Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger: 'Defying the Pope? It's like not paying a parking fine'

She served in church as a child, has been excommunicated, is married to a divorced man, and has been consecrated a bishop. How much further can a Catholic woman challenge the Vatican? Peter Stanford meets Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger

"And this is the funeral in one of our big Benedictine monasteries in Austria," explains Bishop Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, "of a young woman whose mother wanted me to officiate." Her finger moves along a row of photographs on the screen of her laptop as we talk.

"Here I am with the parish priest, making the procession to the altar together. I always try to be conciliatory. We agreed he would lead the service when we were in the abbey, and I would lead at the graveside."

Women bishops are, of course, commonplace in most branches of Protestantism, and now General Synod has given them the green light in the Church of England. That decision has caused an exodus of Anglican priests and congregations into a newly created special section (or "ordinariate") of the Catholic church. As many as 900 are expected to convert this Easter weekend, attracted by the Pope's over-my-dead-body attitude to allowing women a place at the altar.

Yet the Roman church they are joining may not be quite the haven it seems, for 55-year-old Bishop Mayr-Lumetzberger is a Catholic, as are the congregations that she serves, across Austria, one of the most Catholic countries in the world.

Here is Mayr-Lumetzberger, in file after file of pictures, with her bishop's cross and vestments, officiating at weddings and baptisms and Sunday services, in Catholic parish churches and abbeys, usually alongside a bevy of male Catholic priests.

"They are very respectful," she explains. "So if we are walking as a group up the aisle, they automatically get in the right formation with the bishop at the back as the church's rules teach."

Ah, yes, the church's rules. Pope John Paul II, in 1994, told Catholics that not only were women excluded from the priesthood (because, he said, Jesus was a man and the priest stands in the place of Jesus) but also that they weren't even to discuss the question. So how can Mayr-Lumetzberger call herself a bishop? And what about the 100-plus Catholic women in Europe and America who have followed her and been ordained?

It is a question she's clearly heard many times before. She smiles patiently. Today she is dressed in simple pink blouse and white trousers, but often, she says, sports a black clerical suit. There is a look of Margaret Beckett, the Labour politician, about her. "These priests," she replies, gesturing at the pictures on the computer screen, "they accept me as a priest and let me officiate in their churches. And these people" – she points to the packed pews – "they accept me as a priest and ask for me to officiate." One leads to the other.

And it isn't only in Austria's Linz region where she lives. Our meeting coincides with a trip to London where, as well as giving a lecture, she has been preparing a young couple she will be marrying later this year. She is clearly in demand among Catholics, rule-breaker or not.

Practice and rules have a curious relationship in Catholicism. Survey after survey, for instance, finds only a tiny percentage of mass-going Catholics take any notice of the loudly trumpeted papal teaching on issues such as contraception, homosexuality and the use of condoms to stop the transmission of Aids. The difference for Mayr-Lumetzberger, though, is that she was formally excommunicated in 2002 for going against what the Pope decrees.

"But," she protests, "what I am doing is the reality. It is not important if they [the church authorities] like it or not."

Mayr-Lumetzberger grew up in a Catholic family. "I always felt at home in church," she recalls. As a girl, she wanted to be an altar server. An uncle, high up in the local church, allowed her to do all the things the boys did, but she couldn't wear an altar server's vestment because she was female.

As a teenager, she became a nun, but her order wouldn't let her study theology, sending her off instead to train as a nursery teacher. Was she always a rebel? "I don't think of myself as a rebel at all," she says. "I am very conservative really. I am doing what parish priests have been doing for centuries, acting as a midwife who helps people to find their way to God."

She entered the nunnery when a reforming spirit was abroad in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, especially in the Catholic countries of central Europe. "When I joined, I believed that it was the first step on the road to becoming a priest. That was the expectation back then. It was in the air. But it all changed with Wojtyla. An iron curtain came down."

She refers to John Paul II – the Pope who would eventually excommunicate her, and others like her – only by his Polish surname. Elected in 1978, he was deeply conservative on the question of women at the altar.

In the new hostile climate Mayr-Lumetzberger left her order in 1981, but carried on teaching in a Catholic school and being involved in her local parish. Indeed, to this day, she is still a regular communicant there, excommunication order or not.

It was at this stage that she met her husband, Michael, a historian. The pectoral (bishop's) cross that she wears today, simple and golden, was one he brought back for her from a research trip to Ethiopia. He had been married before and had four children. Their wedding was not in church. "No one would do it," she explains, "because of Michael's divorce, but we had our party in the parish house afterwards."

