Published Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cowetan to be ordained today in Atlanta


A fleeting shadow of sadness crosses Diane Dougherty's face as she reflects that she will no longer be able to take communion when she visits her sister.

Dougherty will not be allowed to participate in communion in the Catholic parish where she grew up and was nurtured spiritually. To do so would risk a rebuff from the priest – or trouble for the priest if he gave her a eucharistic wafer.

If there are moments of sadness, however, Dougherty remains resolute – joyful even. Today she will be ordained as a Roman Catholic woman priest.

The Vatican does not recognize the ordination of women. Canon law specifically states "only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination," and the Vatican issued a 2007 decree proclaiming automatic excommunication for women undergoing ordination and priests performing ordination.

For Dougherty, a cradle Catholic who spent 23 years as a nun, women serving as priests comes naturally from basic Catholic, Christian teaching.

A woman whose independence and intelligence show clearly in her eyes and face, Dougherty is well aware that Pope Benedict XVI disagrees with her theological position.

"We can follow the Lord's call. Sometimes the pope misdirects us," Doughtery stated.

Dougherty will be ordained a priest in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests today at 1 p.m. at First Metropolitan Community Church, 1379 Tullie Road, Atlanta, Georgia 30329.

Five women – Barbara Anne Duff, Debra Meyers, Joleane Presley, Rosemarie Smead and Irene Scaramazza – will be ordained deacons in ARCWP at the same service. The presiding bishop will be Bridget Mary Meehan.

Dougherty, an educator who most recently taught for 10 years in Fayette County, served Catholic communities as a Sister of Humility of Mary for 23 years. As a lay ecclesial minister she served in Catholic schools and parishes as a master educator and catechist and in the Religious Education and Faith Formation office for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

"I consider my journey toward priesthood as the next phase in my vocation to serve within the Catholic tradition, said Dougherty. "By becoming a woman priest my original call to serve Christ through the church is fulfilled and I hope my ordination will open the door to the many women Christ is calling to serve."

She said she will "advocate for women's ordination."

The Ohio native grew up in a conservative Catholic family. She did not, however, set out to become a nun.

"I never liked nuns. The lifestyle of the nuns – I didn't like it," Dougherty recalled. She grew up two blocks from the church and often helped out when nuns or priests needed help with a project.

She remembered that – in those days – priests and nuns "were all separate from us." Her involvement in her parish and neighborhood, led her to believe God wanted her to do something for Him.

"I knew I had a vocation, and I had to do something with it," she said. She decided to spend six months in a novitiate program "just to try it" – believing she would come home at the end of that time.

Dougherty, however, had come of age in the era of Vatican II, when winds of modernism were moving through every corner of Catholic life.

She began her college studies – and the next stage of her religious pilgrimage. "I was put in a really intensive study group of the documents of Vatican II," Dougherty said.

The trend was toward nuns being in the community – connecting with people as teachers, social workers and other professionals. Dougherty liked the academic challenge, but she also liked being part of the group of young women who were considering becoming sisters.

"We prayed. We laughed," she said with a vibrant smile. "We had fun together."

Activities in which the young women were involved – visiting elderly people and working at a summer camp for inner-city children – proved to be transformative for Dougherty. "That was a load of fun," she said of the camp.

"I thought, 'I could do this for the rest of my life,'" she remembered. So she made the commitment to join the Sisters of Humility of Mary.

"They put me in teaching. I wanted to be a nurse, but I'm a natural-born teacher. I love children," she said.

As she began her service, life for nuns was changing. "We were moving out," she said, connecting with the world in a way nuns had not before.

The nuns who were her mentors "were quite educated" and "were thinkers," she said. "They wanted us to invest ourselves" in the communities where they lived and worked.

She remembered the aggravation of woolen habits that got wet, and how they were soon abandoned. "Everytime I got sick of something, it changed," Dougherty said with a high spirited laugh.

In teaching and serving children and their families, Dougherty came to what she calls "my excellent understanding of what the gospel is."

