SUN CITY CENTER
The group seated around the Sun City Center living room doesn't look like the sort of crowd that would ruffle feathers.
All nine are well into their 70s or 80s. Most, if not all, are grandparents and even great-grandparents. Many have been away for the past few months, and on this Thursday afternoon in August many have walked in clutching photos or guidebooks from their summer travels.
But this is more than an afternoon get-together among friends. They have gathered for a Catholic home Mass celebrated by Katy Zatsick, 71, a fellow Sun City Center resident, despite the fact that the Catholic Church strictly prohibits women from becoming priests.
Zatsick is a member of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, a small group of women who consider themselves fully ordained members of the clergy, despite strong objections from the Catholic Church, which does not consider their ordinations valid. Like all Catholic priests, members of the association follow apostolic succession, a tradition whereby a candidate for the priesthood is ordained by a bishop who was himself ordained by a bishop years earlier, forming a chain that links back to the earliest days of the church.
The modern ordination of women began in June 2002, when a male bishop ordained seven women on a boat in the Danube River, where no archdiocese had the authority to intervene and prevent the ceremony. The identity of the bishop remained a secret, but the Vatican refused to recognize the ordination of "the Danube Seven" and excommunicated the women for violating church doctrine.
Zatsick, who was ordained in a ceremony in Sarasota in 2010, has not received any official censure but says she's not troubled by the threat of excommunication.
"I just said, they can't throw me out," she said, noting her belief that the church belongs to its members and not just the hierarchy of priests and bishops charged with running it.
Zatsick says she became a priest because she wanted to help bring greater equality to the church, not because she "wanted to wear a collar like the boys." She describes her actions as "prophetic obedience," that is, following her conscience, even when it conflicts with the institutional church.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg does not have any standing policies for how to interact with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests or similar organizations, said Michael Tkacik, secretary for pastoral ministries.
"Obviously the institutional church does not recognize the valid ordination of women," Tkacik said, although he did note that Pope Francis has called for increased participation of women in Mass.
In addition to regular home Masses in Sun City Center, Zatsick presides at Mary Mother of Jesus Inclusive Catholic Community in Sarasota on Saturdays. The community, which celebrates Mass at St. Andrew United Church of Christ, is led by Bridget Mary Meehan, a bishop and fellow member of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, as well as two married priest couples.
As a group that is on the periphery of mainstream Catholicism, Zatsick says that one of the association's main jobs is to minister to "Catholics on the margins" who often feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in traditional parishes.
But Zatsick, a retired hospice chaplain, also acknowledges that many of the women who have sought ordination and many of the people interested in their ministry are older Catholics who remember the Second Vatican Council (a council held between 1962 and 1965 with the aim of modernizing the church) and who hoped to see more changes in the years that followed.
Add that aging population to the large number of retirees who live on the gulf coast, and you have a congregation where revolutionary zeal is tempered by physical limitations.
"Their spirits are willing, but their bodies are weak. And so the challenge is what can we do in our 70s and 80s, with our limitations, to keep living the Gospel, preaching the Gospel, and doing what we can for justice and peace," said Zatsick, who has been active in a number of social movements over the years. "It's a challenge for me, because I used to belong to an intentional community was all about peace and justice, and we were basically, 'When's the next march going to happen?' 'When's the next action?' And that's not the role in this community."
At this point in her life, Zatsick says that one of her most important contributions is just providing the evidence that women can serve as priests.
"Women come to our services and they weep. And I've had women say to me after the liturgy, 'You bring me hope,' " she said. "And I think that's the most special experience for another woman. That to me is like an affirmation."
Zatsick, a mother of three, might be a highly unorthodox priest in many ways, but the prayers and concerns during a Thursday afternoon Mass in the Sun City Center living room are much the same as they are anywhere: They pray for sick friends, grandchildren facing important exams, and family members who have passed away.
The rest of Mass follows the same order as a traditional service, although everyone takes turns doing the readings and the wording of prayers has been tweaked to use more inclusive language. During the time usually reserved for the homily, when the priest reflects on how the week's readings can be applied to daily life, attendees share their photos and explain how they found beauty during the summer.
During communion, the usual wafers are replaced by Paddy Cooney's soda bread. Cooney still attends a traditional church, but he says he hosts the Masses in his home because he thinks the church's prohibition of female priests is sexist. This, he believes, is a small way to effect change.
"I don't know what a mustard seed is," Cooney jokes. "But they tell me it grows very big."