I met Iris Muller in Europe for the first time in the 1990’s. She was elderly and physically frail, but emotionally and theologically like steel. Even when struggling with her English, heavily accented by German, she came across as a Catholic “Susan B. Anthony” struggling for women’s rights in the church.
Born in East Germany in 1930, she ultimately studied theology with the aim of becoming a Protestant minister. In her personal search for a deeper and more spiritual path, she converted to Catholicism, but confronted the fact that she could not be ordained a priest. Still, she voiced disagreement with that policy, and hoped to convince Catholic authorities that they were wrong on the issue of women’s ordination.
She spent her life trying to do just that. She and her lifelong friend, Dr. Ida Raming, petitioned the Second Vatican Council in 1963 to call for women’s ordination. Iris worked at the University of Munster, where she developed a library on the status of women in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Together, she and Ida spearheaded many church reform efforts in Germany and Western Europe to move the issue of women priests forward.
Finally, after years and years of the Vatican’s “no,” she and Ida decided to take action. They were among seven women ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood on a boat in the Danube River on June 29, 2002. I was on the boat that day, covering the story, and I remember the joy and radiance on the faces of all the women ordained that day. The ordinations took place just before the boat made a 180-degree turn to head back toward its original dock, and someone noted that the ordination of these women had just “turned around the bark of Peter.” And in some sense, it had.
This was the birthplace of the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement, a movement that is growing today by leaps and bounds, with more than 100 ordained women and many more “in the pipeline.”
The hierarchical church dismissed these ordinations as illicit, and excommunicated the women. But the women rejected their ouster and moved forward with a variety of ministries. Iris and Ida ministered as best they could in Germany, despite their advancing years, and despite a debilitating stroke that Iris suffered.
Iris Muller, RCWP, died Jan. 30 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Iris Muller, Presente!