ORLANDO, Fla. — One week ago, 80-year-old Rita Lucey was ordained as a priest — and excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
Lucey joins a growing movement of women who, while operating outside the Roman Catholic Church, contend they are not leaving the church but leading it into an era of gender equality.
"We are the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church. We are leading the church into a new era of equal justice for women," said Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, who will ordain Lucey as a member of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.
The association, which started in 2002 with seven women ordained by three bishops in Europe, now has more than 200 female priests worldwide, including about 150 in the United States. There are 14 female priests in Florida.
"Rita has been a courageous witness for justice in the church for years. She has stood up for equality and justice for women in the world and justice for women in the church," Meehan said.
Neither Bishop John Noonan nor the Catholic Diocese of Orlando responded to repeated requests for comment.
Canon law of the Catholic Church states: "Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination." In 2008, the Vatican declared that any woman attempting to be ordained, and anyone assisting her, would be automatically excommunicated.
Excommunication will prevent Lucey from receiving the sacraments, including communion, confession and last rites. But the spiritual shunning means little to Lucey, who says she remains Catholic through her baptism, confirmation and faith.
"Jesus was a good Jew who didn't leave his Judaism any more than I have left my Catholicism in my heart and soul," she said.
Her ordination is the continuation of a journey that began with her birth into a strong Catholic family in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, her exposure to different faiths as the wife of a military man stationed around the world, and a human rights activist who spent six months in prison at age 64 for demonstrations against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., which trains South American military personnel, some of whom have been implicated in human rights violations.
She's been a peace activist with Amnesty International, an advocate for women in prison and a Hospice volunteer for 25 years.
Her ordination comes after two years of preparation. Her ministry, she said, will be carried out in the homes of people who feel alienated or rejected by the Church, including divorced, remarried and gay Catholics.
Lucey — who has been married 63 years, has four children, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren — says she is following the example of Jesus in her challenge of the Catholic church's prohibition of female priests.
"He was a troublemaker who went against the dogma and the doctrines of his day," she said.
The women priests' association argues that female priests and bishops were part of the Catholic church from its inception and the exclusion of women came later.
"I see that as a man-made thing rather than a revealed truth. It's a patriarchal interpretation of the Scriptures that definitely has sexual bias," Lucey said.
'Jesus accepted everyone'
Her ordination took place at Christ Unity Church, an Orlando church whose theology of inclusion is closer to the kind of Catholicism the women priests want.
"Jesus just accepted everyone. We lost sight of that," Lucey said.
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Not everyone in her family, some of them devout Catholics, approve of her decision to be ordained. But she has the support and approval of her 82-year-old husband.
"It's a continuation of where her mission in life has been. She's a seeker, always looking for an answer," said Dan Lucey, 82, of Belle Isle.
Lucey said she still takes strength from Catholic liturgy. But she stopped regularly attending Mass long ago, at one point becoming a Quaker, and embracing elements of other religions including Buddhism.
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The idea of becoming a priest in a church that forbids female clergy came in the form of a ring with a dove she found in an old hat box that belonged to her relatives. To her, the dove was a spiritual sign that led her to the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and the realization that her calling was to become a priest late in life.
"I asked myself, 'What are you doing this for at this age?'" she said. "I know why I'm doing this — because the spirit is calling me. Women can be priests. We are called to the priesthood."
But there is also a part of her that revels in rebellion and the idea that, at 80, she might be part of something that changes the Catholic church as woman in the past have altered American society.
"Sometimes I feel like a suffragette. How excited they must have been when they finally got the vote," she said. "I like that I'm a part of a group who are willful disturbers."