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Books: In time of ‘eucharistic famine,’ women’s groups break bread

By Sheila Durkin Dierks
WovenWord Press, Boulder, Colo., 315 pages, $16.95

“Women in contemporary churches,” Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, “are suffering from linguistic deprivation and eucharistic famine.”

Sheila Durkin Dierks, in WomenEucharist, documents communities of women who have decided they will no longer starve for soul-feeding liturgy or life-giving words. Catholic women in the United States have been gathering among themselves to celebrate the Eucharist for at least a decade, without a priest as presider, mostly in private homes, all around the country.

Dierks has identified over 100 such gatherings that meet on a regular basis at least once a month. She sent extensive questionnaires to 30 of the groups and spent time visiting, interviewing and celebrating with five of them. She herself is a member of a monthly women’s Eucharist group, as well as a biweekly family group and a local parish.

Feminist liturgy is not a new reality. Last fall’s Catholic women’s Eucharist in Oakland, Calif., called “A Critical Mass” (NCR, Oct. 17), was a public manifestation of an informal phenomenon whose implications for the life of the church we cannot ignore -- whatever we may think of the phenomenon itself. WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, has been documenting the existence of feminist base communities for the better part of a decade and has lost count of their number, which it estimates to be in the hundreds.

Some of these groups, gathered for worship, support and work for social justice, overlap with Dierks’s sample. Most do not. Some of the base communities and women’s Eucharist groups include children and men; the great majority are groups of women meeting in a space the size of a living room. Most plan and lead their own liturgies.

Feminist liturgists have also come into their own nationally, serving as consultants, planners and coordinators, often authors, sometimes composers, dancers and choreographers. Among them are Diann Neu of WATER in Washington, Medical Mission Sr. Miriam Therese Winter of Hartford, Conn., Kathleen Henry of Boston, Incarnate Word Sr. Martha Ann Kirk of San Antonio and Victoria Rue of Oakland, Calif.

Dierks examines the formation and motivation of women’s Eucharist groups, their ecclesial identity, use of language, understanding of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and vision of their present and future. “I suspect,” Dierks writes, “that friendship, genuine, voluntary, non-hierarchical embrace of one another is the core of most women’s Eucharist groups. Friends begin groups, friends bring other friends, friends of one person become friends of another.”

Like other feminist base communities, the groups tend to have rotating leadership. While the readings they share include both biblical and other writings, Jesus remains central to most of these liturgical communities. They are more explicitly Christocentric than many of the base communities identified with Women-Church, a movement focused on women’s religious self-determination, which is a reference point for some women’s Eucharist groups, but not all.

Some of the women experience fear in the course of participation in their Eucharistic celebrations -- mostly fear of losing church jobs or becoming estranged from their parish staff or, in a few cases, penalized by their religious order. None of the women reported experiencing any guilt.

“It was only leading up to the first liturgy,” one said, “that it felt strange to dare to celebrate. In the midst of doing, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, being there in a circle of friends, asking Jesus to be with us, telling him we love him, sharing with him and each other our lives and trying to open his words and stories to understand what they have meant to us and what they will mean in the future.

“No heavens split open, striking us down for daring to violate the Holy. Rather, I, at the conclusion of our first gathering, looked at the faces of these women and thought, ‘This is holy, this is what we have been called to do all along.’ “

Among the poignant realities uncovered by Dierks in the quiet revolution of women’s Eucharist is that nearly every group thought it was the only one of its kind. In fact, however, women’s Eucharist groups are a sign of the times on their way to becoming a mass movement.

Some will greet this news with joy and others with alarm. In some ways, however, it matters little what any of us think of women’s Eucharist: It has become a fact of life. It is also an ecclesial reality -- part of our vast and messy church and itself a form of church -- and it is not going away. We can argue about the figures -- what proportion of Catholic women worships in parishes, who worships in women’s Eucharist groups or women’s base communities, how many worship nowhere. But this much is clear: These three realities currently coexist, along with other options for worship and communal affiliation.

Women’s Eucharist groups, like other feminist liturgical base communities, are the logical culmination of the change in the Catholic women’s movement over the past 20 years: the move from “Please let us in” to “We are church,” from “Please, sir, may I have some more,” to women’s spiritual, liturgical and ecclesial self-determination or “agency.”

When women do not find what they want in their parish church, they create what they want, weary of beating their heads against the wall. Inclusive language and the ordination of women are part of the problem, Dierks found, but what is at issue is something more fundamental: the disjunction between the message of the gospel and the behavior of the clergy, and the experience of women in churches that make them feel less than fully human -- unwelcome, unacknowledged, demeaned, unable to pray in the style and with the passion they desire.

