Cover story -- Ordaining women
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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- Pamela Schaeffer

Patricia Fresen
Reluctant bishop ordained for North America


No one was more surprised than Patricia Fresen herself when she agreed to become a bishop in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. After becoming a priest in 2003 and losing her place in her religious community by edict of the Vatican’s cardinal in charge of religious life, she moved to Germany, where another woman in the movement had offered her a home. The following year, she learned that a male Catholic bishop wanted to ordain her a bishop. She described him as a man “driven by a sense of justice who feels women have been excluded from the priesthood far too long.” At first she declined. “I told him I couldn’t take all of that on,” she said. She cited her recent major life transitions: severed from her religious order, emigrating from her native land, losing a prestigious post as a founding faculty member at St. Augustine’s, the Catholic University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He persisted. He said that he and other observers expected the growth of Roman Catholic Womenpriests to be strongest in North America, given the large numbers of women with degrees in theology, and the overall educational level of Catholics generally -- making it less likely the Vatican could control their thinking.

He noted her many qualifications: a licentiate in theology from the Angelicum, the Domican pontifical university in Rome (where she also took many courses at Gregorian University, the Vatican’s premier training ground for priests); a doctorate in theology from the University of South Africa; seven years teaching candidates for the priesthood at St. John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa -- the teaching post she held before St. Augustine’s. Add to that her fluency in English, and she was the best candidate for ordaining the English-speaking women likely to come forward, he said.

But the real mind-changing words, she said, were these: “Patricia, if and when you are ordained a bishop, it will not be for you. You will not get a diocese. ... You will not receive a bishops’ salary. I will lay hands on you in the apostolic succession in which I stand, so that you can ordain others. You will be my hands.” It was, Fresen said, “as if a flame rose up in me.” She heard herself saying, “I am ready.”

She became a bishop the following year, in 2005.

As the eldest of 12 children, Fresen said her sense of justice began as she saw her parents become drained of energy and resources while faithfully following church teachings against birth control. Later, when her religious order sent her to study theology in Rome, she said she experienced discrimination “countless times.”

“I will give you one example,” she said. “I could give you a thousand.” A professor of moral theology at the Angelicum, a Dominican priest, told students to prepare for an upcoming class period, when they would simulate their future roles as confessors, applying principles of moral theology to questions the faithful might bring. “Sister, you will be excused because you will never hear confessions,” Fresen recalls him telling her.

She grew indignant. “Professor, I have paid, studied and would like to come,” she told him. The male students applauded, and then, when the day arrived, and the professor asked who would be first, they began to chant her name. “It was a prophetic moment for me,” she said, when, feeling their support, she took the designated chair and draped the stole across her shoulders.

Meanwhile she was a frequent guest at ordinations of fellow students, knowing her own would never come. Granted, she said, much of the discrimination she encountered was unintentional, “but when a blind person steps on your foot, you can still say, ‘Ouch.’ ”

Next came her stint at the seminary in Pretoria, where she often found herself sitting in back of the chapel listening to her students preach, but was barred from preaching herself. Often they would tell her, “Sister, you would make a very good priest,” she said.

And then there were the formative experiences related to the Dominican’s refusal to obey unjust laws requiring apartheid in South Africa. (See main story.)

By the time Fresen was ordained, during a trip to Germany to attend an academic conference, her anger had turned to longing. On her return home, she harbored a hope that her religious order would grant her exclaustration -- the canonical term for a period of discernment for a religious considering leaving religious life. But to her surprise -- and she suspects to their later regret -- they presented her case to the Vatican and the die was cast.

Although identities of the three bishops who ordained her (it takes three to ordain a bishop, under canon law) are closely guarded, it is clear the Vatican is looking for a trail. Before the recent ordinations in St. Louis, women priests-elect Elsie McGrath and Rose Marie Hudson were called into the Catholic Center in St. Louis and questioned by a church official about their backgrounds, their motives and the Womenpriests movement. Eventually, Hudson said, the questioning turned to Fresen and the names of the bishops who ordained her. Truth is, Hudson said, “we don’t know.”

Perhaps Fresen’s sweetest moment since her ordination was returning to South Africa for the first time in February, where she received “a very warm welcome” from her Dominican sisters and celebrated a midweek Mass at her mixed-race former parish.

“I received a huge ovation,” she said. People had asked me if they should call me “Mother,” and I explained that people ordained in the Womenpriests movement do not use titles. So when she preached, people responded -- as is the custom at the parish -- using her nickname. “Yes, Trish, Amen, Trish,” they cheered.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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