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.
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.
I asked to many Roman Catholic Women Priests the story and reasons of their movement.
I knew from Wikipedia that in the summer of 2002, seven women were ordained priests by an independent Roman Catholic Archbishop, on a ship cruising the Danube River. Since Canon Law 1024 states that "only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination", everybody involved in the “grave crime” was excommunicated. Shortly thereafter, three women were ordained bishops in great secrecy, so that they could carry on female ordinations in apostolic succession with Jesus Christ and without any help by the Vatican. At first, the ordinations were held only on boats in international waters, but since 2007 other Christian denominations, and one Jewish synagogue, provided hospitality to women priests by opening their spaces for ordinations and worship. In 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Rome) issued an order of excommunication for the crime of attempting sacred ordination of a woman. The decrete is automatic absolute and universal. Today, the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement counts over 150 ordained women priests and 10 bishops worldwide, and the number is growing. Most Roman Catholic Women Priests are mature. Many have been nuns for most of their life. Their story doesn’t start in 2002.
In 1963 Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, known as Pope John the XXIII, just a month after JFK announced that U.S. was going to put a man on the moon, announced the Second Vatican Council. The Council was held in Rome, in Latin language, and saw for 4 years the participation of all the bishops of the world. Orthodox and Protestants were invited as observers. And they were all male. At the end of the second period, Cardinal L.J. Suenens of Belgium asked the other bishops: "Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?" referring to women. In response, 15 women were appointed as auditors in September 1964 and eventually 23 women were auditors.
Rev. Paul Avis wrote: "the Second Vatican Council changed everything. It brought the church into the modern world. It threw off the insularity, defensiveness — even paranoia — that had characterized that church since the 18th century (…) Vatican II reversed the traditional rejection of religious liberty, emphasizing freedom of conscience. (…) It revitalized liturgical worship, affirming that all the faithful participate in, and indeed celebrate corporately, the liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It set the Scriptures center stage in worship and teaching and encouraged the faithful to study them.”
It was said and written that the mission of the church are joy and hope and that the image of the church must be a circle and not a hierarchy, equally needed are the center and the periphery of the local churches with their prophets. The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution “The Church in the Modem World" stated, "With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent" (No. 29).
Even the cloths and roles of nuns changed in accordance to recent psychological, sociological and philosophical insights, women got access to seminary and theological studies, but not to ordination.
Jane Via said in an interview: “I learned of the emerging feminist studies in the post Vatican II era as women earned their doctorates in religious studies and began to become researchers and authors in theological studies. Just a phenomenal amount of studies was done on scriptures, on systematic theology, on every dimension of religious studies as it pertains to women in the history and in terms of envisioning what might be more authentic in light of the historical Jesus. Reading feminist theology and participating in local groups helped me to understand the radical importance of inclusive God language to the transformation of the church from a patriarchal monarchical classicist institution to the pilgrim people of God.”
Mary Luke Tobin, that participated in the Council, wrote: "In the middle to late 1970's, there was a great push for women's ordination, but by the 1980's, as women became more conscious of a rigidity and oppressiveness apparent in the clerical state and the inflexibility of patriarchal structures and spirit, they became disaffected and lost their earlier enthusiasm. A new interest in women's liturgies and feminist theology sparked a desire to develop more collegial ways of worship on their own. Thus the concept of Woman Church emerged.”
Many of the women priests I met, felt a call to priesthood when they were very young. The call to priesthood is a call to service to the others and service to God, it’s not a call to power. Many of them decided to become nuns because there was no other option of religious life available. Diane from Atlanta, showing me drawings of pain and dark thoughts that she had made in her last years in the convent, told me: “Never. I never wanted to be a nun. Never, never, never, because I didn’t… I didn’t want to dress like that, I didn’t want to be a nun like that… I knew in my heart this was not for me, but there was no other model. In 1963 I entered and then I stayed there, and it was Vatican II so we were changing, we built a chapel. I stayed there 28 years. (…) When you become a nun, you have to change your name. Yes I did. I was Sister Bryan Marie for about a year and a half, but then we changed back to our baptismal name because your vocation comes from your baptism; that’s our theology. The men made you change your name because they wanted you, as a woman, to give up all identification of who you are for the church. That was the old theology. That was their old theology that was imposed on us."
Diane also recalls an infinite list of episodes where the nuns weren’t treated like adults and weren’t treated with justice by the hierarchy: “This pastor said “Well, all of you can leave”. All the nuns could leave. (…) This clericalism just keeps coming back like a recurring motif, and I thought: who do they think they are? That is not the church, that’s not Catholic. And I don’t have to be obedient to it, because that’s just wrong. I don’t have to be obedient to it. And I have to start speaking out against it. I wrote a lot at that particular time to the priests who were in the parishes, trying to explain what was happening, but these men are… they just go along with the flow, but the flow has to come from the bishop’s office. The Gospel is not served! The Gospel is not served!” In 1965, there were over 180,000 Catholic religious women in the United States. In 2014 there were just 49,883.
Her friend Mary Hellen Sheehan from Tucson, Georgia, ordained deacon, added: “All the great religions are male-identified. As women, we don’t even have or know what religion would look like if there was a true partnership because all of those religions are based around a male deity, and if the God is male then the male is God.” Diane has a black box in her church and on top of it is written “God can’t stay inside any box” and a T-shirt that says “God is not a boy’s name”. Angela Bonavoglia, author of “Good Catholic Girls" book, said: “If you forbid a woman to represent the divine and the highest level of representation of the divine in the church, and if she cannot have power, real power and if you have an institution controlling women most intimate decisions, that doesn't end there: those positions have an influence on the way women are treated in the world, they contribute for the discrimination against women toward the view of women a second-class people and they also are devastating to women in their souls”.