Of all the issues awaiting Pope Francis in the U.S., from contraception to divorce to same-sex relationships, one of the most polarizing is the push to ordain women as priests

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PHILADELPHIA — The passing crowd’s responses to the banner outside the World Meeting of Families and the women in priest’s collars holding it ranged from revulsion and anger to confusion and praise.

“Amen!” a middle-age woman cried, nodding her head and smiling, while another said, “Maybe in heaven, but not here.”

“That’s just wrong!” another woman muttered.

“Shame on you for dividing the body of Christ,” a young priest shouted, “Read your Bible, madam!”

The banner’s message? “Support Roman Catholic Women Priests.”

Of all the issues awaiting Pope Francis in the U.S., from contraception to divorce to same-sex relationships, one of the most polarizing is the push to ordain women as priests. Groups that identify themselves as Roman Catholic have been ordaining women in unsanctioned ceremonies. They argue it’s time for the church to embrace what they’ve been quietly doing for years, with the latest ordination scheduled at a Quaker retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Some of those passing the banner stopped to ask questions. Others flashed a thumbs-up, pumped their fists in support and posed for selfies with the group.

“This morning it was very, very negative; this priest just gave a dismissive wave like he could make us disappear,” said Eileen DiFranco, 63, of Philadelphia, one of about six local female priests on Wednesday.

“You’ll change everything,” one passer-by complained.

“Things need to be changed,” DiFranco retorted.

“Do you think it will ever happen?” one woman said, adding: “We do all the work anyway.”

Ronald Savage, 82, of nearby Collegeville, was affable, but opposed.

“It’s just a line drawn as far as male priesthood” by the church, he said. “The fundamental doctrines, the laws, the Ten Commandments, they’re not going to change.”

Penny Donovan, a deacon from Los Gatos, Calif., who is studying for the priesthood, tried to laugh it off.

“You have strong opinions!” she told one woman.

The woman frowned.

“You do too,” she said, “But we’ll win.”

Pope Francis has said that when it comes to female priests, “the door is closed.” But supporters at this week’s protests in Philadelphia were still hopeful. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 59 percent of Catholics said they think the church should ordain female priests, but only 41 percent expect the church to allow it.

Women and young Catholics are more skeptical. Only 37 percent of women and 35 percent of Catholics ages 18 to 29 say the church will someday ordain women.

Supporters from Women’s Ordination Worldwide held a weekend conference that drew 500 people from 18 countries to Philadelphia before the papal visit.

Merylee Shelton, a San Jose, Calif.-based Women’s Ordination Conference board member, noted that more than 150 women have been ordained, although the church refuses to acknowledge them. She compared it to the Mormon church’s initial refusal to accept or promote black members into their leadership.

“Citizens have to remind the pope in particular that he’s in the United States, the birthplace of democracy. We need to remind him that the church is functioning outside of democracy,” Shelton said.

Some were hopeful the church will ordain women within their lifetimes.

“There’s always the opportunity to change,” said peace activist Roy Bourgeois, who was excommunicated from the priesthood three years ago after 40 years of service for ordaining a woman at an unauthorized ceremony in Kentucky.

Bourgeois on Wednesday protested the pope’s appearance in Washington, saying the church’s male leaders “see women as a threat to our power in that all-male clerical culture.”

Jennifer O’Malley, the group’s Long Beach, Calif.-based president, said some clergy support ordaining women, but, “It’s not enough to silently support; you have to have a dialogue.”

That’s why they brought their banner to the downtown convention center.

“Our intention is to be visible, to let people know we exist,” said Juanita Cordero of San Jose, a former nun ordained in an unsanctioned ceremony. On Wednesday and the day before, she wore her priest’s collar while toting the banner and distributing prayer cards with intentions for female priests.

Cordero said she was called to be a priest, to lead a church and administer the sacraments. This week, she focused her outreach on passing clergy, especially leaders.

She was surprised that organizers of the families event allowed them to stay because they have been asked to leave gatherings. Cordero was more amazed when Cardinal Kelvin Felix from the Caribbean accepted a prayer card and gave her his blessing. Then a priest from Calgary, Canada, stood with her in solidarity.

A bishop approached, and Cordero handed him a card. He took it.

“Thanks a million,” he said, smiling. “I’ll be praying for you.”