Vatican Might Expel Activist Priest

The Times-Picayune

November 12, 2008

The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, the missionary priest from Lutcher who has devoted his career to opposing U.S. policy in Latin America, appears to be on the brink of excommunication from the Catholic church for participating in a ceremony that purportedly ordained a woman to the priesthood.

Bourgeois, a member of the Maryknoll order, said the Vatican recently gave him 30 days to formally recant his position in favor of women's ordination, or face excommunication.

In a response posted on the Web site of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, Bourgeois told the Vatican he could not in conscience do so. He said he believes a call to the priesthood comes from God and it is inappropriate for the church to interfere with it.

"Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard or how long we may try to justify discrimination, in the end, it is always immoral," he wrote.

The Catholic church teaches that men and women are of equal dignity and entitled to equitable treatment at home, work and in other arenas. But it holds that Christ defined the priesthood as an all-male corps modeled on himself, and it is powerless to change that.

On Tuesday, Bourgeois said he was sad but determined.

"I don't feel I've done anything wrong in conscience. I feel this is where God is leading me," he said.

In fact, he said in light of the approaching sacrifice, "I feel I've become a better priest, a more faithful priest."

In recent months, Catholic activists called Roman Catholic Womenpriests have sponsored a series of public ordinations of women in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston -- and, on Aug. 9, in Lexington, Ky.

There, a group of worshippers pronounced ordination rites for Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 58 and a grandmother.

Bourgeois, who may have been the first active Catholic priest to attend such a service, preached the homily, saying in part: "Now I have been a Catholic priest for 36 years and I must say, more than ever before, I am convinced that women should be ordained in the Catholic church," according to an account of the event by the National Catholic Reporter.

The church holds that such ordinations are invalid, the women are not priests and that they are unable to perform sacramental rites.

It also holds that the women automatically excommunicated themselves by their actions -- which is to say they cut themselves off from the church community and access to the sacraments until they repair the breach.

However, Bourgeois' high-profile participation apparently triggered a formal Vatican process now nearing completion.

--- Critic of Army school ---

Bourgeois' life story, now familiar in much of south Louisiana, is one of remarkable cultural, political and spiritual change.

A native of Lutcher, a town of about 4,000, Bourgeois graduated from what was then the University of Southwestern Louisiana, served as a Navy officer in Vietnam and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 33.

His work as a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia, and later his contact with peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, radicalized him.

He sympathized with their poverty and saw United States foreign policy in support of their governments as deeply anti-Christian. In time, his anger coalesced around the School of the Americas, an Army institution in Fort Benning, Ga., that Bourgeois and other activists say taught Latin American officers the techniques needed to suppress the poor.

Since the early 1990s, Bourgeois has traveled to college campuses, churches and other places to build opposition to the school. The priest lives in a tiny apartment in Columbus, Ga., just outside the main gate of Fort Benning.

Each year around Thanksgiving, the group Bourgeois founded, School of the Americas Watch, leads a huge demonstration that attracts high-profile activists like the actor Martin Sheen. Last year, about 17,000 people attended, he said.

Bourgeois said it was there that he met Sevre-Duszynska.

Bourgeois said as he became sensitized to justice issues in Latin America, he also became aware of what he felt were endemic injustices toward women in the Catholic church.

For years in his travels and lectures about Latin America, Bourgeois said he frequently inserted some remarks about a need for Catholic reforms in the treatment of women. "I'd always work it in, maybe just a minute or two."

--- 'Very traditional' family ---

But he said his watershed public support as an active priest at the Kentucky event caught the attention of Rome.

He said he drove from Georgia to Lutcher last weekend to break the news of the pending excommunication to his father, his brother and two sisters.

"I come from a very traditional Catholic family," he said. "I was very concerned what this excommunication might mean to them."

Bourgeois, 69, said he and his siblings were concerned about how the news would hit their 95-year-old father, who Bourgeois said goes to church daily to pray before the Eucharist.

He said he prayed with his father on Saturday, and as the family gathered he explained gently what was about to happen. "I thought he was going to cry. But he was strong. He said, 'God brought you back from Vietnam, from Bolivia, from El Salvador,' and he said, 'God's going to take care of you now.'

"And I was the one who started crying."

If Bourgeois is excommunicated, he will be forbidden to wear the collar, perform any priestly ministry or receive the sacraments.

As a religious order priest, Bourgeois took a vow of poverty. The rent on his low-income apartment is paid by his order. He said it is not clear whether the Maryknolls can or will continue to support him if he is excommunicated.

"Next month I'll be 70. I hope somehow to be a member of the community as much as possible," Bourgeois said. "I'd prefer not to go to a soup kitchen for meals, but if it comes to that I will.

"I feel a deep inner peace."

. . . . . . .

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or 504.826.3344.


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