The new pope, Benedict XVI will soon be handed one of the hottest 'hot potatoes' that the Roman Catholic church has had to deal with in our modern ' and supposedly equality-striving ' times: in his one-billion-faithful-strong church, women are still barred from becoming priests and therefore from leading mass. In July, nine women from Canada and the United States and one from France will challenge this rule by being ordained as Roman Catholic deacons and priests, a move that could lead to excommunication from the Vatican, whose Canon Law states that only a baptised male can receive ordination.

This won't be the first ceremony of this kind and ' more importantly ' it won't be the last, in a crescendo that could in the far future even change the Roman Catholic church, its relations to other Christian churches and to the wider, non-religious population who always saw in this prohibition more than a touch of mysoginy and a perpetration of inequality.

Some 65 new ordinations of women are in the pipeline and the 'Women priests' movement, which counts members worldwide and includes several nuns, seems to be gaining strength and visibility, pressing the question of how much longer the Vatican will be able to brush aside such a major issue.

Its leaders believe it is time that the Vatican opened up to equal opportunities, but have no intention of creating a parallel church: they want to bring about change from within.

'This protest stands on two feet: it is a spiritual call for priestly service and a political call for the respect of women rights and for equality within the church,' Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, an Austrian former Benedictine nun who is one of the movement's two bishops tells me over the phone. 'This move alone will not bring equality in the church, but it is a little step.'

Mayr-Lumetzberger, now a theologian and a secondary school teacher, was ordained priest by schismatic Argentine Bishop Romulo Braschi in the first ceremony ever held by the movement. Her ordination, which took place on a boat on the Danube River in 2002, incurred major punishment: Pope Benedict himself, who at the time headed the Congregation of Faith when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, excommunicated Mayr-Lumetzberger and the six other women alongside her.

The move got wide press coverage and the ordinations that have followed, bringing to fourteen the number of women priests or deacons, have since been quietly ignored by the Vatican. Meanwhile, the movement has expanded beyond northern Europe: it has taken hold in North America and is slowly moving to other countries around the world.

Mayr-Lumetzberger says that despite her excommunication, which, she says, 'we do not accept', she has no hard feelings towards Pope Benedict and even believes he will be more open to the plea of women in the church than his predecessor Pope John Paul II.

'I think he, as a pope, will bring the issue of women forward...He is a wise man and he knows that in the third millennium it is not possible to continue on the same path as before,' she says. 'I don't think he will react to the new ordinations.'

Italian journalist and Vatican expert Marco Tosatti wrote in a recent article in La Stampa that the fact that the new ordinations will not be made by a 'regular' male bishop like in the case of Mayr-Lumetzberger but by Mayr-Lumetzberger herself and another woman bishop makes the situation 'much more delicate'.

Mayr-Lumetzberger is optimistic: 'Much has changed in the three years since I was ordained. At first, it seemed impossible to even become a deacon and now I am a bishop,' she says in her soft, gentle voice. In fact, the ordination of a South African in 2003 brought no reaction from the Vatican, just like the ordination last year of six women as deacons.

But what do a woman bishop or a woman priest do exactly ? Well, the same things as their male counterpart. 'I lead mass, I ordain other women and I celebrate weddings, baptisms and funerals,' explains Mayr-Lumetzberger. 'I do it everywhere: at people's houses, in churches, in my chapel, and in other places, but they have to be places of dignity.' All the women ordained are highly educated, have studied religion and theology and very serious about their calling, she adds.

Those who, for special reasons such as the threat of losing their jobs, cannot run the risk of excommunication, can be ordained in special 'catacomb' rites, a ceremony inspired by the secret underground worshipping of early Christians. Their names are withheld from the general public until their circumstances change.

The ten women to be ordained this July, however, are likely to make the headlines and have already attracted the attention of media worldwide. On 2 July, Frenchwoman Genevieve Beney will be ordained as priest in Lyon. The first nine women ever to be ordained in North America (four as priests and five as deacons) will instead hold their ceremony on a boat on the Saint Lawrence river, in international waters between Canada and the United States that are outside the jurisdiction of any diocese. 'We like the rich symbolism of a ship for our ordinations: a ship or boat was a very early symbol of the church; Jesus often preached from a boat and some of his first disciples were fishermen,' states the website of the US side of the movement.

The calling of the women priests movement goes beyond equal opportunities. 'By ordaining women, we are re-imagining, re-structuring, re-shaping the priesthood and therefore the church. We believe that it is possible to live and build up a new model of priesthood: that in itself brings about a new model of church,' says the group.

'These are some of the ways in which we strive to avoid the trap of dualism and clericalism: We do not have obligatory celibacy, in fact we do not link celibacy and priesthood. Our ordained women may be married or single, hetero' or homosexual, some are grandmothers, a few are divorced and have had their marriages annulled: we are in fact a cross-section of the Christian community in our lifestyles,' it adds.

The movement also rejects the Roman Catholic promise of obedience to the bishops which characterises the hierarchical structure of the church: 'Rather we try to live prophetic obedience: to find and walk together the 'holy road' along which we trust the Spirit is leading us. A symbol of this attitude is that the bishops prefer that the candidates do not kneel or prostrate themselves in front of them but rather in front of the altar.'

And no matter how Pope Benedict will react to the July ordinations, it looks like this hot potato will just grow hotter. 'One of our women deacons has been invited to Korea and we have contacts all over the world,' says Mayr-Lumetzberger proudly.