Last month Roy Bourgeois, a longtime peace activist and Catholic priest, was dismissed by the Vatican because of his support for the ordination of women.
The letter notifying Bourgeois of the decision came from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, written in Latin, via Ossining-based Maryknoll, the religious order through which Bourgeois was ordained and functioned as a priest for 46 years.
Maryknoll had issued a press release announcing the move against Bourgeois on November 19 and sent the Vatican’s letter to him via express mail with a short note from the society’s superior general Fr. Edward Dougherty saying the dismissal was irrevocable and not subject to appeal.
Both the Vatican and Maryknoll remain silent, all doors closed to communication, a consequence that Bourgeois said is painful and hurtful since he had celebrated with several of his Maryknoll brethren as recently as November. At that time in private he received much support. In public no one will step forward.
Bourgeois’ story is one of solitude and mission, which in his own words has been a journey from silence to solidarity.
In an interview last week Bourgeois told The White Plains Examiner he will continue to support the women who feel they are called to the priesthood. “In God’s eyes there is neither male nor female. We are one,” he emphatically claims.
Bourgeois grew up in a modest Louisiana household, attending religious instruction at the local Catholic Church and mass on Sundays.
“I lived in a segregated community,” he said. “I thought nothing of it at the time. On Sunday the Blacks sat at the back of the church and the Whites were up front. No one mentioned it. The priest never mentioned it. The understanding was that we were equal but separate.”
After four years at university Bourgeois left for Vietnam. “That was my ticket out of Louisiana, and it also became a turning point in my life,” Bourgeois remembered. “In Vietnam I served my country but then I came upon an orphanage with 300 children whose parents had been killed in the war. I lost my hope. I knew then I was not created for war and I began to feel a calling. I determined I wanted to become a priest.”
Bourgeois began his application for the priesthood while still in Vietnam. “Maryknoll was recommended as the order that served the poorest of the poor, that fought for justice. I was filled with renewed hope,” he said.
Bourgeois returned to Louisiana to a hero’s welcome. He had been awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.
While studying at the motherhouse in Ossining, Bourgeois worked teaching religion in Elmsford and became friends with many seminarians who later left the order, settling in White Plains, and other local communities. These men, and women, became the core of a justice movement to help the poor and homeless in Westchester County during the 1980s.
Bourgeois’ mission work as a priest began in Bolivia, South America, where he says he worked in the slums and learned about solidarity; to accompany other people in their struggle. “Bolivia was a dictatorship. The people did not have food or schools or even basic healthcare,” he said. “I stood with them, was arrested and kicked out of the country after five years.”
It was not long after this that several high profile murders occurred in Central America. There was the rape and murder of four churchwomen in El Salvador, two of them Maryknoll sisters and the assassination of Archbishop Romero.
Maryknoll was at the forefront of a peace and justice-making movement at that time. Their publishing wing, Orbis Books, was famous for numerous titles on Liberation Theology and members of the congregation worked in the field to bring these concepts to reality.
Bourgeois was among them, working with the support of Maryknoll behind him to bring world attention to The School of the Americas (SOA) based in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the notorious death squads of Central America were thought to be trained.
“During Romero’s last sermon he called out to the people of El Salvador to put down their weapons and stop the killing. The next day he was killed,” Bourgeois explained. Determined to do something Bourgeois climbed a tall pine tree next to the Fort Benning barracks where the Central American soldiers were being trained. He carried a tape recorder and loudspeaker and in the silence of the night blasted Romero’s speech in Spanish. He was soon arrested and jailed.
“I have spent at least one and a half-years in prison for protesting, for trying to get SOA closed,” Bourgeois said.
After another massive killing in which six Jesuit priests and a mother and daughter were killed, a Congressional task force was formed to investigate the role played by SOA. In 1990 Bourgeois formed SOA Watch. “Over 55,000 soldiers from 17 countries were trained at what the people in Latin America called ‘the school of the assassins’,” he said. Only recently the United Nations documented that the soldiers who committed these murders had indeed been trained at SOA.
Last November, as every November for the past 22 years, people have gathered outside the SOA gates, in solemn remembrance of the people killed in Central America and every year, they have been arrested, Bourgeois among them.
“This past November, 18,000 people came from all over. It was a great gathering of Maryknollers, war veterans, nuns, people all standing in solidarity,” Bourgeois said.
It was during these gatherings that Bourgeois became friends with many women, some of them Catholic sisters, who said they felt the calling to become priests. Their expression rang true to his own experience.
“As a man, how can any priest say his calling is authentic and that of a woman is not?” Bourgeois asks. A question he further says to which he has never received an answer.
Based on the tradition of the Catholic Church women are regarded as equal, but they are separate, he added. “I was hearing the same language expressed during the Civil Rights movement.”
Taught by the experiences of his life, Bourgeois says he must follow his conscience and speak out no matter what the consequences. “Silence is not acceptable,” he vows.
Bourgeois has been present at the ordination of women into the priesthood. They were ordained by Catholic Bishops wishing to remain anonymous, but who in ordaining these women have maintained the apostolic succession of the priesthood dating back to the founding of the church.
Bourgeois’ public support has been called a grave scandal, a notion to which he answers that the only scandal people think of when they hear of the Catholic Church is the sexual abuse of over 12,000 children by 5,000 priests (numbers reported by USA Today).
“This movement for gender justice is unstoppable,” Bourgeois concludes. “It is like trying to stop the abolition of slavery.”