Former Ohio first lady: church must end fear of 'girls'

By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer

LAKEWOOD, Ohio (AP) - Former Ohio first lady Dagmar Braun Celeste felt a calling to become the first American woman ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.

But after she was ordained in a secret ceremony not sanctioned by the church, she didn't know who her flock would be. Who would want the priestly services of a woman not recognized by the church?

She said the answer came to her in dozens of phone calls last month following the news or her ordination and excommunication by the church -- she would minister to fellow excommunicated Catholics.

"I think it's time for them to grow up and stop being afraid of girls," she said of Catholic leaders.

Celeste, 60, ex-wife of former Gov. Richard Celeste, was the only American among seven women ordained June 29 by two bishops on a boat on the Danube River between Germany and Austria.

The church excommunicated the women Aug. 5 after warning them that they must renounce their posts.

Celeste (pictured, above) is no longer permitted to participate in church sacraments but said she still receives them in defiance of the church's order.

She said she has celebrated a private Mass for herself in which she consecrated the Eucharist, but has not done so publicly. But she said she would if asked.

Any sacraments she performs are invalid, according to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

Celeste, a longtime feminist, said her goal is not only to see the priesthood opened to women, but for the church to be more open to those who feel alienated from it.

She said the church should not excommunicate people, but help them spiritually.

"Excommunication is not a way of dealing with people who are in pain," she said.

The church can excommunicate a member for heresy or a schism.

Abortion, or participation in an abortion, is one of the more common reasons for an excommunication.

The Rev. Ralph Wiatrowski, chancellor of the Cleveland diocese, said excommunication is not meant to be permanent.

"The whole idea of penalties in the church are to be temporary to correct the situation," he said.

Wiatrowski said Celeste feels that she has been called to the priesthood, but it's not up to an individual to decide whether they've been called, it must be the church's view as well.

"In this case there needs to be a retraction. It may be her belief or idea, but it's not sanctioned by the church," he said.

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly ruled out discussion in the Catholic church on its ban on women in the priesthood. Church teaching holds that because Jesus chose men to be his apostles, only males can serve in the priesthood.

"To be equal does not mean that everybody has to be able to do the same thing. Equality comes in respect for one another," Wiatrowski said.

Celeste was ordained by Romolo Braschi of Argentina and Rafael Regelsberger of Austria. Wiatrowski said Braschi was excommunicated after breaking with the church in 1998. Regelsberger was ordained by Braschi.

More bishops are becoming friendly to the idea of female priests, said Erin Hanley of the Women's Ordination Conference.

"There are women in the U.S. and around the world that are preparing, that are asking bishops around the world to do this," she said.

Hanley said polls show 70 percent of American Catholics support females entering the priesthood.

Celeste said despite her frustrations with church views she hasn't given up on it.

"I wouldn't leave my family because I didn't like how they behaved," she said. "The church is not evil. These guys are not evil. They're just afraid."

She said she can handle any ridicule she may receive for her actions. She has the support of her six children and her ex-husband, who divorced her in 1995 after 33 years.

"I think this is a calling that she's felt for a very long time," said Richard Celeste, Ohio's governor from 1983 to 1991.

Celeste, now president of Colorado College, said he finds it ironic that she would be excommunicated for feeling a call to serve her church.

"I think she probably feels some pain that the church is not ready," he said. "She's a very, very devout Catholic."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)