I was 33 and I was living in New York. In my photography work and in my private life, I was wondering what feminism was and which was the way to live it fully becoming a mature and responsible individual. I did not want for myself conflict (of class or gender) but true emancipation. I felt the need to reach out to women teachers who were free and that in general were examples of wisdom. That is why I sent many letters through the United States. For example, I wrote to radical feminists, women in politics, political activists, and some religious. In these letters, I expressed my interest in documenting some of these reality with interviews and photos. In February of 2013, I was invited by an Irish American woman, over 70 years old, to visit her community of “wandering Catholics” where LGBT people were accepted and integrated. This woman, Diane Dougherty, lived in the city of Atlanta, in Georgia. She defined herself Roman Catholic priest, despite the Vatican says that this is theologically impossible.
I knew the Catholic religion. I had grown up in the 80's in Italy, and it seemed to me that Catholicism was pervasive of many social aspects. At school there was the crucifix in the classroom, and even if “Religion" hour was optional, none of my companions had never skipped. At 9 we had all received first Holy Communion: I dressed like a nun, but in white and with a large white lily in my hands. In the Catholic religion in which I grew up, the nuns I met seemed all gloomy and mustached women, being a believer implied to be a sinner full of guilt, and my philosophical questions had not found answers by any of the parish priests. To my scientific criticism the good priest opposed a language that I didn't feel close and that seemed to the young me the blindness of a faith that opposes the analysis of reason. At 17, with the fiery passion that sometimes gets in the most destructive choices, I decided that I hated the Church with its dogmas and rituals for the ignorant people, and I also hated the very idea of God, an idea that deceives and gives false hope to mortal men. I felt inside the pain and anger of an abandoned child. The more I believed before in a God father who loved me, the more now I hated him for being never existed. Over the years these exacerbated positions had become simply a nostalgic indifference to the old Church. (It’s only through art that I really recovered a real sense of spirituality.)
In 2013, after receiving Diane’s invitation, I was intrigued by this paradoxical situation that she described: a woman, priest!, in a Catholic transgender-friendly community? I learned that she was a former nun and that she had been excommunicated. This showed a Catholic approach that was very different from what I had experienced so many years ago. I was disinterested in the affairs of the Church, but I was interested in her, in the mechanism of disobedience, her rebellion. I knew I could fully understand the language and thoughts of this woman 'cause we belonged to the same tradition. I wondered: how could a single woman go against two millennia of holy men? To break the rules of the game, wasn't it definitely sin of pride? But who did she thought she was?
Before leaving for Atlanta, my mother called me from Genoa in Italy to give a voice to everybody's concerns: "Couldn't this visit possibly put you in danger? But... if you could go to Hell for this?"
“If an unjust law cannot be changed, must be broken.” Patricia Fresen
What was supposed to be a short visit for work reasons, was transformed into an adventure from March until June, a road trip from Atlanta to Kentucky, than Chicago, than Washington DC. Diane opened up a whole world of contacts and experiences. Diane today is the president of an organization called ARCWP American Roman Catholic Women Priest that count more than 60 women in U.S. and 3 in Colombia. The organization is part of the international movement of roman catholic women priests that counts over 150 ordained women priests and 10 bishops worldwide, and the number keeps growing. In the United States only, women priests are present in 32 states and work in over 60 intentional communities.
These women are mature, have theological degrees and years of experience working in churches, schools, parishes and dioceses. Many have been sisters during their whole life. They find inspiration in the life of saints that have challenged the hierarchy with their mysticism, their prophecies, their vision and their revolutionary message. They are engaged in various fronts: from ecology and permaculture to education of refugees, from theology to social justice, missionary work, building of all-inclusive catholic communities. Few of them are hermits or mystics, but most are working hard to make this society more loving and just.
They work in solidarity with the poor, exploited, and marginalized for structural and transformative justice in partnership with believers of all faiths. They often refer to the Second Vatican Council that deeply reformed the Church, and the philosophical discourses of Feminist and Liberation Theology fighting against classism, racism and sexism. They insist on the original message of the Gospel: all are made equal in the eyes of God, there should be no forms, policies or practices of discrimination that make any group secondary to the other. Catholic communities should be therefore non hierarchical and the priestly minister should operate within a discipleship of equals.
