At 80 years old, Rita Lucey defies centuries of doctrine and dogma by becoming a Catholic priest 

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Rob Bartlett

Rebel is not a word that leaps to mind when you first meet Rita Lucey. Nor do the words radical or revolutionary or agitator. Not even troublemaker.

In fact, when she comes to the door of her Belle Isle home to welcome a reporter in to talk, the words that do come to mind to describe the 80-year-old with wispy gray hair and vibrant eyes so warm they make you smile despite yourself are ones you might use to describe your favorite aunt or a kindly neighbor. Bubbly. Charming. Warm. It's not at all surprising to learn that she's been married to her husband for more than 60 years and that she's got four children of her own, as well as nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But then you get her talking about the prison system or the death penalty or Florida's current governor and the firebrand in her comes out.

"My priestly term for our governor is 'that asshole Rick Scott,'" she says with a laugh as she shoos one of her two Persian cats from a chair in the living room. Her voice sharpens when she talks about her efforts to draw attention to the abuses in the state's prison system – 346 prisoners died in Florida prisons in 2014, a record high for Florida – and that's when facts and figures about the death penalty, war and the Scott administration pour from her mouth in a stream.

She also fires up when you get her started on her feelings about the Roman Catholic Church. Lucey, a product of Catholic school, spent most of her life trying to be a good Catholic, she says. When she was a child, she even considered becoming a nun, although she'd really wanted to be a priest – an option forbidden to her by the church because she was a girl. "I felt the calling since childhood, and I was very disappointed that I could not become a priest," she says. She ended up getting married, doing her best to serve the world as a good Catholic and teaching Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes to kids.

"But when I was somewhere in my 40s, I just couldn't do it anymore," she says. "The emphasis was always on women's sexuality. That is to say, on abortion and on contraception, the fact that we could not practice contraception. There was nothing about death penalties or wars. It was all related to this whole subject of abortion. I could not deal with the dogma and the doctrine anymore. This was not what Jesus was about."

So Lucey decided to become a Quaker. The fact that the Quakers are focused on peace and that they ask their followers "to see the God in everyone" appealed to her. She became an activist and joined Amnesty International. She became an active participant in protesting the School of the Americas, a controversial training facility located in Georgia and run by the U.S. government that provides training for U.S.-allied Latin American military (the school is known to be the training ground for numerous brutal dictators). In 1998, at the age of 63, she was one of 25 School of the Americas protesters (including several Catholic priests and nuns) arrested, fined and jailed for six months in federal prison for repeatedly "trespassing" on the school's grounds.

Despite her activist work, she says she could never shake the feeling that the universe had some other plan in store for her. She continued to be drawn to the religion she had lived and loved, and she says she felt she needed to act on that – she just wasn't sure how.

"The universe was telling me to do something about this Catholicism that I loved," she says. "And a little more study showed me that this is what happened to Jesus. He was a product of his culture, and he saw the injustices. So he became a troublemaker, or a willful disturber."

Lucey, who recently took the controversial step of becoming ordained a Catholic priest in a ceremony that took place at Christ Church Unity in Orlando on Jan. 17, says she's figured out that calling, and she's now following Jesus' example. The Catholic church shuns the very notion of women as priests – it's written into the church's canonical law that only baptized men may become priests. Lucey thinks the rule is not only unfair, but also unjust and antithetical to what the church should be teaching.

"The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world, and it is the only one that does not give equality to women," Lucey says. "They have a law called canon 1024 that says only baptized males can become priests and that dates back to the Middle Ages, probably the 1500s. This is ridiculous and an injustice, and injustices have to be addressed. That's what I am all about. I have a right to be a priest as much as any man, because God created us equal. Men and women are equal in the sight of God."


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