We never thought it would end up on a hard wooden bench inside a police station in Piazza Cavour. Maryknoll priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois, young Erin Saiz Hannah of Women’s Ordination Conference in the US and Miriam Duignan from Womenpriests.org from the UK were sitting there when my wife and I arrived. They were being detained by the Rome police.
It started when the Rome police spotted the three women in long white church liturgical garments robes, the man in a roman collar dressed all in black, and their supporters walking several blocks down the middle of Via della Conciliazione directly towards the Vatican, the headquarters of the institutional Roman Catholic Church and the Basilica of St. Peter.
The group sang Alleluias and carried a long purple banner Ordain Catholic Women, a big red and white banner proclaiming God is Calling Women To Be Priests” (in English and Italian), and a black and white Call to Action banner
The group wanted to deliver a petition, printed on pink paper, signed by more than 15,000 people who asked the Vatican not to expel Fr. Roy Bourgeois, 72, from the church for saying that women are called to be priests in the church. Fr. Roy faces expulsion from his Catholic community, Maryknoll, for refusing to recant his belief that women can and should be allowed to become priests. Bourgeois, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has been a faithful member of the Catholic missionary group, Maryknoll, for 44 years. For twenty years, he has worked with School of Americas Watch in the US, a group of thousands who challenge the role of the US military in training human rights abusers among Latin American militaries. Along with the petition was a list of hundreds of priests who asked that Fr. Roy not be expelled just for speaking out about a matter of conscience.
As the tour busses and other traffic veered around the marchers, pedestrians on the street cheered. The huge dome of St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the area which is thronged with pilgrims and tourists, and saturated with souvenir shops and vendors selling religious medals, holy cards, statues, refrigerator magnets, flags, and postcards.
The police presence quickly outnumbered the group and stopped them as they tried to enter Vatican Square.
Protests were not allowed in the Vatican said the police. But we are here to deliver a petition, the group responded. But you are carrying signs said the police. We can put the signs down responded the group. But the women are dressed like priests and that is a protest the police insisted. But we are legitimately ordained priests they told the authorities.
After much back and forth with Vatican authorities the police said Fr. Roy could go into Vatican Square because he was a real priest. When Fr. Roy insisted all the priests, men and women, should be allowed to enter, an undercover policeman violently grabbed the banners away from those peacefully holding them and the authorities arrested Fr. Roy, Erin Saiz Hannah who the police decided organized the event, and Miriam Duignan, who was acting as the translator.
Erin and Miriam were jammed into a police car and with lights flashing and sirens blasting were taken away. Fr. Roy was taken away in another police car.
After several hours’ detention inside the Rome police station, the three were released after they signed statements promising to return to Italy if the investigating magistrate decided to try them on the charges of protesting without a permit. The banners were seized as evidence and not returned.
As the three were released from police custody to cheers from the rest of the group gathered outside the police station, the group insisted the petitions must still be delivered. Ultimately they were delivered to high ranking church official who promised to consider them.
So, who were these people?
Three of women who marched alongside Fr. Roy in priestly garb are members of Roman Catholic Women Priests, an international group of more than a hundred ordained Catholic women priests, deacons and bishops from the US, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Latvia, Scotland, South Africa, and Switzerland. Priests Ree Hudson from St. Louis, and Janice Sevre Duszynska a priest and Deacon Donna Rougeux of Kentucky marched.
The organizers of the march were Women’s Ordination Conference, Call to Action and the international Womenpriests.org. Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate Conmy were there representing Women’s Ordination Conference, a group of thousands of Roman Catholics in the US who have been advocating for women priests since 1974. Nicole Sotelo and others from Call to Action, a 25,000 member organization of Catholic lay people, religious, clergy and bishops working for justice inside and outside the Catholic Church, were present. Therese Koturbash and Miriam Duignan from Canada and the UK represented Womenpriests.org a website in 26 languages with more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Dorothy Irvin, a world renowned biblical scholar, theologian and archeologist shared historical and archeological support for the presence of women priests in the early church. Others who needed to remain anonymous to retain their jobs joined is as well.
The group ended their Roman pilgrimage with a simple rooftop liturgy presided over by the women priests. Bread and wine were shared as people sang “Here I am, Lord.” In the background, the sun was setting both on the great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the men inside who think only they run the institutional church.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who also teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org