Woman Explains Choice to Be Catholic Priest

Last week 25-year-old Jessica Rowley became one of about a dozen women nationwide to make a highly unusual career move: she was ordained a Catholic priest. Rowley's ordination—which took place at Eden Theological Seminary, a progressive institution in Webster Groves, Mo.—is approved by the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a group of churches that decline to recognize the authority of the pope but see themselves nevertheless as Catholic. This week Rowley—who is also married—begins working full-time as an associate pastor at Saints Clare & Francis, a breakaway parish in Webster Groves.

The Roman Catholic Church, not surprisingly, does not recognize Rowley as a priest. "The Church does not see itself able to ordain women, following the long and constant teaching of the church," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (It does, however, recognize the more than 100 already married men who became priests after a conversion to Roman Catholicism.) NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talked with Rowley about how she views her role. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: What made you decide to become a Catholic priest?
Jessica Rowley:
It was a long process that started at a very young age. I [grew up Roman Catholic and] was always attracted to the church and to things spiritual. I was always affirmed by my youth minister that I had gifts for ministry.

Your husband, who is Protestant, helped you realize that you wanted to be a priest. Tell me about that.
I began going to church with him, and he began going to mass with me. At his church there were female pastors. He's a member of the United Church of Christ. It's a progressive, mainline Protestant denomination. They ordain women, and they're open to gays and lesbians in their congregation.

That's when you thought the ministry might be possible for you?
That's when I decided to go to seminary. I figured I couldn't be Roman Catholic anymore. When I was in seminary, I found the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. It resonated with the sacraments I grew up with, and I knew this was the place I was called.

Have you heard from the Roman Catholic hierarchy?
The community I belong to hasn't felt anything from the bishop, but local Roman Catholic pastors have warned their congregations not to attend [ECC churches].

How has your family handled your decision? Are they still Roman Catholic?
They are. They are actually incredibly supportive. My immediate family came for the ordination. My grandmother bought me all the vestments.

How many people are in your congregation?
We have 80 registered members. And we have a number of people who come who are also part of the Roman Catholic churches but who come to worship with us as a place to refresh their souls—a lot of Catholic sisters and ex-priests.

How does being married affect the way you do your job?
It's been nothing but a blessing in my ministry. It isn't so odd if we look at the Episcopal Church or other denominations that have had married clergy for a long time. Being exposed to those traditions made me see that it could be possible. Married priesthood was a reality in the Catholic Church in medieval centuries. It wasn't until later that celibacy was mandated. [In the Ecumenical Catholic Communion] we have married priests. We have women priests. We have out gay and lesbian priests in partnered relationships. We see the benefit of intimate connections. That helps us relate to couples. We also receive the kind of emotional support that so many Roman Catholic priests have to live without because they're mandated to be celibate.

Are you going to have kids some day?
We're really looking forward to this symbol. "This is my body given for you." To be a pregnant priest will just add a whole other dimension to those words.

So will you be the first-ever pregnant priest?
Probably the first Catholic pregnant priest. I'm sure there have been Episcopal priests who've been pregnant.

Do you know the other female Catholic priests?
In the Ecumenical Catholic Communion there are six other women priests. I know all of them. In the Ecumenical Catholic Communion we no longer claim that we're underneath the authority of the pope. [There's also a group called the Roman Catholic Women Priests, which ordains some women priests.]

When are you getting started in your new job as a pastor?
Really, as soon as I was ordained, so this week. I've been serving the parish full-time for a few months now, part-time while I was in seminary for the past two years.

Have you received any hate mail?
I personally have not received hate mail, although there are plenty of blogs that I have found online that like to slander my name when they get hold of information about my ordination and ministry. It's unfortunate and sad. The people I serve are excited to see a place where men and women can serve side by side.

The Ecumenical Catholic Communion doesn't think it's a sin for people to be gay, right?
As far as moral teaching goes, we stress the primacy of conscience. It's important for people to form a moral conscience with the help of a church and a faithful community. Ultimately God helps us with our conscience to make moral decisions. Homosexuality is not inherently sinful. Love in all of its forms can be for the glory of God.

Will you raise your kids Roman Catholic?
We'll raise our children Christian because we belong to two different church traditions. We'll let them decide where they want to call their church home. But they'll be baptized Christian, likely in a joint service.

Are you pro-choice?
We go to back to the primacy of conscience. We stress the formation of conscience in moral matters, such as the pro-life/pro-choice debate. No one is excluded from the table in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. Jesus never turned anyone away at the table, so neither do we. We feel it's our responsibility to help people make responsible choices, but that no single person can dictate what God's will is.

How do you feel about divorced people?
Divorced people are not excluded from our communities.

Is there anything else you wish people knew?
It's important to me that people see that I did what the men do who prepare for the priesthood. I took that traditional path. I got my master's of divinity. I was a deacon for 10 months. I just wish more Catholics who find themselves alienated from the church could find a church home. If the ECC could be that church home for them, I'd be so excited for them.