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Story Retrieval Date: 12/20/2014 8:36:00 PM CST

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A simple wish runs into a buzzsaw of bureaucracy

by Dayna Dion
May 13, 2010

Janine Denomme

Janine Denomme

Janine Denomme is dying. She has advanced colon and liver cancer, and a final wish: to have her funeral at Chicago’s St. Gertrude Catholic Parish, where she has devotedly worshipped and served for years.

The only problem is that she was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest last month. And the Catholic Church forbids women from becoming priests. In fact, it kicks them out for doing so.

So, last week, Denomme discovered her funeral wish won’t be granted. The church in which she has faithfully worshipped during her life will not be the church in which she is honored after her death.

The decision not to honor Denomme’s wish was made by the Archdiocese of Chicago, said the Rev. Dominic Grassi, pastor of St. Gertrude’s.  “They told me I could not have the funeral here,” he said.

In a written statement, the archdiocese outlined the reasoning behind its decision: “Only a baptized man validly receives ordination. Since Christ chose only men to form the 12 apostles, the church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible."

The statement continued that women who are ordained priests and “simulate the sacrament of Holy Orders automatically remove themselves from the Catholic Church.”

Still, an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests ordained Denomme and continues to ordain women priests and deacons worldwide. The group began in 2002 by ordaining seven women.  Today, there are nearly 100 ordained female priests or deacons, including three in the Chicago area, and the number is growing, said Bridget Mary Meehan, a spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

And Meehan says the ordinations are technically valid: “Our first bishops were ordained by a male bishop with apostolic succession, in full communion with the pope. Therefore, our orders are valid.”

Technically valid or not, the Catholic Church’s local leaders have denied Denomme’s request for a funeral at St. Gertrude's, and that denial has been met with anger, sadness and confusion.

In an online journal entry, Denomme's partner, Nancy Katz, said, “Janine has not yet been able to articulate her reaction to the church hierarchy’s decision to refuse her request to have her funeral at St. Gert’s.”

But Katz imagines that Denomme would take the high road. “It is my fervent belief that Janine would say, ‘I want my funeral rite to be a celebration of love and faith. I want it to be inclusive.  I do not want my funeral to be a political rally,’” Katz said in the journal.

Still, Katz acknowledged that the decision raises important questions that need to be addressed. “We, both individually and as a community of faith, have to answer the questions posed by the actions of the church hierarchy in rejecting Janine,” she wrote.

One of those questions, from Meehan’s perspective, is whether the Catholic Church is actually following the word of Christ. “The institutional leaders are contradicting the message of Jesus here, which is love one another,” she said. “How is denying a funeral to someone living Christ’s example of love for one another just? It’s not.”

The church’s decision to reject Denomme’s wish also raises questions of equality, Meehan said. “Pedophiles have been protected and covered up, but women who are stepping up to serve their church, which is in great need at this moment, are being excluded and punished harshly,” she said.

Cristina Traina, a Northwestern University religious studies professor with expertise in Roman Catholic theology and feminist theory, explained the ancient roots of the Catholic Church’s policy against female priests as a metaphor for marriage.

According to the New Testament, “The priest is supposed to symbolize Christ, who is a spouse of the church. The church is the bride and Christ is the bridegroom,” she said.  The problem, she continued, is that the bride and groom symbolism is out of touch with contemporary gender roles. 

“The metaphor is archaic,” she said.

Despite that, the church isn’t likely to change its position soon, said Martin Marty, the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor emeritus.

“I think the church is profoundly wrong in its approach. It slights biblical witness to the crucial roles of women,” he said. But “it’s hard to picture it changing soon.”

Roman Catholic Womenpriests are going to keep trying. “We’re like the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church,” Meehan said.

“We’re not accepting second-class citizenship; we’re not going to stand at the back of that bus. We are going to lead this church into its true calling, which is to be a Christ-centered, serving church of the people of God, not a hierarchal, dominating power over the people.”

At the end of the day, those close to Janine just want to see her dying wish granted.

“I would love for Janine’s final wishes to be respected and her request to be met. Because the one thing we all deserve in life is to have our final wishes be met,” Jeremy Carter, a friend of Denomme’s, said.

“If [the Catholic Church] spent as much time learning to love as it does separating and telling people that they can’t be a part of that religion, the entire world would be a different place,” Carter said.

Marty is pragmatic.

“Much as so many would like to see her last rites and memorial and burial a fully sanctioned Roman Catholic event, there’s no chance that it will be,” Marty said. “Acting in conscience as she did, she can at least die in peace with herself and God, if not with the church and its dogma,” he said.