A pattern is starting to emerge. When confronted with seemingly insurmountable church rules, Mayr-Lumetzberger finds a way to work round it. She continued teaching and working in parishes but increasingly was answering requests to lead liturgies herself. She even ran courses for women, like her, who believed that God was calling them to priesthood.

It was during what she insists was a friendly discussion with a bishop, that he remarked "some only talk about doing things, and some do them". Whether he intended it as a challenge of not, she took it as one. "I wanted to be a priest before I died. If I waited for the male priesthood to allow that change, it would be impossible."

And so, in 2002, she joined a group of six other like-minded Catholic women on a boat in the Danube – to keep them away from the cameras, she adds, and to avoid being in any bishop's jurisdiction – where they were ordained by Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi of Argentina before 300 witnesses. In theory, according to Catholic teaching, if you are ordained by a bishop in good standing, you are a priest, but the Vatican insists (a) that Braschi had put himself outside the fold by his dissent from other church policies and (b) that its ban on women's ordination is bigger than any bishop's authority.

Because the "Danube Seven" refused to accept Rome's ruling, they were excommunicated. That must have hurt, I suggest. "I laughed at it," she replies with a bravado that doesn't ring true. "It was like a traffic fine you don't pay. I go on celebrating mass. People go on wanting me to celebrate mass. They accept what I do.

"Women bring something different, something complementary to the male priesthood. When I bless a mother during a baptism, for example, I can touch her, as a woman, in a way that a male priest simply cannot."

She further antagonised the Vatican by being consecrated a bishop in 2003. The ceremony this time took place in secret. She has always refused to give the date, place or names of the male Catholic bishops who consecrated her, for fear of Vatican reprisals against them. Today, as always, she is adamant that they remain serving bishops in the official Catholic church.

"They were the ones who asked me to become a bishop," she says, "not the other way round. How could I say no? They persuaded me that it was the only way I could ensure that other women priests would come after me."

So what is her relationship now with the official church? Mayr-Lumetzberger says she is in contact with the bishops in Austria (unofficially, of course), and that she is treated neither as outcast nor embarrassment. It is tempting to think of an underground church, but Mayr-Lumetzberger and her fellow women priests are operating in the open.

"As far as I am aware," says Mgr Kieran Conry, the Catholic bishop of Arundel and Brighton, "there are not any of these 'Catholic women priests' in Britain, and the position of the Vatican is very clear – that Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger has been excommunicated. But from my experience, especially when I visit parishes in my diocese that no longer have a resident parish priest because of the shortage of vocations, I do not detect any great level of opposition among Catholics in the pews to the idea of ordaining women. Usually they are the ones suggesting it.

"So the view of the Vatican does not seem to permeate down to the parishes on this question."

I ask Mayr-Lumetzberger if I can publish some of her pictures. She hesitates. "I don't want to get individual priests into trouble with the Vatican and I want, above all, to minimise scandal." We reach a typical Mayr-Lumetzberger compromise – a shot of her in a high-profile Austrian abbey, but no other faces there and no mention of where it is.

Minimise is a key word in this quiet revolution. Mayr-Lumetzberger and the others were so frustrated by their second-class status as women in Catholicism that they felt they had to break out and be ordained, whatever Rome said, but nowadays they are anxious only to get on with their priestly work. Does she believe that by showing women can do it, and do it well, she will one day persuade the papacy to change its mind?

"Why not?" she says. "I have to believe it is possible. Who else is going to believe it if I don't?"

Curriculum vitae: A life on the wrong side of the Vatican

26 January 1956 Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger born in Linz, Upper Austria, into a religious family.

1962-1976 Attends a school run by the Holy Cross Sisters in Linz.

1970 Aged 14, she is allowed to serve unofficially in her parish as an altar server.

1976 Enters the convent of the Benedictines of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and given the religious name "Marie Christin".

1999 Helps organise a three-year programme of seminary training for women in Germany and Austria.

29 June 2002 Is one of the 'Danube Seven' ordained by Argentinian Bishop, Romulo Antonio Braschi.

10 July Vatican orders the seven women to repent by 22 July (the feast of St Mary Magdalen).

21 December All seven are excommunicated by Pope John Paul II.

2003 Consecrated as a bishop in a secret ceremony.

2005 Ordains women from the US and Canada on the St. Lawrence River, Canada.

28 June 2009 Is refused communion by Bishop Ludwig Schwarz in Linz, but chooses to take the host from the ciborium herself.

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