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Women stake claim to rites

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Oakland, Calif.

Before Sunday’s “Critical Mass,” I was thinking about theological nuances, liturgical dance, ritual gestures, disagreement and dialogue, the time and energy our planning meetings took away from my writing, the Real Presence, practical details, the prevalence of self-censorship among Catholic academics, discernment and risk. Now, after the women-led liturgy, two years in the planning, I cannot stop thinking about bodies.

This was a liturgy of bodies: our bodies, the body of Christ, the bodiliness of God and the body of the church.

I wondered briefly whether I experienced this as bodily prayer more than other participants because I danced much of the liturgy as one of the ritual leaders. But others told me they had the same experience. We all moved; we all blessed; we all spoke. It’s not, I explained to friends who asked whether we women were going to consecrate, as if we are going to dress up a woman -- or 10 women -- in clerical garb, have her open the sacramentary and start reading.

“A Critical Mass” had no identifiable “presider(s)” -- which was part of the point: not simply to have women as leaders in the celebration, but to transform the shape of the celebration itself.

Nearly 300 people gathered at Oakland’s Bishop Begin Plaza, including several women who had been members of the Grail, an international movement of Catholic lay women, for five or six decades and a newborn in its mother’s arms, people standing and people in wheelchairs, children and adults. Most were women, but at least 30 percent, perhaps 40 percent were men. Most were Catholic; a few were Baptist, Jewish, and members of the United Church of Christ. Some were homeless women and men who are the regular inhabitants of this public plaza, a spare urban park near a freeway overpass, noisy and windy and strangely deserted.

It is adjacent to the site of the former Oakland cathedral, badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake and later razed, and to St. Mary’s Senior Center, which serves food to homeless men and women of the neighborhood.

Bright banners, flags and stoles flapped in the wind. The liturgy made strong use of the arts -- fabric, dance, music, theater. Until the blessing of the gifts, it was an alternating movement between a traditionally vested male priest -- a married priest -- and a new way of celebrating, a circle of blessing led by women.

“The Eucharist we will create together today,” said one of the organizers in the opening statement, “is the Mass as we know it with a Mass that we can only begin to imagine. ... We are claiming the freedom in our church to try on, to experiment and to do so publicly.”

Early in the liturgy, the vested man steps to the center, beginning the traditional rite of reconciliation: “Remembering God’s mercy, let us call to mind our sins,” he intones. The combined sounds of shofar and trumpet interrupt him. He stops, looks, retreats quietly.

Two women’s voices come from the microphone: “Is it possible? Yes, it is possible. Is there mercy? Yes, there is mercy. Is it time? Is this the time? Yes, it’s time. Yes, this is the time.” The dancers move among the crowd, taking each person’s face in their hands, saying one or more of these sentences, and asking people to do the same with their neighbors. We look into each person’s eyes, touch her, touch him, speak as if she were, as if he were, the only person in the world at that time. God’s compassion and forgiveness are infinite, and they are for you. I am not sure whether the tears on my face are due to emotion, urban pollution or a combination of the two, but there is a lump in my throat and my hands are warm. At the end of the liturgy, my skin tastes like salt.

A liturgy of the body: We learn anew what it means to be the body of Christ -- to eat it, to touch it, to receive it, to share it, to live as a part of it -- to know the embodied God, one of the truths at the heart of our Catholic Christian faith.

Bodies and breath: at the epiclesis, a prayer calling on the power of the Spirit, we breathe as we bless, all of us, breath, arms, words and prayer moving together. Ruach. Breath. Spirit. In the prelude to the liturgy, we observed our breath, our hands against our hearts. At the liturgy’s start, our gestures invoked the Spirit, evoking the ancient prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit ... enkindle in our hearts the fire of your love.” The sun is bright. The wind is brisk. We breathe and bless.

We hold the loaves of bread and the cups of red wine close to our hearts: This is my body, this is my blood. First in a circle, facing the altar, then facing the assembly, the rest of the wide circle in which we stand. After placing the gifts back on the table, we touch each other’s arms. We repeat: This is my body; this is my blood; and move into the congregation to share and spread this gesture and these words.

Understanding the body

I understand the body of Christ in a way I had not before, not at any rate as deeply, with a knowledge inside the flesh. This is my body, I say, touching a woman’s arm and shoulder. This is my blood, I say, touching another woman, of a different age and race from my own. You are my flesh and blood, we are saying, and Christ’s flesh and blood. We know this in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup; we know this in touching each other’s bodies.

During the liturgy, fully in the present, I do not think of it, but later Augustine’s well-known quote, which has followed me through the years, comes back to me. “If you want to understand the Body of Christ,” Augustine wrote in a sermon to newly baptized Christians, “hear the words of the apostle: ‘You are the Body of Christ and its members.’ ... It is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. And it is to what you are that you reply ‘Amen.’ ”

Our planning group is its own body. Collaboration is hard; it can be, in fact, a royal pain. We have disagreed over terminology and theology, we have varying relationships to Jesus and to the local church. Some of us are more attached than others to biblical and historical sources and authorities. A few of us waver for months. Do I leave the group? Do I stay in the planning process? Can I continue with integrity? Others revel in the process.