Most in women’s Eucharist communities identify as Catholic in some form, but Dierks notes “a loosening of the links of traditional church identification, not the denial of that affiliation, but seeing it only as a part of the way in which responders see themselves. Their Catholicism is hemmed up with adjectives.”

Many, like Dierks, have at least a dual affiliation, both a parish and a women’s Eucharist community. There are, however, those for whom church attendance has become, in the words of one woman, an “occasion of sin,” and for whom women’s Eucharist is home -- perhaps provisional, certainly imperfect, but more hearth and haven than the parishes they have left behind.

Dierks is honest about her social location and that of women’s Eucharist as she has experienced and observed it. Women’s Eucharist is a white phenomenon and one with a lot of gray hair. This is no reason to discount it or minimize its importance: It is, however, a reason and challenge to place it in a broader perspective. Where are the Latina, Native, Pacific-Asian and African-American Catholic women? Where are the younger Catholic women? What are their needs? How are they meeting them? Are there ways for Catholic women to come together across cultures and races?

Dierks and virtually all the women she has surveyed are also restrained in their expectations -- not of the liturgies themselves, but of their significance. They know what they are doing to be provisional, incomplete, experimental, in process. “This book,” says Dierks in her introduction, “is not about final answers. Few who participated in the research for this book believe that women gathering to celebrate Eucharist is the ultimate solution to the problems which confront us.”

It is, however, a slaking of deep thirst, and “relief, delight, God’s presence with an intensity never before experienced ... an oasis, a long sought place of safety in the desert, not home yet, but wonderful for now.”

While most women’s Eucharist participants believe they are involved in a radical or revolutionary action, they are mixed in their evaluation of its impact. Some, weary and wounded, have given up hope for the institutional church. “Whether we make a difference or not has stopped being the question,” says one. Others understand themselves as change agents. “I am actively committed to reform. Women-Church and the gospels give me courage and stamina,” she adds.

“These women,” says Dierks, “are long-distance runners for change.” Most do not expect immediate change and do not speculate when and how the larger church will become the inclusive, joyful, justice-seeking community for which they yearn. This does not mean they are without hope: “An impact on the church?” wrote one of the women. “Well, who thought the Iron Curtain would disappear when it did?”

WomenEucharist is the first fruit of WovenWord Press, which Dierks recently founded. In a recent interview, Dierks said she hopes to assist “especially those [works] which might not see publication if not for the willingness of small presses to take a chance.”

The book has some stylistic flaws -- missing commas, some awkward turns of phrase, misspellings of names of leading feminists such as Carter Heyward and Gloria Steinem -- and most of all a confusing layout: epigraphs and quotes are well-footnoted but not clearly attributed in the narrative, and the chapter divisions and transitions require some guesswork on the part of the reader.

Beneath WomenEucharist’s beautiful cover, the sans serif type is a strain on the eyes, the page margins small. In subsequent printings, it would be helpful to make the book visually less dense. The material is welcoming; it deserves to reside within a welcoming design.

Despite these barriers, WomenEucharist is well worth reading; we put ourselves through far worse with the obscure academic style of countless other works, including the writings of some of our leading feminist theologians. Dierks’ book is replete with quotes from members of women’s Eucharist communities and is at its best when it highlights them. Its implications for our understanding of church and Eucharist are profound, as are the questions women’s Eucharist groups raise about ordination by their very existence.

One of the major arguments for the ordination of women among moderates in the Catholic church, for instance, is that the people are being deprived of the Eucharist, so central to our Catholic lives, because of the priest shortage. But what if the people, as these women do, simply celebrate the Eucharist, which is central to their faith? “We were not going to wait around,” said one women’s Eucharist member who attended a caucus on the subject at this year’s Call to Action meeting. “We were going to worship in a way that kept us close to Jesus.”

Women’s Eucharist dissociates leadership of eucharistic celebration from ordination, sacrament from ministry-set-apart. We may argue ad infinitum about the validity of these sacramental celebrations; the fact is that they are occurring, reverently, creatively and obstinately around the country.

Who can stop them? How can women -- and men -- who have participated in them go back to their parishes and be the same Catholic Christians they were before? And if sacramental celebration does not require ordained leadership, what then is the meaning of ordination and of priestly ministry? How do we define what is sacramental? The questions are up for grabs. Meanwhile, the women break bread.

WomenEucharist calls for more than an attentive reading. It invites the next step, a careful examination of the context and consequences of women’s liturgical agency. It is precisely because its implications are so extensive and profound that this book, homespun as it is, belongs in liturgy and ecclesiology classrooms as much as it belongs in the hands of people seeking new forms of worship to nourish their souls and gain strength to live the gospel in the world.