A more active role for nuns, however, was not the only change taking place in American Catholicism. Many parishes which had maintained schools were moving away from that model. In one parish where Dougherty taught, the laypeople eventually raised money independently to keep their school open.

Many others closed.

She found that priests often had hidden agendas and that nuns – trained to run schools and educated at the church's expense – were neither consulted nor appreciated. Even when priests were not following church teachings, their superiors generally would not reprimand them – leaving parish matters in their hands.

She recalled one parish where there was great dissension as large numbers of Latinos came into the area. At one point, the Spanish-speaking Catholics were not allowed to have services in the church.

"That's when my heart was split in two," Dougherty said.

Through all the difficulties, living with other nuns brought happiness to Dougherty's life. "Supper would last three hours. We'd sit and talk and laugh," she remembered.

In the late 1980s, forces within the church were moving in a conservative direction. Dougherty gradually came to feel certain priests were seeking to turn the clock back with regard to some Vatican II innovations. "You felt like you were walking on eggshells," she recalled.

"The average Catholic did not have an understanding" that those changes were taking place, she said.

After she became a nun, Dougherty had a number of educational opportunities, including earning a master's degree from Boston College. "Through education, people move away from that conservatism," she said, remembering the strictures of her childhood.

The education provided to her by the Catholic Church led her to "a broader notion of Catholicism," she said.

When she left the convent, Dougherty knew she needed to find a way to support herself and make some provision for retirement. "I was living at that time in Acworth," she said.

Dougherty had a valid Georgia teaching certificate. She heard about a job in Fayette County as a permanent substitute teacher. "The very day my severance ended, I was full-time in Fayetteville," she said.

That was the "gift and grace of God," Dougherty concluded.

Dougherty found teaching there a good experience, and she said she sees both the Fayette and Coweta systems as good ones. The schools are run "very much like the sisters would run a school," she said, teaching children values such as creativity, kindness and service "without using any religious words."

Dougherty ran across the ARCWP website on the Internet. "I thought, 'Well, that's interesting,'" she remembered. "I called and found out about it."

She went through the ARCWP's ordination process and is now looking forward to serving "within the tradition of the church as a priestly minister."

While the Vatican seems unlikely to relax ordination rules anytime soon, some Catholic theologians have been urging that women be allowed to serve as priests for decades. The ARCWP is growing, even while facing official disapproval from the faith its members follow.

The group began in Europe in 2002 and now numbers 140 clergy.

"The women priests movement in the Roman Catholic Church advocates a new model of priestly ministry united with the people with whom we minister. We stand in prophetic obedience to Jesus who calls women and men to be disciples and equals," said Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a spokeswoman for ARCWP who was ordained in 2008.

The first women bishops were ordained by a male Roman Catholic bishop in apostolic succession and in communion with the pope. "The Vatican states that we are excommunicated, however, we do not accept this and affirm that we are loyal members of the church," Sevre-Duszynska said.

Sevre-Duszynska said ARCWP priests "work in solidarity with the poor and marginalized for transformative justice in partnership with all believers." She explained, "Our vision is to live as a community of equals in decision making both as an organization and within all our faith communities."

“Nothing can stop the movement of the spirit toward human rights, justice and equality in our world and in our church,” Meehan said. “The full equality of women is the voice of God in our time.”

"Today, women priests continue to follow the tradition of women disciples living and preaching the gospel taught to them by Jesus," Sevre-Duszynska reflected.

For Diane Dougherty, tomorrow begins a new facet of that tradition. She plans to start with a small group meeting at her Coweta County home – and see what God has in store.

She said she feels a little "like Rosa Parks," but stressed she is not bitter, but excited about the opportunities to continue serving God in a new way.

"I'm not mad. I'm glad," she said.

"I want to start Catholic intentional communities that are inclusive. It's important to get all of our voices together," Dougherty said.

"Maybe this was my first calling – to be a priest, but it wasn't an option," she said. "I couldn't even entertain the idea."

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