Some choose to stay but not to have their names listed anywhere: fear of losing church-related or Catholic academic jobs. The planning group honors their stance. Others in the group feel they have nothing to lose. We honor them as well.

We have held our differences in tension. We cherish this process, even as we struggle with it, praying for shifting paradigms in the body of Christ, the church, which is many and one.

In many ways, this celebration is nothing new. Catholic women -- and in some cases groups of women and men, often with children among them -- have been celebrating the Eucharist together for at least a decade, in some cases longer. What we do here today, one of the organizers says at the beginning, calls other Roman Catholic women across our nation and globe “to do publicly what we have for years done privately.”

We hope to have done this, our opening statement says, “with love and respect.” The week before the liturgy, the day before and the very day, we pray that we may be centered in love and act out of love. “We celebrate our liturgy,” our committee members say in all our names, “not only for ourselves but for our church and our world, as an act of love and reconciliation as much as an act of challenge and change. ... Let us keep meeting the tradition,” they add. “Let us keep recreating the tradition.”

This is the larger task of holding differences in tension. Holding together love and change, reconciliation and challenge is daring, difficult, messy, uncertain and utterly necessary and urgent. Even among those of us who walked through these past two years with doubts and misgivings, the clarity of a decision emerged. “Is it time? Yes, it’s time.” We walk without 100 percent certainty and without the sense of being 100 percent right -- yet we do feel “right about it,” which is different from thinking one has all the answers. Perhaps this is the honest way to tread: learning to tolerate ambiguity and chaos and discerning at the same time the peace that passes understanding and the still, small voice that says, “Walk.”

Some have already said that our actions will cause a rift in the body, the body of the church.

Are there not already rifts?

The city where we celebrate is a body both wounded and full of vitality. At the time of the petitions, we pray for it. Later I hear that some people interested in the celebration did not want to go to “that part of town.” People fear the city, fear the poor, fear dark skin. The same liturgy held on Holy Hill, the neighborhood of the Graduate Theological Union and its member seminaries or in the Berkeley Rose Garden would not have had the same power, nor borne the same truth, nor challenged us to remember the community for which and in the midst of which we claim to live the gospel.

Rifts in the body: the big one in this country and still in our church is race. We are a mostly white assembly in this largely brown and black city where many of the Catholic parishes are African-American and where the Latino population is the fastest-growing. Which is more severe, the racial divide or the division we may be causing by “going public” with our liturgy?

Which is greater, the division our act of celebration and transgression may have caused or the one already present that has driven women away from parish churches, spiritually bereft and isolated and that exiles men too?

With the same stole

Before the blessing of the gifts, the vested priest, in the center for the last time, takes off his chasuble, his stole, his alb and cincture, his Roman collar. One of the dancers vests him with the same stole we have all put on early in the liturgy. He joins us in the assembly, becomes one of us. Those of us in the women’s ordination movement have been clear for years that we do not want ordination into the same priesthood with which we have lived.

Some of us do experience a call to priestly ministry. We endeavor to study, discern and practice its liturgical, pastoral and administrative dimensions -- administration in the sense of helping the local church to put into practice its gifts, both internally and at the service of a hungry world. Most of all -- and “A Critical Mass” reflects this -- we care about bodies: all the baptized and the body to which they belong, the body as a whole in its unity and diversity.

All this, I know, raises a multitude of theological questions, which are also pastoral, ecclesial, political and spiritual. What is a sacrament? What constitutes unity? How can we hold differences in tension and keep walking together? What is the nature and role of priestly ministry in a church that honors the ministry of all the baptized? What does the world most need from our church? If we begin by asking this question, does our definition of priestly ministry change?

Does the ordination discussion come down, fundamentally, to bodies -- women’s bodies? Born into a woman’s body, I may not be ordained. Note that I say may, not can. Our church teachings have often conflated the two. If we truly honored women’s bodies, in this religion that sees God in human flesh, would ordination of women even be an issue?

These are not closed questions, official statements notwithstanding.

We have scheduled a mystagogia of sorts for the following Sunday, a chance for participants and others to air reactions and theological reflections. We expect there will be other Critical Masses. We have collected small amounts of seed money to pass on to other groups who wish to hold public celebrations of the Eucharist led by women.

“After all these words,” our group said in its opening statement, “much of the remainder of our Eucharist is in silence. The role of silence is double-edged,” the statement added, alluding to the silencing of women throughout history and today.

“Our silence in this ritual also speaks of our determination not to be entangled in a web of words, but to express our theologies with body and gesture.”

The rich silence inside me still grows. “This Eucharist is a work in progress,” the opening statement said. “But make no mistake about it, it is prayer.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997