Elsie McGrath is an unlikely renegade.
For much of her life, the 81-year-old tried to avoid confrontation and follow the rules.
But that changed in 2007, when she became an ordained priest — and in doing so, broke one of the most fundamental rules in Roman Catholicism.
"This was definitely not part of the plan," McGrath said, of her ordination. "This was what the spirit within me was leading me to."
She was excommunicated along with fellow priest Rose Marie Hudson and Bishop Patricia Fresen, who ordained the two at a synagogue in St. Louis.
Only men are allowed to join the Roman Catholic clergy, but proponents of women's ordination are hopeful that may change. During a Vatican summit in October, Pope Francis said he would explore the possibility of female deacons, a class of ministry allowed to oversee weddings and baptisms but not consecrate the Communion wafer and wine.
The early church
A key part of the debate centers on whether women were ordained in the early days of the church.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul refers to Phoebe as a "deacon in the church" — but the Rev. David Meconi said there's no evidence she was actually ordained.
"The word deacon can mean simply servant, one who lays down his or her life for others in terms of whatever service is at hand," said Meconi, a professor of theology at Saint Louis University.
There are many roles open to women in the Catholic Church today, said Meconi, including campus chaplain and Eucharistic minister. (Eucharistic ministers serve Communion but do not consecrate the bread and wine themselves.) Still, he believes restricting ordination to men is an essential part of the faith.
"We do belong to a religion in which God himself chose to become a man, not a woman," Meconi said. "We believe that as God, he didn't participate in any kind of misogyny when he picked those Twelve Apostles. That's a divine free act."
Many women who describe themselves as Catholic are already working in ministry — without permission from the church. Currently more than 200 women are priests and deacons in the U.S., according to the Roman Catholic Women Priests association.
Despite her excommunication, McGrath continues to lead what she calls an "inclusive Roman Catholic congregation" in St. Louis.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis doesn't officially recognize the congregation, which meets once a week in a Unitarian Church.
"Our choice is to remain in the church and effect change from the bottom up, because that's the only way change ever happens anywhere," McGrath said.
Some Catholic women, like Marie Andrews, say they won't pursue ordination unless the Vatican officially changes the rules.
"My calling is to remain and to be steadfast and know that no changes ever happened without people pushing for them, even when things are not what we would like them to be," Andrews said.
She grew up Catholic, the only daughter in a family of six boys.
"The saying was always, 'Oh, with all these boys, surely one of them will be a priest,'" she said. "I am the only one who has consistently wanted to be a priest."
As an officially sanctioned Eucharistic minister, Andrews delivers Communion to homebound seniors in St. Louis. She carries a small wooden cross wrapped in a white handkerchief and a wafer of bread consecrated by a priest.
For Mary Bohley, 93, Andrews' visits are a blessing and a lifeline to the outside world. After praying together, Bohley hugs her and presses a chocolate bar into her hand.
"I can depend on her every single week," Bohley said. "She's my connection to the parish."
Andrews is hopeful that the Roman Catholic Church will eventually accept female clergy, whether deacon or priest. But when it comes to a timeline, her attitude is matter-of-fact.
"It reminds me of other things that took a long time in the church to change," she said. "The church used to support slavery and believe the Earth was the center of the universe," she said.
"I would like to see change faster, but I can be patient."
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that deacons are not allowed to offer Communion. Deacons may not consecrate the Communion wafer and wine but they may offer Communion.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Pope Francis has opened the door to the possibility of female deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. But women are already working in ministry - some officially and some without permission from the church. St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan has the story.
SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: In a dimly lit living room, Marie Andrews leans forward, takes the hand of Mary Bohley, and begins to pray.
MARIE ANDREWS: Light divine, remind us, in spite of all of our weakness...
FARZAN: Every week for the past two years, Andrews has visited Bohley at her home in St. Louis. Bohley is 93, and she's not able to make it to church anymore. She calls Andrews' visits a blessing, a lifeline to the outside world. And she prays for her.
MARY BOHLEY: Thank you, dear Jesus, for coming to me in this special way today through Marie.
FARZAN: As an officially sanctioned Eucharistic minister, Andrews carries a small wooden cross wrapped in cloth, along with a wafer. In addition to praying together, Andrews brings communion to Bohley. The bread was consecrated by a priest, something Andrews can't do because she's not ordained. She's not ordained because she's a woman.
ANDREWS: I have six brothers, and I am the only girl. And their saying was always, oh, with all these boys, surely one of them will be a priest. I am the only one who has consistently wanted to be a priest.
FARZAN: Andrews points out that while the Catholic Church doesn't ordain women as priests or deacons...
ANDREWS: I think it's important to know that women are doing this ministry without the orders. Edward Schillebeeckx, who's a huge Catholic theologian, says there is no lacking in ministry. There is only a lacking in orders.
FARZAN: In October, Pope Francis said he would reopen a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the church. Deacons are allowed to oversee marriages and baptisms. But unlike priests, they cannot hear confession.
DAVID MECONI: The word deacon can mean simply servant, one who lays down his or her life for others in terms of whatever service is at hand.
FARZAN: Father David Meconi teaches theology at St. Louis University. He says the Bible mentions women deacons, but...
MECONI: There's no evidence whatsoever that the deaconate was open to men and women in terms of an ordained order.
FARZAN: Meconi points to the many roles open to women in the Catholic Church today, like campus ministers and pastoral associates. But he says restricting ordination to men is an essential part of the faith.
MECONI: We do belong to a religion in which God himself chose to become a man, and we believe that as God, he didn't participate in any kind of misogyny. And when he picked those 12 apostles, that's a divine, free act.
FARZAN: But some people who describe themselves as Catholics disagree, including Elsie McGrath. She says barring women from the clergy is a manmade rule, not a divine one. In fact, the 81-year-old feels so strongly about women in ministry, she did something radical in 2007. McGrath became an ordained priest.
ELSIE MCGRATH: This had nothing to do with me personally. This was what the spirit within me was leading me to, and I would find out along the way why.
FARZAN: For being ordained, McGrath was excommunicated. She now leads what she calls an inclusive Roman Catholic community in St. Louis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERVICE)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: This is the cup of the covenant in my blood, poured out for you.
FARZAN: The Archdiocese of St. Louis doesn't officially recognize the congregation, which meets at a Unitarian church. There are more than 200 women priests and deacons in the U.S. today, according to the Roman Catholic Women Priests association. McGrath says they're trying to show people what the church can be.
MCGRATH: Our choice is to remain in the church and effect change from the bottom up because that's the only way change ever happens anywhere.
FARZAN: McGrath believes the church will eventually accept female clergy, just not in her lifetime. For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.