When Letitia “Tish” Rawles was ordained as a Catholic priest in April, it was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of yearning—and a practical fix to ministering to the sick and dying at her Cincinnati assisted living facility, where it was often hard to find a priest to administer last rites.
“I’ve wanted to be a priest since... probably the fourth grade, as soon as I started attending Catholic school,” she told The Daily Beast. “I always wondered why there were no women at the altar, only men.”
But Rawles didn’t know any female priests then, so she became a nun despite feeling the “deeper calling” of the priesthood. “And I’ve loved being a nun,” she said.
The 67-year-old had that taken away from her last week, though, when the Ohio-based Sisters of the Precious Blood, the order she’d been with for 47 years, found out about her ordination and told her she was out. She was automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which bars women from the priesthood and shows no signs of budging from that position.
Now Rawles and her supporters say they’re appealing to Pope Francis during his Year of Mercy to restore her to the church and to her order. That’s what Jesus would have done, they say.
“This is an opportunity for Pope Francis to take a step towards reconciliation and healing misogyny in the church,” Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests told The Daily Beast. “The full equality of women in the church is the voice of God in our time.”
The ARCWP is one of many organizations pushing for allowing women to be Catholic priests but an outlier in that it ordains women. Meehan said the ARCWP’s female bishops were even ordained by an anonymous male Catholic bishop, linking them to an unbroken lineage leading back to the apostles.
“Did she know it was against the rules, did we know it was against the rules? Of course,” Meehan said. “But we are the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church.”
The ARCWP emphasizes the Catholic concept of “primacy of conscience,” which it says allows it to choose to dissent from an unjust teaching.
“We’re walking in the footsteps of prophets and saints,” Meehan said. “Look at Joan of Arc. They burned her at the stake for what? For following her conscience.”
For Rawles, though, joining the priesthood wasn’t an easy decision.
Even after attending services led by women priests, she tried to convince herself that she was too old, too sick to take on the task herself. Rawles said she suffers from multiple sclerosis, late stage liver disease, and diabetes.
“But that gnawing, that call....that primacy of conscience, as we call it, was always there,” Rawles said. Then she began taking classes, “and the feelings just got stronger and stronger and stronger.”
Two years of studying culminated in her ordination in Cincinnati on April 18. Her family, who “never” visit, she said, were in attendance, but she didn’t tell the Sisters of the Precious Blood.
“As I was being ordained, I was thinking about the more in-depth ways I could touch people’s lives, that I could be there for them,” Rawles said. “Especially for the dying, to hold their hands as they go to their loving God, whoever he or she may be for them.”
She quietly began performing last rites and leading prayer services in homes. Friends at the nursing facility were just “happy to know that there’s a priest on the premises,” she joked.
She doesn’t quite know how the Sisters of the Precious Blood found out, she said, but she received a call from the group’s president this month, demanding to know whether rumors of the ordination were true.
Rawles refused to sign a letter of separation from the order. A few days later, she got a note saying she was out, as a result of her automatic excommunication for seeking the priesthood.
“I don’t blame them, I mean, they’re following the rules, man-made rules of the Vatican,” Rawles said. Both she and Meehan emphasized that the sisters are doing what they must to avoid the wrath of the church. “I still love the sisters, I still wish I could be part of them.”
The sisters, for their part, have promised to keep picking up the tab for her assisted living facility: Rawles may no longer be a member of the order, but she’s still a person in need. “We are in the process of setting up some means of financial support,” Sister Joyce Lehman told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
But Rawles, who devoted 47 years to the order, said that’s not enough.
“The pope has declared this the Year of Mercy. We’re asking him to act on that by removing all excommunications,” she told The Daily Beast. “Because Jesus would not excommunicate anybody, he accepted all.”
Getting Pope Francis’s attention is another matter. Meehan acknowledged that, as excommunicated Catholics, Rawles and the ARCWP have practically no line to the Vatican. Rawles said a woman at her assisted living facility suggested gathering petition signatures.
A Vatican spokesman contacted by The Daily Beast said he had no comment on the matter. “I know nothing about it,” Thomas Rosica said.
But for Rawles, a lifelong Catholic, leaving her church for a more open one is not an option: Doing so would be forfeiting hope that the church can change.
“If you leave something, then problems and issues don’t get addressed, and things don’t change,” she said. “Whereas if you stay and fight for what’s right, what’s just, what’s loving, what’s compassionate, then changes can happen.”
“And that’s why we say we’re not leaving the church, we’re leading the church,” Rawles said.