This woman’s work : Patricia Fresen campaigns for the Vatican to accept female priests

Patricia Fresen
Patricia Fresen

Patricia Fresen knows what it’s like to wait for change, to watch it happen not overnight but over the course of many tumultuous years. Born in South Africa, Ms. Fresen watched the fall of the apartheid era while she was a member of the Dominicans, the Catholic religious order.

“Once you become aware of injustice in one area of life,” says Ms. Fresen, “you somehow become aware of it in other areas. Having been sensitized to racial injustice, I started becoming aware of gender injustice. It is just as bad.”

Forced to leave the order over her views and secretly ordained a bishop in 2005, Ms. Fresen is now active in changing the Catholic Church’s policy on female priesthood. How she got here and how she hopes to help change the Church will be part of a free talk 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.

She has named her talk, “Long Walk to Freedom,” after Nelson Mandela’s 1995 autobiography. And she looks to Mr. Mandela, who sat in prison for 27 years for his beliefs, as a source of inspiration.

“He is a man without bitterness and no thought of revenge,” she told the News-Press. “I believe that we women who are called to priesthood are also on a long walk to freedom.” There are events on the way, she says, that will end the ban.

Ms. Fresen studied in Rome at the age of 40, an older student among the twentysomething males. With the same training, but with much more experience, she could still not get what the male students took for granted. In 2003, through the recommendations of a bishop whose name still can’t be revealed, she was secretly ordained a deacon, then a priest, by two Catholic bishops — also female. By doing so, Ms. Fresen was forced to leave the Dominican Order after 45 years.

In 2005, she was ordained a bishop, and she has gone on to prepare and ordain women across North America and Europe as part of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. There are few female bishops who speak English, she notes.

So what does the Bible say about all this? Ms. Fresen says that there is little to no biblical proof against female priests. The old guard claim the Last Supper was an ordination of sorts. Ms. Fresen disagrees.

“Jesus didn’t ordain anyone. The Last Supper was not an ordination. In Jesus’ time, people gathered in half-churches and whoever was the host, or hostess, of that house led the Eucharist.” She also points to evidence, even up to the ninth century — a certain Bishop Theodora — that there were female priests in Medieval times.

Fast forward to 1974 where the Papal Biblical Commission, ordered by the Vatican, went in search of biblical evidence against female priesthood. They found none.

“That wasn’t the result that they wanted, of course, so it was all hushed up,” says Ms. Fresen. “But the report is available on the Internet.” It was soon afterward that Pope Paul VI issued three declarations saying that female ordination was against the traditions of the Church.

The landscape now has changed. Ms. Fresen finds her call to arms matched with other causes — the issue of celibacy for priests, the Church’s attitude to gay marriage — at a time when the Vatican and the Church is embroiled in scandal after scandal. Sexual abuse, cover-ups, gay prostitution rings run out of the Vatican itself. Based in Europe, Ms. Fresen is seeing this implosion all firsthand.

“In Germany, the uproar and the anger among the people is unprecedented,” she says. “I have thought for a long time that, as a human race, we are in the midst of a big paradigm shift. In the church, we are in crisis, and things are shifting already The feudal structures in the church, the hierarchy of the upper classes and the serfs being told what to do, all that is crumbling and going.”

Through her organization, she exhorts interested laypersons to get involved. After all, it was the swell of public opinion that chipped away at apartheid. “There is power in corporate action, in taking a stand. The groups in North America and Europe that are most affective are those that get together in a call to action and start making their voices heard.”

At no point, however, did she consider leaving the Catholic Church.

“I have shared many people’s disillusionment and anger,” she says. “But, nevertheless, my wish is to not leave but to do one tiny little bit to work towards reform. People ask me, ‘Patricia, why do you go through all this to get illegally ordained?’ ‘Why didn’t you join the Anglican church?’ And I say, ‘If I had left the church, nothing would have changed. But this way, they can’t ignore us.’ “

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