a dangerous assignment for a white priest who requested parish work on Chicago’s south and west side and who, at one point in his ministry, was threatened with a gang hit.

Father Mike fought for his parishioners before the Chicago Housing Authority to improve housing conditions. He worked with police and the courts to rescue juveniles from gangs and a criminal justice system that too often consigned them to a life of crime. He would rail against social service agencies that failed to protect children. But he saved most of his wrath for his own church and its mishandling of countless cases of priest pedophilia. He would take on the Cardinal in advocating for a tougher stance against accused priests and the system of assignment that moved pedophiles from parish to parish.

Father Mike Ivers was a man who lived his faith daily and never once strayed from his priestly vows. He officiated at our daughter’s wedding and at my father’s funeral. We attended Mass at his parish and met some of the finest people of faith we’ve met in our lives. My office staff would assist at Christmastime with the distribution of gifts to kids whose families couldn’t afford Christmas presents. Throughout our friendship, Mike talked often about the toll the celibacy vow had taken on the priesthood, about how its refusal to ordain women held back the church from being the religious and community force it could be in our lives.

In a mid-career correction, Mike realized his own need for an intimacy that he felt should only be achieved with the sacrament of matrimony. He wanted to marry. And because his church forbade married priests, he left the church and his beloved parish. He married, assumed a new life and career in social services.

What happened next you would think is the work of a novelist twisting and turning the plot. It was not. Father Mike, this arch-critic of Archdiocesan complicity in priestly child abuse, was succeeded as pastor of his parish by a priest who became the most notorious child sex-abuser in the history of the Chicago Archdiocese. In yet another failure of the Archdiocese, the priest was not removed after the first offense and went on to commit more crimes of pedophilia. He was sentenced to prison, served his term and has since been confined indefinitely to a state facility for sex offenders for his failure to even admit he has a problem.

Mike Ivers died a few years ago, a humble servant of his God, a man who lived the good life and along the way enriched the lives of his parishioners, friends and family. His life offers hope to Catholics who decry the church’s role in these scandals over the years but look to a time when priests like Mike Ivers are the stories in the news, not pedophiles and church officials who cover up.

There is one thing missing from this account. That would be the Vatican dropping the vow of celibacy from priests’ ordinations. On a recent visit to South America, Pope Francis seemed open to married priests and enhanced roles for women in the church. Will the Vatican admit men and women to the priesthood without the requirement of celibacy? Who knows, but that’s when I know my friend Mike Ivers will rest in peace.

Complete Article HERE!