FORT THOMAS, Ky. - The Rev. Debra Meyers doesn’t really care what the pope thinks about her.
It’s her heart that she listens to and follows.
“What the pope thinks about me and what I’m doing is really immaterial to me,” said Meyers, the first female Catholic priest to be ordained in the Tri-State. "Sometimes you have to “bring about real change in our own lives and not wait on the pope.”
Meyers is part of a small but growing group of women bucking Roman Catholic tradition across the world.
She was ordained on May 25 by Bishop Mary Meehan of Fort Meyers, Fla., at St. John’s Unitarian Church near the University of Cincinnati. The women are members of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, which started in 2002 when a rogue bishop ordained seven women on the Danube River.
“Women are doing what they are called to do to lay a foundation for a better Catholic church,” Meyers said. “We’re going to keep moving forward, making positive changes in people’s lives and hope that that translates into the church as a whole.”
There are seven female bishops to date, and nearly 200 women worldwide have joined the movement, 170 of those in the United States, said Meyers.
The movement, she said, is meant to “be God’s living passion for justice, equality and non-violence.”
The Diocese of Covington did not return repeated calls for comment on Meyers and the ordination of women, which Pope Francis said this summer is a closed issue. In 1994, Pope John Paul said the church has no authority to ordain women.
To the naysayers, who say Meyers is ruining the church:
“I’m not taking anyone out of your pews, I’m taking people who’ve been cast aside by traditional church and bringing them back to God.”
A Calling She Answered
She knew as a small child that priesthood was in her future—but she was told she “shouldn’t think about it because it’s not for girls.”
Meyers grew up in Rochester, N.Y., which she called a “hotbed of reformed movement” activists like Susan B. Anthony, as well as the largest breakaway church Spiritus Christi Church, which is led by a female priest.
Baptized in the Corpus Christi Church, her childhood was spent among a strong Catholic presence, along with her six siblings.
But her faith wasn’t enough to stop the pain and poverty that she would encounter throughout her childhood.
When her mother divorced her father, she and her children were shunned from the eyes of the Catholic Church.
“The church turned us away, we never left [the church],” she said.
“My experience growing up influenced who I am and what I’m here to do,” said Meyers, who continued to attend church the rest of her life. “I knew that was where I would find comfort.”
'Do for those who have less'
The feeling of isolation Meyers experienced growing up in an excluding church and poverty-ridden life, is why she now reaches out to the shunned.
She quotes the Bible's Book of Mark, Chapter 12: “Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor. And do for those who have less.”
“Jesus says this is the most important thing and that’s what the women priests are doing and that’s what people need,” said the mother of two and grandmother of one.
“Helping women instead of [focusing on] my victimization, always pulling up the person behind me because that was the right thing,” she said. “Always turn around, there’s always someone more impoverished.”
“If you’re not helping the people behind you, you’re not growing spiritually.”
Meyers, married twice and divorced once herself, welcomes those who have been divorced, who are single mothers, who have had an abortion, as well as the gay, lesbian and transgendered community.
Again she turns to the Bible. This time the Book of Luke, Chapter 6: “[We’re] not supposed to pass judgment on people.”
“If we don’t allow them to be who they are, we shouldn’t be surprised at the suicide rates. We must do something,” said Meyers of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community.
“We must love them as much as God loves them and not make them feel like outsiders.”
All Priests Are Not Created Equal
While Meyers was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, she had the option of becoming an Episcopalian priest, where women are accepted in the church as a priest, but she wanted to pass along religion she grew up with and found solace.
She wanted to make the church she loved a better place of worship for all.
“If I can be a tiny part in moving the Catholic church into the 21st century then that’s what I’ll do… it’s about the people and the church,” said Meyers.
Breaking With Tradition
The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, works with the marginalized and poor, especially women and children.
“We’ve been called to do different things by God. We aren’t paying attention to those saying, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a woman.’”
Meyers said that she has been preparing for the priesthood all her life, including her volunteerism with schools, libraries, local parishes, food banks and women’s crisis centers, but also through her extensive education.
A religion, history and women’s studies professor at Northern Kentucky University, Meyers has earned a PhD, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in history, a master’s degree in religious studies, graduate certificates in pastoral care, women/gender studies and an associate’s degree in mechanical technology.
Once she completed her sacraments with the church and attended the seminary in Cincinnati, she was ordained as a deacon.
After completing more graduate work, she vowed her “obedience to God.”
Her Church, Her Rules
Meyers calls her church, The Inclusive Catholic Church, where everyone is welcome.
She ministers at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral off of River Road, where on a recent evening the parishioners trickle in one by one, wearing jeans, sweatshirts and gym shoes.
“I’m not above anyone,” said Meyers, who said that she just happens to be able to guide her parishioners to a closer bond spiritually with God. “I’m no more free of sin than anyone else.”
As she finishes up her Wednesday evening mass, she preaches to her loyal parishioners, “Find harmony between your soul and life.”
Slowly she makes the sign of the cross touching her forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder:
“In the name of the father, the son, the Holy Spirit.'