NORTHBROOK, Illinois (RNS) Her whole life, Susan Vaickauski felt an internal struggle.
But earlier this summer, as Vaickauski lay prostrate at the foot of the altar of a church in the Chicago suburbs, while friends, family and supporters sang the litany of the saints over her, that struggle disappeared.
In its place, she said, she felt “this overwhelming sense of peace and just God saying, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I was asking of you. This is where I want you to be. This is what I want you to do.’ It’s this feeling of knowing you did what’s being asked of you.”
What she felt God asking her to do -- what she always has felt God calling her to do, she said -- was to become a Catholic priest, a vocation that has been barred to women.
She answered that call on Saturday, June 11, when she was ordained to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an international movement to prepare, ordain and support female priests.
Vaickauski's ceremony was held at a Protestant church, as the Roman Catholic Church officially does not recognize these ordinations. It follows the tradition that priests are modeling Jesus and that the 12 men he called as his apostles — the first priests — were all men. The movement to ordain women priests, however, maintains its bishops continue in the same apostolic succession since its first female priests were ordained by Roman Catholic bishops.
The movement isn’t new: Roman Catholic Womenpriests started with the ordination of seven women in 2002 on the Danube River in Germany, and the U.S. advocacy group Women’s Ordination Conference was founded more than 40 years ago.
But its supporters have seen glimmers of hope for their cause this summer, most recently with Pope Francis appointing a special commission to study whether the Catholic Church should ordain women as deacons.
Even though advocates of ordaining women as deacons have warned it's not a gateway to ordaining women as priests, it still has given some in the movement reason to be optimistic, however cautiously.
“We are feeling a little bit one step forward, one step back,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, co-director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
“Pope Francis has opened it in a way that we’re at least talking about it, and that’s a great thing. … The women deacons question has raised the consciousness of being able to talk about women’s ordination a little bit more freely."
Signs of hope
Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed seven men and six women to a commission to study the role of women in the early church and whether they should be ordained as deacons.
The Women’s Ordination Conference called the commission an “important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women’s leadership.”
Hanna pointed to other positive steps the Vatican has taken this summer: members of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, of which the U.S. group is a member, were allowed to hold a vigil in St. Peter’s Square during the Jubilee for Priests in early June, holding their own Jubilee for Womenpriests.
They delivered a petition to a Vatican secretary that had been signed by more than 30 groups and 4,500 individuals, sharing a vision for “A Church for our Daughters,” she said.
The church also elevated the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene in late July to a feast, which she called “unexpected” and a “great nod from Pope Francis.”
But the group got a chillier reception when it tried to deliver a petition to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this June in California, she said.
And ordaining women as deacons is not the same thing as ordaining women as priests: Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach or preside over weddings and funerals. Unlike priests, however, they cannot celebrate Mass.
A closed door
Plus, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith already explored the question of ordaining women as priests in the 1970s, Vaickauski said.
Both the congregation and the pope at the time, Paul VI, ruled it out, pointing to the 12 apostles having been all men. St. John Paul II later backed up this position in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”
“The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful,” St. John Paul II wrote.
And in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI declared any priest who ordained women or any woman who was ordained a priest automatically was excommunicated, according to Vaickauski.
With that, the Roman Catholic Church actually closed more doors than had been shut in the 1970s and 80s.
That’s when, after Vatican II and the Anglican Communion’s decision to ordain women, the movement to ordain women as priests was hopeful. Some even predicted it was “imminent,” according to Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Conference on the History of Women Religious.
Most recently, Pope Francis confirmed, “That door is closed.” And Cummings doesn’t see the church opening it again.
In fact, the question of ordaining women as priests often shuts down the discussion about the role of women in the church, she said.
What’s more interesting, and what may be more helpful, is a discussion of why many leadership positions in the Catholic Church require one to be ordained, according to the professor. That includes jobs like the secretary of state of Vatican City, a bureaucratic position in the Roman Curia that has no sacramental role.
“I think we are in the midst of a new moment, in which the focus is less on ordination and more about women's desire for leadership in the church,” she said.
But for Vaickauski, it absolutely was about ordination.
Growing up in Lafayette, Ind., she always was “unusual,” she said. She went to Mass every day, and she knew there was “something going on inside of me, but I didn’t know what it was.”
“Every day after school when my friends would go watch American Bandstand together with Dick Clark, I would first go and lay out the priests’ vestments and get the altar ready for Mass the next morning, and then I’d join my friends,” she said.
The nuns at her Catholic elementary school tried to convince her she was called to their vocation, she said, but that wasn’t it: She wanted to marry and have children. When she was in college at Purdue during Vatican II, she was introduced to the idea of the “priesthood of the laity,” and it was “as if fireworks were going on inside of me,” she said.
Maybe that was it.
Then, while on a cruise along the St. Lawrence Seaway with her husband in 2005, she learned that several Roman Catholic women were being ordained as priests aboard a boat on the same waterway. She had never heard of such a thing, she said, but she knew immediately, this was what that something going on inside her was about – this was her calling.
After her 2011 retirement from the suburban Chicago school district where she had been an administrator, a news item about Roman Catholic Womenpriests crossed her desktop, and she finally contacted the group to move forward with the ordination process.
There are about 125 priests ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests in the United States, according to Joan Clark Houk, bishop of its Great Waters Region. Last year, there were five ordinations in the Great Waters Region, which includes Illinois, she said. This year, there likely will be three.
The Archdiocese of Chicago declined to comment on the ordination, but Vaickauski said based on Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, her ordination means she automatically has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. She still can attend Our Lady of the Brook Church, the Northbrook parish she has belonged to since the 1970s, but she no longer can receive the sacraments there or be part of the ministries as she once was.
Still, it never occurred to her to leave the Catholic Church and join another denomination that freely ordains women. She felt called not to leave, but to lead, she said.
“It’s painful, and it’s hard, but at the same time, there’s this incredible adventure and journey I know God has made for me,” she said.
Since she was ordained earlier this summer, Vaickauski has celebrated Catholic Mass for a small worshiping community of 20 to 50 people once a month at Northbrook United Methodist Church, where she was ordained. She’s been asked to offer spiritual direction and funerals.
And, she said, there’s that peace.
“God has a dream for my church, and he wants me to participate in making that dream a reality,” she said.