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Mass in Oakland too critical to shrug off

So a group of women and some men got together in downtown Oakland for an outdoor liturgy heavily loaded with reformist language and rituals that the average Catholic won’t find in the average parish church.

The temptation, of course, is to leave it there, in all its challenging and disturbing and unsettling motion and questions, leave it there, on that vacant lot in a poor urban center and get back to church.

It would be easy, indeed, to turn our backs on it. The group is statistically insignificant, though it included important and influential figures in the Catholic feminist movement. It would be easy to turn away, too, because there is so much to quibble with -- so much liturgy, ecclesiology and theology to take issue with, so much one could argue with. To what end? To say, somehow, they’ve gone too far this time? Taking the central mystery and celebration and -- how would they say it? -- transforming the shape of the celebration itself.

To take such a stance, however, betrays a larger problem for the larger church -- that the only options are to condemn or accept. “The Eucharist we will create together today is the Mass as we know it with a Mass that we can only begin to imagine,” said one of the organizers at the outset of the liturgy. Can we imagine, in reverse, that similar words may have been spoken at the infancy of this ageless task of remembering?

The fact of history is that the church, even in the unchanging elements of that central recollection, has been dynamic and changing through the ages. The fact of history is that women are not going to disappear. Good women, reasonable women, women who have studied and ministered -- and some who claim a call to ordination -- are not going to suddenly disappear. And what they do to make the point that they remain unheard and are made to feel outsiders in their own Catholic family will seem harsh and confrontational only if we refuse to listen.

“The woman question is not going to go away no matter how clearly the church says it must,” wrote Sr. Joan Chittister in an essay in last week’s NCR. “Women are intent on bringing their own piece of wisdom not only to the development of the race but to the reinterpretation of a faith that once taught racism, anti-Semitism and slavery with as much confidence as it does sexism today.”

So many of the church debates today, over such issues as liturgy and language and the place of women in the church, are really debates over whether the church should attempt to stand still or move on to consider the thinking and the questions of some of its most loyal members.

Too often the debate is generated by those who fear modernity, who rail against any suggestion of change and who yearn for some idealized time in church history, a time that never really existed and can’t be replicated. Nostalgia is a flimsy premise on which to build a community committed to living the gospel.

In the matter of women, the most compelling obligation for the Catholic community is to listen to women, reasonable women, committed women, women educated and fully engaged in ministering and those who feel voiceless and excluded.

It will not work to say they must have it all correct -- liturgically, theologically, ecclesiastically tidied up -- before they can be heard. For in merely speaking and asking questions they are transgressing.

Women themselves have provided the model for listening. For not all was smooth sailing in preparing for the Oakland liturgy. There were arguments and, as Jane Redmont writes in this issue, the women “held the differences in tension.”

One doesn’t have to endorse the liturgy -- and certainly there are liturgists and Catholic feminists who would take issue with the event in Oakland -- to recognize the importance of taking it seriously.

In the end, the organizers offered the prayer and the hope that their celebration would be perceived “as an act of love and reconciliation as much as an act of challenge and change. ... Let us keep meeting the tradition. Let us keep recreating the tradition.” That sentiment is really nothing new for the church, ever changing yet ever the same. And it would not be a bad one to imitate.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997