Dissident Catholics from thirty-five countries descended upon the Vatican on October 11, the 35th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Brandishing a much-publicized referendum and the signatures of more than 2.3 million Catholics demanding Church reforms, the representatives of We Are Church jostled amicably against Roman police. Dissidents, draped in blue or purple stoles to indicate their self-ordination, sang “The Sound of Silence” as they processed along the Via della Conciliazone toward St. Peter’s Basilica.
The petition demands, in part, “equality of all faithful . . . without differentiation, equality for women, abolition of mandatory celibacy for priests, a positive evaluation of sexuality, and the proclamation of the Christian message as ‘glad tidings.” We Are Church advocates a democratic Church responsive to the “signs of the times,” signs that include a call for a third Vatican council, homosexual marriages, and popular election of the pope and bishops.
Signature collection began in Austria and Germany in 1995 and quickly spread to other countries. The United States We Are Church referendum was sponsored by Catholics Speak Out and Association of Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC). These sponsoring organizations represent a coalition of several other American dissident groups, including Call To Action. Thomas Plankensteiner of Austria accompanied Elfriede Harth from Germany and Sr. Maureen Fiedler, S.L., of the United States as the delegates selected to make a formal presentation to the Vatican.
Despite boasts of “thousands,” an estimated crowd of five hundred disaffected Catholics looked on as their representatives negotiated with officials for entry into Vatican offices. The seventeen Americans in attendance watched as Sr. Fiedler tussled briefly with a Swiss guard, complaining later to a British journalist that the guard “would have been arrested for sexual harassment had the incident happened in the United States.” Among the Americans was former priest Anthony Padovano, now president of CORPUS, the corps of married priests performing illicit priestly ministries. Women’s Ordination Conference president Andrea Johnson rounded out the American contingent, which had gathered only 37,000 signatures—embarrassingly short of its stated goal of one million names.
A South African artist, Dina Cormick, leading a small group of her countrymen, apologized for the numbers of attendees, explaining, “The movement has so few funds, you see, and members must pay their way to Rome. It’s so prohibitive. There are many in the South African Church who are with us today in spirit.” When questioned about her personal involvement in We Are Church, Cormick explained that, fired by the promise of reform, she attended the first European Women’s Synod, where she had learned that priesthood was “a matter of spirituality, not biology.” Excitement and anger tinged her comments: “This morning, as we gathered at St. Paul Outside the Walls, the police barred our way—can you believe that? We are Catholics! What are we? Criminals in our own Church?”
Strolling along the Bernini colonnade dressed as a priest was Marleen Bastiaanen from the Netherlands. “We collected 16,378 signatures in my country,” she announced. Ugandan Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala happened by, pausing in surprise at the gathering. A woman placed her blue stole over his shoulders, and the Cardinal stood for a photo with a small group, though it is not at all clear that he understood what the group represented.
After a short delay, the three delegates chosen to represent the group, including Sr. Fiedler, were met by a German-speaking official of the Vatican, who received their petition and the signatures. European journalists and two cameramen jockeyed for position as We Are Church members pressed forward to view the culmination of their two year effort.
Following the presentation the crowd quickly dispersed, some gathering for a camera session in front of the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, others dashing for buses—all satisfied that the goals of We Are Church had been advanced. A scaffold-clad St. Peter’s, being readied for the Jubilee, witnessed wayward sons and daughters as they danced and sang in the piazza. Italian leader Mario Cavini pleaded for photos with Marleen Bastiaanen in her priest’s garb: “Today we will remember, no? Come with us to our celebration?” Questioned about the small numbers of dissidents, Cavini turned philosopher. “Ah! The numbers trouble you? How many to start Marxism? Luther was one man! We nailed our demands today. It is where we end, not where we start, that we celebrate!”
The previous day a group of German members of We Are Church attempted to disrupt the ordination of seven young men at the Church of San Ignazio. German and Austrian seminarians and their families and well-wishers were protected by Italian security who barred the doors to the historic church. Outside boisterous demonstrators protested the all-male priesthood, while inside solemnity reigned. Hymns and incense rose with the prayers of seven earnest young men who will help guide the Church, and, perhaps, even these dissident sons and daughters, into the next millennium.