By Mary Milz
INDIANAPOLIS - An Indianapolis woman plans to make history Sunday.
Maria McClain plans to become the first woman ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Indiana, even though the Catholic Church calls it invalid will not recognize it.
McClain, 71, describes herself as a lifelong Catholic, ready to challenge the church she's devoted her life to.
"Some people call me courageous," McClain said. "I don't see myself as courageous. I just feel I'm doing what I've been called to do."
McClain was a Sister of Mercy in Buffalo, New York for 15 years before leaving her order. She later moved to Indianapolis, got married and began teaching religious education. She said devotion to the Eucharist was very important.
"I kept looking at that, thinking, 'If I had been a boy, I would have been in the seminary for sure.' It evolved for me until I began thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is real. This is me'," McClain said.
Last June, McClain was ordained a Catholic deacon during a ceremony led by a female bishop in Minneapolis. Sunday, she will be ordained a priest by the same bishop in defiance of church law, which forbids women from entering the priesthood.
McClain is part of a worldwide movement to ordain women. The group Roman Catholic Womenpriests was founded in Europe 10 years ago, after three male bishops secretly ordained seven women as priests.
Those bishops later made a few of those female priests bishops so they, in turn, could ordain other women.
The group maintains the ordinations are legitimate because they follow "apostolic succession," which maintains a continuous and direct link to Jesus' apostles. In the last decade, more than 100 women have been ordained worldwide, almost all by female bishops.
"We are all pioneers, hoping to bring justice to the whole church," McClain said. "We're a movement within the Catholic Church, not outside of it."
The Vatican strongly disagrees. During his Holy Thursday address, Pope Benedict XVI restated the church's ban on women priests and said he would not tolerate disobedience. He cited a 1994 document by Pope John Paul II that said the ban was part of the church's divine constitution.
Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, said McClain's ordination was not valid and would not be recognized.
"This group or any group ordaining women would not be part of the Roman Catholic Church," Otolski said.
He said the ordination of men was handed down by Jesus.
"He only chose 12 apostles, all men. He did not choose women and that's an unalterable part of the faith, a tradition the church has held and carried on for 2,000 years," Otolski said.
McClain and her supporters remain undeterred. A group ranging from 6-20 people have been meeting twice a month for prayer and discussion for more than two years.
"Let's face it, the church today is in trouble. Many parishes are closing in the U.S. and across the world, simply because there are not enough male celibate clergy," said Joe Zelenka, a former priest.
But Zelenka said his reason for embracing women priests goes well beyond that.
"I believe with all my heart and soul that women are equal to men and they're also called to lead the community in the Eucharist," Zelenka said.
Lynn Herbold, still a member of a north side Catholic parish, said she has long worked for change.
"I think our liturgies and prayers miss the input of women and the nurturing and pastoral care they bring," she said.
So why don't these Catholics join a church that accepts women ministers? Laura Henderson said she searched for a new church home, but missed her Catholic roots.
"I decided the only way to change the church I loved so dearly, the ritual I loved, was to work from inside to bring the church to the modern day. You don't change a thing for the better by leaving," Henderson said.
Mary Heins, another lifelong Catholic, said she's involved because McClain embodies the faith.
"She's a woman in her early 70s and she's on the road and in the hospital and she's really giving her life to people and I think that's what a priest is," Heins said.
The promise of excommunication has come up several times for women who pursue ordination, though Otolski didn't press the issue.
"That would be up to the bishop to decide," he said.
McClain said she's not worried.
"It's the consequence of obeying a law that is unjust," McClain said. "When I use to teach morality and ethics in high school, I used to say to the students, 'If a law is unjust, don't obey it.'"
Asked about being rebels or rogue Catholics, Henderson said, "Is it a concern you might have to have an uncomfortable conversation? Yes. But am I worried? No, because I would take offense at you saying this is not going to be recognized by the church. I think it will be. It might take 100 years, but I think as a movement, we're just ahead of the hierarchy of the church."
McClain cannot hold services in a Catholic church. Instead, she plans to find other public places to hold Mass.
"We will follow the liturgical year, the main outline of the Mass and a translation that's inclusive. We don't use male-only terms for God or people," she said.
Along those lines, she said she will welcome all who have felt alienated by the church, including gays and lesbians, divorced Catholics "and people feeling outside the regular Catholic Church, because of their stance on things like women's ordination. I want to be there for them. I want to be able to say there is a place for you in the Catholic Church, just like I found for myself."