SAN FRANCISCO — The priest will be ordained in a purple Lutheran church. The Communion bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, will be gluten-free. The congregation will pray to “our mother our father in heaven.”
But the real departure from Roman Catholic tradition will be evident when Maria Eitz approaches the altar Sunday for the laying on of hands that turns parishioner into priest.
Over the last decade, as the Vatican has faced a serious shortage of priests, a small but growing number of women have answered what they believe to be a call from God. California is home to more ordained Catholic women than any other state. Eitz — a retired theologian with four adopted children — will be the first woman ordained as a Catholic priest in San Francisco.
The more than 120 women worldwide who have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests and deacons say their faith gives them comfort and hope. But that same faith also is bound by Canon Law 1024. Short and blunt, the church edict states that “a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”
The Vatican has said that women who presume to be priests, and those who help them, are committing a grave sin. And like Catholics who have abortions or commit heresy, female officiants are subject to the ultimate penalty — automatic excommunication. The church does not acknowledge ordained women or the sacraments they offer.
The first female priests were ordained in 2002 on a boat on the Danube by a bishop who previously had broken ranks with the Vatican. A year later, bishops who asked to remain anonymous until after their death for fear of reprisal ordained the first female bishops so that they, in turn, could ordain other women.
According to Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA Inc., more women are expected to be ordained as priests and deacons in 2013 than in any previous year.
To Eitz, the threat of excommunication is meaningless. It has happened to her once already, when she became a deacon in 2012. She ignored it then and ignores it now, she said, because “if you are baptized, you cannot be unbaptized. If you are called to the table that God calls people to, you cannot be excluded.”
The soft-spoken 72-year-old said she was taking the controversial step because “it is right and just.”
“It needs to happen. Not so much for myself … but for the people who will come after,” she said. “For the girls. For the other women.”
At 9:30 a.m. on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, Eitz and Victoria Rue prepared for Mass at Sophia in Trinity, which describes itself as “a Roman Catholic community celebrating a radically inclusive God.”
The adherents gather in a small chapel at the rear of Trinity Episcopal Church — whose main sanctuary was shuttered four years ago because the congregation could not afford to retrofit the 120-year-old sandstone fortress, with its Tiffany stained-glass windows and E.M. Skinner organ.
Like Sophia, most of the communities led by female priests meet twice each month, either in private homes or non-Catholic churches whose members sympathize with the effort to ordain women.
Eitz is Sophia’s deacon; Rue is its priest.
Their first duties on this chilly spring day, however, were far from priest-like: They cleaned up a clutter of coffee cups and sugar packets and rearranged the chairs from straight rows into a circle. In its center, they set up the altar — a wobbly table steadied by a wad of paper napkins.
As two dozen or so worshipers filed into the chapel, Eitz and Rue donned crisp white clerical robes.
But not for long.
“As you know,” Rue told the congregation, “Maria and I wear these robes because they are symbols of our baptism. But because … separation between the clerics and lay people is rampant in our Roman Catholic Church, Maria and I think it is very important to not wear them, these albs.
“So we take them off,” she said, “to bear in mind that we are all one.”
A voice from the circle chimed in: “Didn’t Jesus say we are all priests?”
“Exactly,” said Rue, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches comparative religious studies at San Jose State University.
The robes fell.
It was just one of the signs that this would not be Mass as most Catholics know it.
There were some familiar touchstones — the collection basket got filled, the sign of peace was exchanged. And like male priests the world over, Rue urged parishioners: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” The group responded in the usual way: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
On this day, though, the reading was from the Gospel according to Luke, acted out by two members of the congregation. The homily — more conversation than sermon — was about “How do we encounter God in our lives?” Rue said. “How is this Eucharist an encounter?”
The congregation’s core beliefs are another story too. Rue and Eitz support abortion rights, contraception, married priests and same-sex marriage. Rue is a married lesbian who has been out since 1973.
As for Communion, John “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a regular at the Sophia services, had baked the sacramental bread at home. He has been experimenting with a gluten-free recipe because Eitz requested it for her ordination. He is not yet happy with the results, golden brown and a little lopsided.
Unlike during traditional Mass, Rue did not hand each parishioner a piece of the Eucharist while declaring, “The body of Christ.” Instead, Sophia’s members passed the plate of bread around the circle. Each took a piece, looked at his or her neighbor, said, “You are the body of Christ” and passed the plate along.
Then Rue prayed: “May God bless you and keep you. May she be gracious to you. May she lift up the light of her countenance upon you. And may our good God give you peace.
“Mass has ended,” she intoned.
“And the service has just begun,” the group responded.
Eitz was born in Germany and spent several years in an orphanage after World War II. She did not become a Catholic until she was a young adult, and she never dreamed of being a priest.
“I was never drawn to Catholicism — or to God, if you want — because of sin and forgiveness,” she said. “It was always the knowledge that there has got to be justice.”
Eitz sat at her dining room table, preparing for her ordination. Bishop Regina Nicolosi of Minnesota would preside. The wall behind Eitz was strung with bells — each representing a different chapter of her life.
There was one from Saigon, a reminder of the orphans she helped airlift out during the Vietnam War and the children she adopted as a single mother in the 1970s. There are several from East Africa, where she arranged medical care for a nomadic tribe during a deadly drought in Sudan in the 1980s. One was a gift when she became a deacon.
A banner stamped with brightly colored children’s handprints was hung on the living room wall. For 36 years, Eitz ran a program called Respite Care from her home on the edge of Golden Gate Park, working with special-needs children as part of the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center.
When she began attending Sophia in Trinity in 2010, “it was an utter joy to have women at the altar,” Eitz said. “It was actually a matter of justice, because, you see, that is what needs to happen.”
The San Francisco Archdiocese begs to differ.
Calling the women’s ordination movement a “fringe group,” spokesman George Wesolek said he was unaware of Eitz’s upcoming ordination. The Catholic Church, he said, relies on scripture and tradition and ordains men alone because Jesus was a man and picked men as his apostles.
“The thing you have to recognize here is that the … church is 1.2 billion members,” Wesolek said. “The issue of women’s ordination and even same-sex marriage are kind of like boutique issues in the church. It’s the American church. We’re 75 million, but we’re really a minority.”
But Gary Macy, chairman of Santa Clara University’s religious studies department, argued there was “very good evidence of the ordination of women as deacons up until the 12th century.… There are descriptions of women who led the liturgy.”
Sophia in Trinity members, such as Sherri Maurin, believe that their congregation’s concerns are central to Catholicism, a religion that they refuse to leave and are intent on changing. It is a faith, she said, that needs priests like Eitz.
“I have always felt that Maria was called to priesthood,” said Maurin, who described herself as a full-time peace activist. “She is a teacher, a caregiver and a model.”
Eitz said she was not concerned about the controversy — or the punishment. She has wrestled with her own uncertainty and knows she is doing the right thing. However, she said, she was a little rattled by how much life is going to change.
What calms her mind? Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 14th century, and Mary Oliver, whose poems weave the natural and spiritual worlds.
With fog blanketing her Inner Richmond neighborhood and her cocker spaniel sleeping at her feet, Eitz opens a collection of Hafiz’s work. She has marked her favorite poems with feathers. She begins to read out loud.
“I / Have / Learned / So much from God / That I can no longer / Call / Myself / A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim / A Buddhist, a Jew,” she read, beginning to relax. “The Truth has shared so / much of itself / With me / That I can no longer call myself / A man, a woman, an angel / Or even pure / Soul.”