When the women get ordained they don’t perceive any salary by the association, they must be financially independent, and they get automatically (but sometimes also with explicit letters) excommunicated by the Vatican. To be excommunicated means for them to lose any retirement fee or salary, any support or housing, any job, that they or their relatives might have from the Church. It means also to not be able to get the sacraments in any parish and to not be buried in the same cemetery of their family. It means that any Catholic school will fire you from your teaching job.
"There is neither jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" Galatians 3:28
The landscapes of American suburbia of these central states, the yellow pollen that was falling on everything and stung my throat, the horizon that was always far away among large voids and large supermarkets, they accompanied an encounter that will be among the most significant of my life. I stayed at home with several Roman Catholic Women Priests across the U.S. and than I left to meet others in Colombia.
A book project
I met more than 70 Roman Catholic Women Priests in U.S. I’m planning to visit others this summer in Austria and Germany and than photograph the ordination of new Women Bishops in the U.S. in September. When I go, visit and live with women priests for some time, I’m really not behaving as a journalist only.
I write and I photograph, I record audio, and recently I started making videos of the interviews as well. I wanted to create a sort of spontaneous “family album” feel to the portraits to make them accessible to every viewer in an intimate way. I'm often using lighting and a large format camera, but I want the photographs to look personal and naive. I want the images to be about the women, their personalities, and their femininity. I interview them a lot, but usually is more a dialogue and we are really interested in each other. They all asked me if I was Catholic and in the past when I said that I wasn’t, some of them sobbed “The Church really lost your generation”. None of them tried to convert me back and they had no labels or boxes for spirituality.
I am reminded of a phrase from my childhood, heard in the church: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in." (Matthew 25:35)
I knocked as a foreigner to these doors, and I was open. They fed my soul.
They faced with me personal and political issues such as justice and freedom, especially what it means to be prophets today, or how to change yourselves and the world, what is worth believing and what are we willing to pay for what we believe. I was shown a model of alternative world where everyone is working with love. A world where everyone is responsible that everybody-else’s rights are respected. A world where if there is no justice for the smallest and the weakest, then there’s no justice at all. Where silence is a force of complicity. Where it’s possible to share love and joy with everybody without separation. Where one is called to give up his own life for courage, and not for success.
Dorothy Shugrue, a fearless Irish woman of 77 years old, told me once: "Giulia, put new meanings in the old stories, the old stories are so good". I started reading the Bible again, and reading theology as well. The old stories were really so good. They are so good that I'm still reading them and I can't stop falling in love with them. One night I am Eve sleeping with Adam in the very first day of the creation. We look at the stars and the night without knowing what is day light, without knowing what is time. We never saw the sun, we never touch our skin before. It’s only the two of us and the sky and the mountains and the fresh grass, just created. One day I am Elijah, waiting for God in a cave, searching for him in the storm and in the earthquake, full of doubt, not ready to be a prophet, not ready to be a prophet. Later I am the woman touching the garment of Jesus and healing herself in the only miracle initiated by a person, without Jesus’ will. I’m looking at my body, looking at what I have done, while Jesus is screaming in the crowd “who touched me? who touched me?” I took that power from him. I took that power from him to heal myself or did I always have that power inside me? I dream all these stories and I see wisdom and emotions and aesthetic in them, for my own life. I can put new meanings in these stories, yes I can.
Many women priests are very articulated, they wrote and are writing theology and historical books, they wrote letters to the Popes (comes to mind Ida Raming). And still, I'm going to make a book. First, because I’m an outsider. Second, because Roman Catholic Women Priests writes about their own issue with the Church, while I write from the understanding that they are a symbol. They are the liberated ones, they are the revolutionary characters, with their rolls in the hair and their cheap ceramics in the kitchen. When I look at the women priests I see them singularly but I also see them as a model that is showing us the primacy of our conscience and how to successfully renew our own tradition.
Since I started the project many women priests have passed away due to their age, I don’t want to lose their wisdom and their history. Sometimes I think that because they are not the usual heroes of Hollywood movies or photography reportages, these women could go away forgotten unless I tell their story. Sometimes I think this is my cultural revolution and my service, to tell their story.
You know, when you meet the best people in your life, you want to be like them.