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A lifelong calling realized in one woman’s ordination

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

Toni Tortorilla remembers being five years old, standing in the back of her church, and feeling a compelling magnetic force drawing her to the altar and to priesthood.

“That’s the only way I can describe it — pulling me to the altar, and in that instance I knew that that’s what I was to do. That’s my life. I knew that,” she says.

Now in her 60s, Tortorilla says that that calling never left her — throughout disappointments, depression, and the turmoil of an evolving church.

Throughout her life, her education and vocation was structured toward the priesthood in a church that didn’t allow it. Through the Second Vatican Council, as the church opened itself up to changes of the 1960s, women had newfound freedoms within the church — except ordination. But following the calling, she says, was in a way, part of the calling.

With the turn of the century, however, even that began to change. Seven women in Germany were ordained on the Danube River, and the future for Tortorilla and others who felt a similar calling would never be the same. Tortorilla was ordained in 2007. Today she leads services in the Sophia Christi Alternative Catholic Community in Portland and Eugene.

Still, the ordination of women is one of the core disputes between the Vatican and women religious, who have tacitly approved of the practice. For Tortorilla, who also identifies as a lesbian, it is an age-old battle of the sexes still in play.

Joanne Zuhl: At what point did it occur to you that you actually could be a priest?

Toni Tortorilla: That didn’t become a reality until 2002. I always pursued being a priest in whatever way I could. I knew that I wasn’t called to be a minister in another denomination. Inside I never stopped being called to priesthood. Many times I was depressed. I would get my hopes up and sort of pursue this line, thinking this will take me closer to doing what I’m called to do.

J.Z.: During this whole time, were you thinking that the church was empirically wrong, or was there an internal struggle that the church is empirically right and you just don’t get it.

T.T.: The hierarchical church was telling me I couldn’t do what I was called to do. I felt that God was telling me to be a priest. The men were standing in the way. In fact, in the 70s, many of us believed that women were going to be ordained soon.

J.Z.: They were in other churches...

T.T.: Exactly, and we felt like that was going to happen in our church, too. It was just the conflict between feeling that call so strongly, and knowing that the barriers were not coming down, and in fact were becoming more and more firm.

J.Z.: Did you ever hear any argument that you considered valid as to why a women could not be a priest?

T.T.: Never. In fact, there was a commission of biblical scholars that were pulled together to study whether or not it was biblically possible for women to priests, and that commission came out with their findings that there was absolutely no reason in scripture to deny ordination to women. None. And it was just ignored.

J.Z.: When you were ordained a priest, did you think that this was just an experiment of some sort? Did you think — as a movement — that this was going to stick?

T.T.: We all knew that we would likely be excommunicated. However, what does that mean? The Vatican can issue an excommunication order and say you can no longer receive the sacraments. However, when you’re a priest and you can offer the sacraments, what difference does that rule make?

Also, what does it mean to be excommunicated? You’re not no longer a catholic. Once you’re a baptized Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. They can’t kick you out of the church. It meant something when you were part of little village and there was a village church, and the next village was 100 miles away, and everyone knew you were excommunicated and therefore the priest would not give you the sacraments. But in a time like this, who knows? It makes no sense.

Plus, you have to buy into being excommunicated for a justice issue. I know that I’ve been called to ordination by God, and you men are telling me no, when your biblical commission says there’s nothing to stand in the way of my ordination. You’re making this decision based on something that makes no sense to anybody that because I’m a woman and I don’t have a penis, I can’t be a priest. So it’s a justice issue. You’re the hierarchy — you’re not the whole church. Most, over 58 percent of the Catholic population, believe that women should be ordained, and here I am as part of this church saying this is what God is calling us to. I firmly believe this.

J.Z.: Did you get any backlash from people when you were ordained?

T.T.: Yes. I had a couple of letters, e-mail. The first time I said mass in Eugene, The Register-Guard newspaper picked up the story before the mass and there were picketers outside the church. I know where people are coming from, and it doesn’t really bother me.

J.Z.: You have likened the impact of the Vatican’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious not just on the individual level but at its broadest — from congregations to politics. Do you think the approach the bishops are taking disproportionately hurts poor people more than people of wealth?

T.T.: Oh, yes. We know from studies and research that’s been done. That if you educate and empower the women, the water of the society rises. Things get better in that society if you empower the women. Yet, what is happening politically, but also with the church, is they’re trying to keep women down. Which runs counter to what culture and society needs in order to become more just, more whole, more compassionate, more supportive of one another. Because when you have people who are just taking care of their own survival needs, and that’s all they can do, they don’t have time to take care of their children, to educate their children, they’re not even able to be present to their children.

It’s a sad thing. Talking about the ultra right, it’s weird how there are people who make it their calling to go to churches and listen to anything that is the least bit liberal, the least bit progressive and then report it. Report it to Rome, report it to the bishop, and the sad thing is, that those are the voices that are getting listened to and supported and empowered.

J.Z.: What do you think is their motivation?

T.T.: I think it’s fear. Fear of change. I think it’s a very narrow view of what is correct, and as long as we stay right here then everything is going to be all right. But if we get out here, well, we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. Society is going to fall apart. So they’re trying to make sure we stay on the straight and narrow. And a little bit of that can be useful. Because the progressive side can get kind of crazy and frenetic and kind of scattered. So a little bit of that, and you have a balance. But when you emphasize that and only support that, then that becomes out of balance, There’s a breaking point. We can’t rein it all in.

J.Z.: What is to happen for the church to move beyond this conflict?

T.T.: I don’t know. I think one thing that’s happening is we have a grassroots church. And that grassroots church is growing and it’s developing and experimenting, and who knows what will happen with that grassroots church as it grows in its connectedness. As coalitions are formed between Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Ecumenical, and some of the protestant churches that are also experimenting with faith based home churches. I see a lot of ferment happening at the grassroots. People are not satisfied with what the institutions are telling them any more — across the board. We’re not trusting the institutions, we’re not trusting the political institutions, certainly not the churches. But underneath all of that, there is a spirituality that is trying to find its way. It’s healthy. We don’t know what it is. We can’t name it yet. But it’s there. While the institutions are crumbling, will the Catholic Church institution crumble? I doubt it. I think there probably will be something that carries it on. The institution will survive, and the grassroots will continue developing, and it may be a parallel universe. Maybe the two will meet down the road.

 Read Street Roots coverage on the Catholic Church:

In-depth: What's at stake in the Vatican's crackdown of national's leadership of women

Editorial: Women stand tall with community support

In-depth: On the left side of God