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Prima Donna - First woman Ordained Priest in Rome

Posted on: November 6, 1996 2:40 PM
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History was made today in Rome at St. Paul's Within-the-Walls Episcopal Church with the ordination to the priesthood of the Rev. Ruth Cecilia Monge Teran de Erazo in a richly textured service conducted in Spanish, English and Italian. Cecilia is, almost certainly, the first woman ever to be ordained priest in the City of Rome.

The Rector of St. Paul's-Within-the-Walls, the Rev. Dr. Michael Vono, invited Cecilia and her husband, the Rev. Juan Erazo, deacon and priest respectively from the Diocese of Central Ecuador, to begin missionary outreach to some of the 20,000 Latin Americans living in Rome. Now, four years later, Latin Americans have taken their place at St. Paul's whose vibrant multicultural congregation draws on many of the 169 nationalities currently represented in Rome.

Bishop Neptali Larrea, the Bishop of the Diocese of Central Ecuador, came to Rome to ordain Cecilia in a service which included the Bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, the Rt. Rev. Jeffery Rowthorn; the Director of the Anglican Center in Rome, the Rev. Canon Bruce Ruddock; and the Rev. Canon Herbert Arrunategui, Episcopal Church Center Staff Officer for Hispanic Work. An Anglican priest from Malawi, and Episcopal woman deacon from Chicago, and the Rev. Claudio Bocca, and Italian Episcopal priest from Florence, also participated in the service.

The Diocese of Central Ecuador covers the pension contributions of Juan and Cecilia Erazo, and Bishop Larrea sees this as integral to his diocese's missionary outreach. "By my being here from Ecuador to ordain Cecilia, we are saying that we are not only Episcopalians in Ecuador helping people in our own small country; we are here to share our church and our faith wherever we are needed. The presence of Bishop Rowthorn and myself here today illustrates that we are sharing the rich faith and heritage of our church to others living outside the USA and outside of Ecuador. What we have received in faith, we gladly pass on."

Cecilia and Juan Erazo have attracted a large number of Latinos, mostly from South America, to St. Paul's. Baptisms are a regular occurrence, and between 35 and 45 people are received and confirmed at every Episcopal visitation. They are among the poorest people in Rome. In Cecilia's own words, "I feel deeply for the immigrants. They are so often regarded as non-people. They come in search of ways to better their lives. They need jobs and places to live. I make contacts with Italian families and get them jobs, any jobs, part-time work, jobs as maids... I try to do as much as possible to help them." The Erazos often have people in need of emergency housing staying with them for a few days. They join the Erazo family which includes two sons, a daughter and two baby grandchildren. The Erazo children consider themselves missionaries along with their parents.

Cecilia, age 43, has a diploma in social sciences. She used to work for a nursing home in Rome until two years ago when she was injured in a buss accident which killed three of the nursing home residents. Feeling lucky to be alive, she has continued ministering to the Latin American people in the congregation. She has also started a prison ministry with weekly visits to two jails.

Asked by a reported what message she would like to send to the Vatican on being ordained in the City of Rome, Cecilia replied "A message of peace, love and unity. All of us are children of God, and there is only one God, one faith, one Church."

Bishop Rowthorn of the American Convocation added that, "We are not trying to send a message to the Vatican. We are trying to be faithful to what the Spirit is saying to us. We did not deliberately create this occasion. We are doing what we normally do as Episcopalians and that includes ordaining people-men and women- who are called to Holy Orders." Canon Ruddock of the Anglican Center, who sang the Litany for Ordinations in the service, commented that, "The Vatican does not want to give the impression that they own Rome. There are many manifestations of Christianity in Rome."

Much has changed since 1876 when St. Paul's Within-the-Walls opened its doors as the first non-Roman Catholic church in Rome. Much continues to change as Anglicanism deepens its roots in the Italy of today and takes on a new look -more Italian, more Latin American, more African, more Asian, more representative of the multicultural, multiracial character of the "New Europe." Cecilia's ordination reflects the meeting of many people to worship the one God of all. The colors and sounds of diversity continued during the reception with the church youth group presenting its gift to Cecilia in Italian, Spanish and English; a Peruvian band singing Andean songs and leading the dancing; a Nigerian group singing in Ibo and in English. The Rt. Rev. Henry Scriven, Suffragan Bishop of the English Diocese in Europe brought Cecilia greetings from the Church of England in fluent Spanish.

Another equally significant event in the development of the Anglican expression of the faith in Italy occurred in June with the ordination to the priesthood of the Rev. Claudio Bocca at St. James Church in Florence. Father Claudio is the first Italian ordained to the Episcopal ministry in Italy. He had finished his seminary training as a Roman Catholic when he discovered the Episcopal Church. He spent a year as a missionary in Guatemala studying with some of the great Latin American liberation theologians, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff. This experience opened up to him new ways of being faithful to the Catholic faith. This caused him to question, not his vocation, but where that vocation should appropriately be exercised. He then met the Rev. Ledlie Laughlin, the Rector of St James Church in Florence. With Fr. Ledlie's and the congregation's support Claudio began to prepare for ordination in the Episcopal Church.

Claudio's ordination service, like Cecilia's was multilingual and included traditional Anglican, Latin American and black Gospel music. Under Claudio's leadership, St. James Church reaches out to Italians in Florence and beyond, people who, if they have ever gone to church at all, have long since stopped attending. According to Claudio, "I am proud to be an Episcopal Priest. The Episcopal Church offers Italian people-almost all unchurched-a way to be Christian in Italy."

The Rev. Peter Casparian, present Rector of St. James, remarked that "Just as the typical Anglican in Africa is now Nigerian, Liberian, Ugandan... so in another generation, the typical Anglican in Italy will be Italian, Claudio's ordination represents an important milestone in this journey."

To the question. "How will your ordination change your life?" Cecilia replied, "It won't. I just like being in touch with people. Serving... it's my life. This is what gives me the most satisfaction. It's like when I am with my grandchildren and singing to them-their happiness is my happiness." Through such faithful people as Cecilia and Claudio, the Episcopal Church is responding to the Holy Spirit and creating new chapters in the history of Anglicanism.

In Rome, as in Florence, the Episcopal Church is flourishing as it becomes more and more settled in the Babel land which is today's Italy. Commenting on the constant eruption of flashbulbs recording Cecilia's historic ordination, Fr. Vono remarked that, "These bright lights around us-what we're seeing is the glory of God." The bright lights of Pentecost pointing the way forward in today's world.

Report by: Anne Rowthorn
The Convocation of American Churches in Europe