Excommunicated nun to celebrate first public liturgy as a woman priest

by Elizabeth A. Elliott

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A Cincinnati nun who was recently excommunicated after her April ordination as a woman priest will celebrate her first public liturgy Friday at Atria Northgate in Cincinnati.

Sr. Letitia “Tish” Rawles was serving as a “catacomb” priest in order to not cause trouble for her religious order. She was excommunicated automatically for being ordained a priest and was dismissed on Oct. 22 from the Sisters of the Precious Blood because she was excommunicated and “no longer has the right or privilege of wearing the ring and insignia or presenting herself as a Sister of the Precious Blood,” said Sr. Joyce Lehman, president of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, in a press release. *

Lehman noted a decree by Cardinal William Levada, former prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, in 2007, “both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman or a woman who attempts to receive the sacred order incur an excommunication.”

“A catacomb priest is a priest who functions privately in service of a specific community,” said Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP). Rawles’ specific community is the Atria Northgate Assisted Living Facility in Cincinnati, where she ministers to the sick and dying. She is seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, late stage liver disease, and diabetes. She has been a nun for 47 years.

Over 5,000 people have signed an online petition to ask Pope Francis to overturn her excommunication and those of all women priests and their supporters, according to a press release from the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, of which Rawles is a member. The petition will be delivered by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA to Francis as part of the church’s Year of Mercy.

“The petition represents people of faith and good will from all over the globe, including signatories from Africa, Europe, and South America,” according to the press release. “Over 1,000 clergy and faith leaders, including Catholic priests and over 150 Catholic sisters, have signed the petition.”

Being a priest is not something new for Rawles. She said she’s always wanted to be a priest and always had a calling to help other people. Rawles believes she was able to help a lot of people as a nun, both in the Sisters of the Precious Blood for 25 years and her previous 22 years with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. Some of her priestly ministry includes helping the sick and dying, giving last rites, funeral services, prayer services and presiding at home liturgies.

“The theme of my first liturgy will be Gratitude and New Beginnings,” said Rawles in the press release. “I enter this Eucharist grateful for all who signed the petition and the new beginnings that my public priestly ministry will offer.”

[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is eelliott@ncronline.org.]

*This story has been updated to correct the excommunication and dismissal of Rawles.

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