Pink Smoke Gets in Your Eyes | Gail Deibler Finke | July 29, 2011 | Ignatius InsightPink Smoke Gets in Your Eyes | Gail Deibler Finke | July 29, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

The woman next to me loved the title: Pink Smoke Over the Vatican. I know, because she said, "Great title!" with a knowing laugh.

There were a lot of knowing laughs in the theater Saturday morning, when the one-hour independent documentary about women's ordination had its Cincinnati debut. Perhaps the biggest came when the narrator explained that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the modern day name for The Holy Office of the Inquisition—which, though true, does sound a bit over the top. But not as over the top as clandestine ordinations on ships by incognito bishops.

And that's what the film is about: Women who want to be priests, some of whom claim to have been ordained. Sympathetic bishops, they say, have helped them. The first "ordinations" of the infamous "Danube Seven" were done in Germany in 2002—on a boat, so that they were on no bishop's territory, and in secret, so the bishops involved would not be found out. Since then, nine "ordination" ceremonies have been held, most for "priests" but many for "deacons" and ten "bishops." Because no male bishops are now involved, assuming any really were to begin with, the ceremonies are no longer secret. They are also no longer held on boats, but take place in synagogues, non-Catholic churches, and hotels. The Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) claims to have 100 women in training and plans to have several more "ordinations" in 2011.

Director Jules Hart, whose previous efforts for EyeGoddessFilms include a documentary about at-risk youth "creating a totem pole as a symbol of peace and healing," says she made the film because she was captivated by the stories of Catholic women longing for the priesthood. On Saturday, about 200 people, most of them women, crowded into the 220-seat theater to hear those stories. The manager told me that made it one of the most successful private screenings the theater has ever held.

Pink Smoke is on the independent film circuit and may be coming to a theater near you. If you go, what will you see? A lot of kindly white-haired ladies, both on screen and in person—and some angry women thrown in for balance. A lot of talk about feelings and justice, a lot of half-truths and wishful thinking, and a couple of jabs at men. But it's what you won't see that is most important.

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican begins with a lot of unsupported claims that women's ordination was once accepted and common in the Church, but that evidence of this was "all but eradicated" in a Dan Brown-type conspiracy of medieval men. For the record—in case any readers are wondering—even this author with a minor in medieval history can tell you that such a thing would be logistically impossible.

The film then goes on to profile several women RCWP claims to have ordained, including one "bishop," and their supporters. Prominent among the supporters is Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the excommunicated Maryknoll priest, who shakes his finger at the mean old Church and calls the priesthood a "boys club." He is given almost as much screen time as Patricia Fresen, a cheerful, grandmotherly South African woman who claims to have been the third woman ordained a bishop. She had to leave the Dominican order after (as the Church puts it) attempting ordination and refusing to recant. Her delighted and bemused account of her episcopal "ordination" was, for me, the highlight of a surreal film experience.

But not all of the women profiled were so engaging. One was so angry she practically set the screen on fire, and another barely managed to speak as she fought back tears of sorrow for her oppressed sisters. On the whole, "priest" or layperson, the people profiled talked about their feelings. They felt called to priesthood, they felt excluded from power, they felt overjoyed at the idea of women at the altar, they felt felt FELT.

Next to all that emoting, plain old facts didn't stand much of a chance. Pittsburgh's Fr. Ronald Lengwin, who patiently explained the Church's teachings on priesthood, seemed rather pedestrian—especially contrasted with Fr. Bourgeois, who is a genuine hero of the anti-war movement and comes across as a loving and courageous uncle who can't repress a twinkle of mischief in his smile.

Speaking of Fr. Lengwin—the spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh told me he did not know anything about the film or his appearance in it. I can only assume that the clips used in the film were from a general press interview he did in 2006, when "ordination ceremonies" were still held on boats and one was held on one of the city's Gateway Clipper fleet of old-time riverboats. "How did I do?" he asked me.

Beyond interviews, the film shows women in floaty vestments being "ordained," shadowy women with candles walking a labyrinth at dusk, women "priests" leading "creative" liturgies, and many images of female saints whom (one is supposed to infer) were silenced by the male-dominated Church despite their fame. Feisty women say things like, "They can't have the church! It's the people's church," and that ordaining women would result in "an explosion of love in the world."

Between the smiles and jubilant cheers there is a good deal of mud slinging, much of it unsupported by facts—claims, for instance, that allowing priests to marry would fix all manner of social ills. Pink Smoke also throws in Galileo (of course) and half-truths or outright lies about the history of priestly celibacy, several actions of the last two popes, and (again of course) the sexual abuse of minors.

What you think of all of this depends, I suppose, on what you think of women's ordination. I think the graphic of pink smoke wafting over St. Peter's was downright silly—the same opinion I have of the spy movie antics of bishops in disguise, and the claims of highly educated and privileged women to be downtrodden and oppressed. But the rest of the audience thought it was great. The male companion of my chuckling neighbor actually hissed when the film showed a photo of Cincinnati's former Archbishop.

The women profiled in the film say over and over again that "the people" want women to be ordained, and the people in the theater certainly did. As far as I could tell, I was the only skeptic willing to shell out $12 to see what the women's ordination folks had to say. I was also one of less than a dozen people below age 50, so the future of the "movement" doesn't seem too promising to this observer.

But the fifteen minutes after the credits rolled were more telling than the film itself. To the thrill of the audience, a real live "womanpriest" appeared for a question and answer session: long-time peace activist Janice Sevré-Duszynska. It was her "ordination" that Fr. Bourgeois participated in, excommunicating himself. Her 1998 arrest for walking into the Lexington cathedral dressed as a priest and demanding to be ordained is recounted in the film.

"I gave the bishops ten years," a poised and cheery Ms. Sevré-Duszynska told the audience, referring to the decade between her demanding to be ordained and her "ordination" in 2008. During the intervening years, she said, she celebrated liturgies with an interfaith group in Lexington. "I felt my community was ordaining me" when the ceremony finally happened, she said, "because we are all baptized into the priesthood of Jesus."

A quick look at RCWP literature shows that this radical view, and not the film's toned-down message of gender equity, is their real goal. "We stand in solidarity with liberation theology for structural change and systemic justice...." the brochure I picked up says. "Our women priests serve... inclusive house churches and parish communities where all are welcome at the Eucharistic table and to receive all sacraments."

So they don't just want to be priests, they want to dismantle and remake the entire Church. This is far different from the film's relatively tame, "It isn't fair!" message. The movie's not called Pink Stole, it's called Pink Smoke Over the Vatican. Pinkness conquers all.

The women I saw, on screen and in person, talked a little bit about the Holy Spirit, a lot about how they felt, a lot about justice, and a lot about power. What they didn't talk about much was Jesus Christ. Remember, Sevré-Duszynska said: "I gave the bishops ten years." She demanded that the bishops do her bidding. When they didn't "give" her priesthood, she took it—or a facsimile of it. RCWP and other organizations like it wrap themselves in gauze and pink smoke, but behind that gauze and smoke is a fist.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
Who Is a Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy
Liturgical Roles In the Eucharistic Celebration | Francis Cardinal Arinze
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Monsignor John Cihak
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest

Gail Deibler Finke is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati, where she lives with her husband and two children. She blogs for the Son Rise Morning Show, and is finishing her master's degree at the Athenaeum of Ohio. Despite studying at a seminary, she has no plans to become a priest!

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