Jessica Horn, attending a house church

CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–In many ways, Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego is like any other U.S. Catholic parish.

Parishioners read from the lectionary at Sunday Mass. They operate committees for peace and justice, religious education and hospitality. Since the congregation started celebrating Mass in 2005, they have had nine first communions, three baptisms and one wedding.

Today someone will light the first of the Advent wreath’s four candles, with a new one lit each Sunday until Christmas, reminding the faithful that a light still shines in darkness.

But Mary Magdalene is not just another Catholic parish. The spiritual leader is Pastor Jane Via, making it one of only a handful of full-fledged parishes with a woman ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition in the pulpit.

Mary Magdalene falls outside the traditional Catholic hierarchy and operates independently, openly flouting doctrine by allowing women in leadership positions.

The parish marks its second anniversary today, the first Sunday of Advent. It is the beginning of the church’s liturgical calendar, traditionally a time of waiting, as Catholics anticipate Christ’s entrance into the world in human form at Christmas.

But some in the Catholic Church are tired of waiting. They have stopped hoping conservative bishops and cardinals will fashion a church that mirrors their ideal of "a discipleship of equals," and they are acting to meet their spiritual needs without the blessing of Rome.

They are moving forward with the ordination of women and married men with the creation of communities that welcome Catholic outcasts such as gays, women’s rights advocates and the divorced, with the liturgical use of gender-inclusive language and with an open interfaith dialogue.

‘It’s Happening Now’

"It’s happening now," said Bridget Mary Meehan, an ordained Catholic priest who divides her time between faith communities in Falls Church, Va., and Sarasota, Fla. "We’re not asking permission anymore."

So at Mary Magdalene–as in a growing number of Catholic communities across the United States and Europe–the first Sunday of Advent signifies more than a new year. It is a new day.

There are approximately 300 to 400 small, liberal "house churches" in the United States and approximately 100 parishes, said Kathleen Kautzer, a professor at Regis College in Weston, Mass., who is researching a book titled "The Underground Church."

Lauren Ivory

House churches contain a handful of members and meet in someone’s home for prayer and Holy Communion, the central Catholic sacrament. In many communities, women play a priestly role during the sacrament. However, breakaway Catholics are quick to point out that no one person "presides" over the sacrament. The bread and wine are consecrated by the community as a whole. The institutional church espouses the same theology, but many feel that fact is forgotten because there’s only one person at the altar leading the congregation, and that person is always male.

The parishes have larger congregations and either own or rent their worship spaces.

The most famous of these is Spiritus Christi, a regular Catholic parish in Rochester, N.Y., that broke from its diocese–a group of parishes in one region led, spiritually and administratively, by a bishop–in 1998 when the bishop fired several popular church leaders who allowed women at the altar, blessed gay unions and gave communion to non-Catholics.

Since then the community has chosen to ordain Mary Ramerman in 2001 and to have her lead the congregation. Today the parish continues in its mission to reach out to the poor and to include all people. With numerous outreach ministries and approximately a thousand people at Mass each week, it is thriving.

Government in Exile

These groups are best understood as parallel institutions, a sort of "government in exile" for Catholics who might otherwise leave the church entirely, Kautzer said.

They attract Catholics who still identify with the faith’s rituals but feel alienated from the institutional church. Most accept women and married men as priests and are involved in social justice issues. Their prayers contain both female and male images of God because, as theologian Mary Daly, author of the groundbreaking feminist book "Beyond God the Father," said, "If God is male, then male is God."

House churches, because they’re only advertised by word of mouth, typically do not attract the church hierarchy’s attention. But the parishes do.

Via, pastor of Mary Magdalene, had a "professional, courteous" meeting with her bishop in August 2006 where they parsed canon law. And the congregation occasionally contends with protesters outside the Methodist church where they celebrate Mass.

Detractors carry signs saying "Blasphemy!" and "Jesus called Peter not Paula," and videotape those entering and leaving the church. Via suspects they forward the tapes to Rome. However, Methodist sympathizers have taken to standing on the church steps to ensure the protesters do not disrupt services.

Restoring an Earlier Way

The Catholics who attend house churches and non-diocesan parishes tend to see themselves more as restorers than radicals.

Archaeological evidence supports the idea that women served as priests in the early church, Meehan said. A mosaic in the catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome shows Mary, mother of Jesus, in bishop’s robes. The Bible includes references to woman-run house churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus.

The drive to force women from the priesthood didn’t begin until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in A.D. 313. Until then, Christians practiced their religion in private residences because of fear of persecution. When legitimization moved it to the public sphere, men took over.

"This is a great throwback," said Jack Duffy, who attends church at Bridget Mary Meehan’s winter home in Florida. "This is what you might call ‘that old-time religion.’"

Worship at a house church is generally an intimate, inclusive experience. Often the celebration is led by the person hosting the Mass at their home and is as likely to be a woman as a man. In other instances members find female or married priests and invite them to the gathering to celebrate.

At Meehan’s home worshippers might bring trays of corned beef and cabbage to share after the service. Instead of a priest delivering a prepared speech about the day’s Bible readings, church members share how the texts relate to their lives. The approach fosters close relationships among members and transforms the patriarchal liturgy into a discipleship of equals, Meehan said.

"Our focus is being the new model and living the new model of Gospel equality in grassroots communities," she said. "And then we figure, once people see that, and it continues to grow and flourish, we will have changed the church from the people, from the grassroots."

Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Visit her Web site at

For more information:

Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community:

Spiritus Christi:

Mary Daly, feminist theologian: