SAN RAMON -- A Catholic from birth, Maureen Mancuso has always felt compelled to minister for the Roman Catholic Church. Now, she's facing excommunication for what she will do Saturday: become the first woman of her faith ordained a priest in Northern California.

"We feel the call by God, and God for us is a higher authority," she said. "I think the church has to recognize that it does have the power to ordain women, and that women can be woven into the tradition."

Mancuso, 59, of San Ramon, is a member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an international group that says it has ordained about 150 women as priests, bishops and deacons worldwide -- including two priests who work in Los Gatos and San Francisco. The Catholic Church says the practice goes against the church's official canon, and women who seek the ordinations automatically are expelled from the church.

Mancuso, who was born in San Francisco and is now a teacher, attended seminary and earned a master's degree in divinity in 1996 from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. She had hoped that by the time she was ready, the church would allow women in the priesthood. Instead, the Vatican hardened against the idea. Mancuso joined the Womenpriests group, which began in 2002 when an anonymous Catholic bishop ordained seven women on the Danube River in Germany.

Suzanne Thiel, the Womenpriests group's western representative and board president, says the group has 116 U.S. members and 152 worldwide. A majority are priests, along with a few bishops, deacons and candidates. The organization is diverse -- members are single, married, gay and straight women; some are even men -- with an average age of about 57.


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Unlike breakaway sects that ordain women, such as the American Catholic Church in the United States, the Womenpriests group insists it is Roman Catholic and that its ordinations are legitimate because they were passed down from a Catholic bishop.

"We maintain they're valid," Thiel said. "We're not playing house here. ... We're women who want to make a change, and to do that, we have to stay within the church."

Zach Flanagin, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, said the group is the latest chapter of what began with women's rights movements in the 1960s and '70s, as Catholic women began petitioning the Vatican for the allowance of female priests.

In 1975, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees doctrine on faith and morals in the Catholic Church, declared that the church wasn't "authorized to admit women to priestly ordination." The justifications given were that Jesus Christ chose only men as apostles. The church has maintained the tradition with priests, and that because the priest acts as an icon for Christ, he must be a man.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II said the church had "no authority whatsoever" to ordain women, effectively shutting down official discussion, Flanagin said. He called ordination of the "Danube Seven" a "form of public disobedience" designed to reopen the issue.

"This is a live issue among American Catholics," Flanagin said.

Mike Brown, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which serves the East Bay, said the diocese won't comment on the ordinations or the Womenpriests group.

"They can put the word 'Catholic' in the title, but it's not a sanctioned organization," he said.

George Wesolek, the Archdiocese of San Francisco's director of public policy, echoed those comments, saying he doesn't see the church changing its stance.

"The Catholic Church's teaching is pretty clear about women in the priesthood," he said. "This is a fringe group that is pushing their particular agenda."

In 2008, the Vatican took a further punitive step, declaring that any ordained woman, and any bishop performing an ordination, would be excommunicated.

Thiel said that many in the Womenpriests group aren't too worried by excommunication. Though the official church refuses to recognize them, many Catholics, she said, are supportive, even if they don't say so publicly. The group has gotten aid from non-Catholics, mostly Christian churches that offer their sites for ordinations and services.

Mancuso's ordination will be at Lafayette Christian Church, and she will serve at Namaste Catholic Community in Orinda, a small group that meets at the Orinda Community Church.

"We're not alone; we've got communities behind us," Thiel said. "The people for the most part have accepted us."

Mancuso, who teaches at Granada High in Livermore, said she considers herself part of a reform movement within the church. She is divorced with two grown sons; her family, she said, is supportive.

"This has been a long process for me," she said.

While there are others in the Bay Area in the Womenpriests group, Mancuso is the first to have her ordination performed in Northern California. "It's a bit of a historical moment," she said. Once ordained, she will perform all the duties of a Catholic priest -- presiding at liturgies, administering sacraments, witnessing weddings and funerals -- at the Orinda community.

While she is "saddened" her decision likely means a permanent exclusion from services in an official Catholic church, she feels any backlash is worth it if she can be a voice for disenfranchised Catholic women.

"I imagine there will be some fallout, but I'm prepared to face that," Mancuso said. "I feel that this is what God wants me to do."

Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.

THE MOVEMENT
The Roman Catholic Womenpriests group began in Germany in 2002 with the ordination of seven women on the Danube River by an anonymous Roman Catholic bishop. The group says it has performed about 150 ordinations of women as priests, bishops and deacons, challenging the Catholic Church's official canon. For details, go to http://romancatholicwomenpriests.org.