As Pope Benedict prepares to travel to the United States [arriving April 15th], he continues to uphold the church's long-standing tradition of not ordaining women as priests.  Since July 2006, more than U.S. 20 women with the organization "Roman Catholic Womenpriests" have considered themselves ordained without church approval.  VOA's Jeff Swicord reports on one woman in Sarasota, Florida, who says it is time for the church to openly accept women into the priesthood. 

Bridget Mary Meehan is one of 24 Roman Catholic women in the United States conducting Mass in defiance of church doctrine.

She describes her religious journey, which started as a young girl growing up in Ireland. "We grew up in this beautiful family where prayer was as natural as breathing," she recalls.  "Every evening we prayed the family rosary, and every evening we had such a sense of God."

Meehan entered a convent at the age of 18 and became a Roman Catholic nun with the Sisters of Christian Community.  In July 2006, a woman bishop not recognized by the Vatican ordained Meehan with seven other women. 

Meehan says the Roman Catholic Church needs to be more inclusive. "I think the problem is they don't know how to integrate women into the present clerical hierarchical structure,? she said. ?And that is a problem because this hierarchical clerical structure needs to be changed."

Meehan advertises her Mass in the local newspaper in the southern coastal community of Sarasota, Florida.  Her home serves as her church.

The local archdiocese declined VOA's request for an on camera interview.  But the archdiocese published a letter in the local newspaper condemning Meehan's actions.

Arne Panula in Washington is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization.  He says there are reasons why women are not ordained as priests.  He says it was a man, Jesus, who stood at the altar, broke bread and said, "This is my body," a ritual that priests recreate during Mass.

"The church teaches that he [the priest] does this in what is called in persona et nomini Christi, that he does this in the name and the person of Jesus," says Panula.  "Jesus was male. Jesus was a man.  And to be able to do that as Jesus did requires that it be a man who does it."

Meehan disagrees. "A priest is suppose to be in personi Christi," she says. "That does not mean taking on male identity. It means breaking the bread and sharing the wine in the memory of Jesus as a Pascal meal."

But Panula says Jesus chose not to ordain women. "Jesus Christ could have ordained women," he says.  "He could have named women to the presbyterate, in which case right now there would be women priests."

Meehan disagrees. She cites passages from the Bible and new scholarly works that retranslate the original Latin records of the Catholic Church's early days. "The ordination of women - we know for the first 1,200 years women were ordained,? she said. ?So therefore, the teaching on that does not reflect the practice of the church throughout its history."

Meehan says her congregation is growing. She says some members are disappointed with the direction of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in the area of gender equality. 

Cathy Kidder was attending Meehan's Mass for the first time. "A lot of us have raised their children in the church and saw them learn all those wonderful traditions and heritage and belief in justice attitudes of our church," she says, "and our children have gone to other churches where they feel these things have been put into better practice."

Meehan has conducted Mass since 2006.  The local archdiocese has protested her actions, but the Vatican has not sanctioned or excommunicated her.  Two women in St. Louis, Missouri have been excommunicated. 

"I think it is very wise of the Vatican right now to take a wait and see attitude, watch the movement of the spirit in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests rather than condemning us,? Meehan said. ?Because, one day they just might have to undo their condemnation and canonize a few of the women in the movement.  At least that is our hope and our prayer."