Serving the Ministry of Irritation

A woman priest works for reform
By Gregory Flannery

Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrates Mass. Photo by Robert Pohowsky.

People gather at an undisclosed location to celebrate Mass. They face persecution if they are caught – not from the state, as in the early days of the Christian church, when the Roman Empire forced believers into catacombs or, as in the 20th century, when communism forced Catholics in Eastern Europe underground.
These Catholics fear repression by their own religious leaders, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Their priest is a woman, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who says God called her to the ministry.
In 2008 a female Catholic bishop ordained Sevre-Duszynska. The Vatican holds that both women thereby incurred automatic excommunication. Catholics who attend a liturgy presided over by Sevre-Duszynska risk the same punishment, and she spoke on condition that the location of their gathering not be reported. Sevre-Duszynska says she celebrates Mass where she’s invited.
She moved to Cincinnati last year when her mother-in-law’s health declined. For 25 years Sevre-Duszynska was a teacher in Lexington, Ky. For the past two years she has served as a priest. She sees her vocation as something more than a ceremonial role – it is inevitably and vigorously political.
“Jesus was very political,” she says. “They’ve got him so watered down. They want to stay in their comfort zone, but that’s not what he was about. He was about empowering people. If the church isn’t standing up for the poor and oppressed, what is the point? That’s what Jesus is about – not about being consumers, not about the constant search for security.”
‘Another system of evil’
Last summer Sevre-Duszynska was one of 37 peace activists arrested during a demonstration at the Y-12 nuclear-weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (see “A Joyous Hammer Strikes Again,” issue of Aug. 1-14). During the protest – she prefers the term “witness” – she danced a polka and wore a stole, or liturgical scarf, bearing images of children around the world.
“To me, this is a sacrament,” she says. “It was great to be with all these peace- and justice-makers from around the world. That’s where I’m happiest – on the streets.”
In 2002 Sevre-Duszynska was sentenced to three months in a federal prison for her participation in a protest at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.
She sees her liturgical role completely in sync with her political work, opposing what she calls “the idolatry of the weapons.” Indeed she points to priests and nuns who have participated in non-violent civil disobedience as “models of priesthood” for her.
“These are the Old Testament prophets, people who address the powers that be,” Sevre-Duszynska says. “They say, ‘Is this how you treat my people? Is this taking care of the basic needs of my people?’ This militarization is another form of idolatry. These corporate, multi-national organizations get to do what they want without regard to the needs of the people. This is another system of evil.”
The effects of war are not merely theoretical to Sevre-Duszynska. She first encountered them as a child. Her uncle was in Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When she was 10, her uncle told her, “Our parents and sisters and priests taught us not to kill.” The lingering pain of what he saw and did during the war made a mark on Sevre-Duszynska.
One night before battle, her uncle was giving haircuts.
“The next day he picked up body parts and had to put them in the bag,” she says. “His whole life was more or less traumatized with that single event. All I could see was the pain inside of him. It affected his whole being.”
In Lexington, Sevre-Duszynska taught English as a second language. There, too, she saw the effects of war.
“My children suffered from the ravages of war and economic disparities – children who lived through the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, children from different parts of Latin America,” she says. “I made my classroom into a sanctuary. That was very healing and a great joy.”
‘Changed by the fire’
Healing and joy are not always characteristics that women associate with the Roman Catholic Church. Sevre-Duszynska is active in Roman Catholic Womenpriests and directs its “Ministry of Irritation.” The organization supports women who believe they have priestly vocations. It once posted a billboard that said, “You’re waiting for a sign from God? Here it is: Ordain women.”
Prior to being ordained by Bishop Dana Reynolds, Sevre-Duszynska sought to become a priest in a more conventional way. When a man was going to be ordained in a Catholic cathedral, she stepped forward, too, saying God had called her to the priesthood. It didn’t work.
The Catholic Church forbids women from priesthood.
“The argument of the Church is that there were no women at the last Supper,” she says.
Catholics who support women priests argue, however, that, in the New Testament, it was a woman – Mary Magdalene – who first announced the resurrection of Jesus. Nor was Jesus’ crucifixion unique, according to Sevre-Duszynska.
“The Romans crucified women and children, too,” she says. “Jesus experienced humanity. It wasn’t a superman thing.”
Earlier this year the Vatican issued a statement again stating that women are forbidden to become priests. The context of the reminder infuriated Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
“The ordination of women appeared on the list of most serious crimes against Roman Catholic canon law, or ‘delicta graviora’ – putting it in the same category as sexual abuse of children by priests, according to Vatican Information Service. … We demand an end to misogyny in the Catholic Church,” said a statement by the group.
The issue of women’s ordination isn’t Sevre-Duszynska’s only criticism of the contemporary Catholic Church.
“It’s not just adding women and stirring,” she says. “We’re worker priests. We’re about reforming and transforming.”
She believes the church has strayed from its founder’s mission, reflected in the absence of people whom, she says, Jesus would welcome.
“Where are women?” she says. “Where are homosexuals? Where are street people? The god of Jesus is full of compassion, walking with us, a fierce defender of the poor and marginalized.”
Sevre-Duszynska’s own life has had its share of pain. Her mother died when Sevre-Duszynska was 15. She lost her 18-year-old son to a traffic crash 20 years ago.
“I think you come out on the other side of a very difficult loss and you are changed by the fire,” she says. “I was transformed by that.”
Transformation is at the heart of Sevre-Duszynska’s ministry. She rejects the idea that suffering in this life is meant to be endured in hope of paradise after death.
“I see my priesthood really as empowering, liberating, being a voice for the voiceless,” she says. “In the Old Testament, God said, ‘Forget the smoke from the sacrifices. I want you to work for the needs of my people.’ I never bought into this ‘next life.’ This is the place. We are here on this earth. We’re all here to care for one another, including the animals. Spirituality is not compartmentalized. The personal is the political is the social is the religious. That’s how I name Jesus. There’s not a separation. Our personal lives are entwined with the political.”