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Overcoming a Ratzinger moment at Mass


In the course of my travels, I was invited to a Saturday night Mass. Over 30 people squeezed into the living room of a private home, a cozy setup of sofas and lawn chairs, wheelchair and piano bench.

The faithful faced not a makeshift altar, but a television set.

I figured this must be a special occasion. Maybe we’d see a famous bishop, or the pope even, do his thing on the big screen. Hey, in my neck of the woods, Jesus appears on tortillas. God makes do, whatever the medium.

I was wrong. The TV was rolled away. But not before we viewed a 20-minute video about the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. Available from the Maryknolls, it is called “SOA: Guns and Greed.”

Thanks to School of the Americas alumni, many of us have learned to recite, as if it were a creed: an archbishop, four churchwomen, six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Watching the film, we thought of the many graduates who have gone on to kill, order killings or look the other way; who have put down unions and other efforts in Latin America, using tried and true methods of torture, disappearance and otherwise making life miserable for the populace.

Too, we felt our hearts swell with hope. The school, as the video made clear, has galvanized activists from around the world. We saw faces, joyful and prayerful, young and old, who have protested in Fort Benning, Ga., many risking arrest, to shut down the school. Above all the video documents the building of a movement, a clear and present danger to U.S. policy south of the border.

The film ended. The TV was set off to the side. In its place sat the priest and the couple in whose house we met.

The Mass proceeded in all its glory. When it was time for the gospel, we heard the story of the widow’s mite.

In place of a sermon, people offered inspired thoughts, Quaker-style. Many praised the generosity of the poor widow: She had given far more than she could afford. One man had a different take -- that woman needed every last cent for herself. The point of the story is not so much to glorify her act, but to condemn the powerful who cough up so little, those people whose stake in the status quo keep such women downtrodden in the first place.

We moved on. Prayers from my childhood sweetened my lips. The bread was blessed and broken, the wine poured. A round basket of pita bread traveled from hand to hand. The chalice followed. Songs wafted up from the people and the tape player. Thoughts of God filled our heads.

Then -- don’t ask me what provoked it -- I suffered what can only be described, God forgive me, as a Ratzinger moment.

What if we were doing it all wrong? I wondered. I tried to recall what I had read about directives from Rome.

I looked up. Who poured the wine and divided the pita? Who uttered the pertinent prayers? Was it illegal for our lay hands to pass these around, whispering “body of Christ” and “blood of Christ” to one another?

It got worse. Did the daughter of refugees say a prayer reserved for a male cleric? What of the word Father to refer to God: Had I heard it even once? And the beautifully written and photocopied liturgy: Did its authors, women I believe, take poetic license -- inclusivity -- in their careful crafting of the prayers?

I tried to quiet my mind. I was ashamed. The chalice was still working its way toward me. I scanned the faces of the faithful. No doubt an anonymous exit poll would reveal that members of sister churches -- er, other churches -- lurked amongst us.

Father Rick (name changed to protect us all) asked those heading to Fort Benning to stand up. About a dozen did so. These good souls soon would join thousands for the annual November demonstration calling for the closing of the School of the Americas.

Father Rick sprinkled them with holy water. He said a special blessing. I felt a drop on my hair. I flashed back to the film we’d seen: Christ’s blood poured out on sidewalks and roadblocks, his body broken by death squads in parish halls and union halls.

And Christ rising: in the lives of babies being pushed around in strollers by parents and grandparents at the Fort Benning protest, in solidarity with activists throughout Latin America.

My Ratzinger moment evaporated. My heart and arms felt strong, the way they should feel when we desire to do the work of rolling away the stone, when the Mass has ended and we go in peace, to love and serve our God.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001