As cardinals in the Vatican wrapped up the first day of the conclave with no decision on the next pope, a small crowd assembled on the steps of the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle here in Washington, D.C., with signs, a guitar, and fervent prayers that the conclave would usher in a new openness to women in Catholic leadership.
The chilly March wind rose as volunteers passed around flickering candles. “There’s too much Holy Spirit here tonight,” one organizer joked. “We should tell her to tone it down a bit.”
Those assembled were praying for something popes have long opposed: an active recognition of women as decision-makers in the church.
“We recognize this election as the celebration of patriarchy and the painful reminder of the misogyny of the hierarchy,” read the program, also decrying the “institutional exclusion” of women in priestly leadership.
The gathering, led by the Women’s Ordination Conference , was one of several Pink Smoke Rises demonstrations across the country. Traditionally, as cardinals deliberate over election of their next leader, smoke is sent up over the Vatican to signify the status of the vote. White smoke symbolizes a pope has been chosen; black smoke, no decision yet.
Yesterday, a new color was added to the blend — pink smoke, set off by WOC members from a hilltop overlooking the Vatican . This symbolic call for women’s inclusion was echoed with pink smoke rallies in the U.K., Ireland, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, Madison, Wis., and other cities across the United States.
Since 1975, the Women’s Ordination Conference — the oldest such organization in the country — has sought total reform of the priesthood. This means extending the possibility of ordination to women Catholics, single Catholics who later choose to marry, and openly LGBT Catholics — all of whom are currently denied opportunity for significant church leadership.
“It’s unbelievable that there is no female voice in the hierarchy of such a massive institution,” said Jeanette Mulherin, a Board Member for the Women’s Ordination Conference. “The church is missing 50 percent of its voice. It’s not inclusive or accountable.”
For the liturgical protestors last night, women’s inclusion is an unequivocal matter of justice. The gathered faithful sang and prayed from the church premises out over the street. As one organizer lit small smoke balls, prayers rose and mingled with the pink cloud. Attendees prayed for hearts in Rome to be broken open, for compassionate leadership from the new pope, and for a “church courageous enough to live out her own teachings of social justice.”
Many who have opposed fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church have opted not to stay. Mulherin, herself Catholic, sees no other choice. “As Catholics, we more than anyone have the responsibility to speak up about the church’s willingness to obstruct justice,” she said. “Catholics with any concern for the church have a responsibility to lead change.”
And public sentiment in the U.S. is increasingly in agreement. A majority (59 percent) of U.S. Catholics support the idea of women’s ordination . And after several nuns on a bus  embarked on a highly-publicized tour defending their critical work with social service programs last summer, Mulherin said, “we saw a lot of people becoming familiar with us and our voice, and getting angry – saying, we can’t ignore women’s voices in the church.” The nuns’ galvanizing action, and the indirect light it threw on realities of the Catholic hierarchy, was, said Mulherin, “a great thing for American Catholics.”
The next pope will be male, and the office will remain so for the foreseeable future. So what’s the best-case scenario for the Pink Smoke demonstrators?
“Dialogue,” offered Mulherin. “That’s it. What we want right now is for leaders to listen to what is really a large percentage of the church. People should not have to fear excommunication for speaking out.”
After each burst of smoke and each prayer, the group collectively chanted “sumus ecclesia — we are the church.” With the selection of the new pope comes the chance for a new vision of what – and whom – the church is. Those gathered last night pray their voices will be included in that vision.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.