Press Conference to Police Station; a journey to Rome with Father Roy Bourgeois, by Miriam Duignan

The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council was approaching and many campaigners gathered  in Rome to call for renewal and reform in the Church. Here is the story of one journey of solidarity and protest in October last year when an attempt to appeal to the Vatican met with unexpected results:

I travelled to Rome to represent Womenpriests.org at a gathering of women’s ordination leaders and their supporters from 8 different campaign groups. Therese Koturbash, our International Ambassador, was also part of the delegation, having flown over from Canada. We were in Rome to support Fr. Roy Bourgeois on his journey to the Vatican to deliver a petition signed by over 15,000 supporters. Fr. Roy a celebrated priest, peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, now threatened with expulsion from his Maryknoll order due to his outspoken public support for the ordination of women. In response to his threatened removal from office, Roy has written:

"I cannot possibly speak out about injustice in society and at the same time be silent about this injustice in my church. After much reflection, study, and prayer, I believe that our Church's teaching that excludes women from the priesthood defies both faith and reason and cannot stand up to scrutiny. This teaching has nothing to do with God, but with men, and is rooted in sexism. Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God, but of men who want to hold on to their power..."

The day in Rome started as planned with the Italian premiere of the documentary film Pink Smoke over the Vatican’. This was followed by a well-attended press conference where Fr. Roy delivered another moving appeal to the Vatican, saying: “If the call to be a priest is a gift and comes from God, how can we, as men, say that our call from God is authentic, but God’s call of women is not?”

Next stop, the Vatican, to deliver the petition. We walked down the road leading to St Peter’s carrying our banners and singing as drivers pulled over to watch and crowds gathered, cheering and clapping. A very worried looking policeman suddenly emerged and started running alongside us, making hurried calls for support. By the time we arrived at the top of the Via della Conciliazione, the entrance to St Peter’s Square had been blocked off with barriers and a large number of security men - we were refused entry.Before long, police in plain clothes and various uniforms surrounded us. Some  tried to persuade us to leave.

The police expressed support for our cause but were insistent that our presence outside the Vatican constituted an illegal demonstration, we had no permit to protest. After an hour of negotiations, the Rome police and Vatican security  told us that only Fr. Roy could enter the square and deliver his petition but on condition that the rest of his supporters stayed away -Roy refused to go in alone.  As the crowds of tourists and press grew larger, the agitated police decided to break up the protest by instructing an undercover policeman to forcibly confiscate our three banners. A chaotic scene ensued and before we knew what was happening, orders had been given to arrest the three people perceived to be the ringleaders of our group. Erin Hanna from WOC, who coordinated the journey to Rome and I, as Italian translator for the group, were forced into a police car and driven at high speed with lights flashing and sirens blaring to a police station in central Rome. Fr. Roy was taken away in a separate  car a little while later.

Being detained by police in a foreign country is admittedly a little scary but, after the initial shock and having waded through the many documents presented to us for signing, the atmosphere became somewhat lighter. The Irish embassy sent two diplomats to help, the British and American embassies called to get updates on our welfare and Roy’s legal advisor and his wife even managed to get inside to sit with us. Our friends stayed outside the station keeping vigil and fielding constant calls from journalists requesting interviews and updates about our arrest. We were released after several hours’ detention, having signed a statement obliging us to return to Italy if the investigating magistrate decided to press charges. Our banners were confiscated and taken away in a sealed box marked evidence’. The official crime we stand accused of is Protesting without permission from the Vatican’ - a charge I’m sure many of our supporters will identify with.

The following day, Therese and I decided to go ahead with our scheduled visits to try to gather support from some leading theologians at teaching institutions in Rome

One priest we met admitted that he would love to support our campaign publicly and would do so if he ever grew tired of his life in Rome. For now though, he valued his job and home too much to risk losing it all by speaking out. And he has good reason to be fearful Fr Roy  faces losing his home and pension if expelled from his order but, as the title of his latest book reminds us, his is a journey from Silence to Solidarity’ and, for him, the urge to speak the truth is stronger than the promise of job security

The next priest seemed resigned to the fact that any scripture based objections he raised would not stand up to scrutiny and are too easy to disprove, so declared instead that our campaign to restore the right of women to be ordained was premature and self indulgent whilst women in Afghanistan don’t have even the most basic of human rights.

We did find signs of hope in Rome: The day after being removed from St Peter’s in a police car, Fr. Roy was contacted by the Vatican and invited to deliver his petition to a high ranking official who promised to consider his case. We also saw first hand that more and more priests are willing to admit that there is no valid reason to exclude women from the priesthood; we eagerly await the time when they all feel able to give voice to their conscience.

Miriam Duignan

[Miriam is a volunteer at Housetop and is our representative for communications. She is available to speak to the media whenever they need a spokesperson for women priests.]