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Afraid to imagine what could go right


This sad little tale from the West Coast speaks to the blind side of Catholicism as currently promulgated from Rome. It’s a parish tale that talks to the entire world.

This is a Dominican parish.

As most people know, the men and women whose vocation is to follow in the footsteps of St. Dominic (1170-1221), have the initials O.P. after their names.

It stands for Order of Preachers.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean what it says if one is both a Dominican and a woman. Dominican Sr. Benilda Desmond, who has been on the preaching roster at St. Dominic’s Church in Eagle Rock, abutting Glendale, Calif., for the past seven years, has just been told by her pastor, Dominican Fr. Anthony Patalano, she can no longer preach at Mass.

Do not direct your immediate ire at Patalano. He, regardless of the what and why of his actions, is to some extent more the messenger than the measurer of such silly notions of what God’s women may or may not do.

St. Dominic’s parish in many ways does practically everything a parish can do to be hospitable. St. Dominic’s has a large and loyal and, by my observation at Mass there, a fairly low-key and slightly conservative congregation of recent immigrants, many of them first- and second-generation Filipinos and Hispanics. It is one of those churches that is a welcoming host also to the region’s Catholic lesbian and gay community.

It has good music, an enormous choir down where you can see it as well as hear it, and the bulletin is crammed with ways of being involved -- scripture classes and contemplative prayer groups (English and Spanish) and a Catholic study group, plus adult education led by Desmond.

On the Sundays when she is on the roster, Desmond, in her preaching, is a rock-calm, a steady-as-you-go, educated and inspired interpreter of the scriptures out into the lives and times of those at Mass. They listen to her with the same interest, intent and respect as they do the succession of men delivering homilies.

In a book of collected homilies published without the names, there would be nothing in a Sr. Benilda homily to make the reader say, “My, this was preached by a woman.” No, the reader would remark, “This was preached by a well-grounded preacher.”

However, in a September parish bulletin, Patalano wrote: “Over the past recent years, several documents from the Holy See have stipulated that only deacons, priests and bishops are to preach at Mass.” And he quotes from the “most explicit of the three: ‘Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry.’ ”

There’s no need to spell it out. Most Vatican documents that could imaginatively broaden the work of a faith-inspired laity can be summarized in one word. “No.” The Vatican is terrified of losing the chain of command that is its chain of control. Most Vatican documents dealing with issues inside the church reflect little faith in the faithful. And certainly precious little faith in God’s and the Risen Jesus’ ability to cope with a world half-filled with women.

It’s as if these men are afraid to imagine what could go right, and instead stay awake nights worrying about what could go wrong.

In St. Dominic’s bulletin, pastor Patalano wrote that for the past four years, aware of the edict, he “chose to ignore the rule.” Without saying why -- there’s apparently been no pressure from the chancery -- Patalano decided to ignore no more, and took “the painful procedure of informing Sr. Benilda. The last thing I want to do is hurt [her]. She is an outstanding woman and Dominican. Her scholarship is without question. And in my own way, as a man, I do understand her pain as a woman who feels qualified to preach. However, contrary to how I may feel, as a priest, pastor and prior, I must uphold the law.”

Desmond appended a note: “It is with sorrow I received [the] decision. I had hoped that the pastoral exception made in the past could be continued. It has been one of the great joys of my ministry that I was allowed to preach to a Dominican parish, a community that hungered for the Word of God.”

She did not return NCR’s call, but she has told sister Dominicans she does not want to be “a sign of controversy or division” in the parish.

There is a feeling among some of Desmond’s sister Dominicans that it is other Dominican friars who have pressured Patalano into this move.

What he told NCR was, “It was painful. I truly love and respect the woman.” But he preferred not to talk about it, for he regarded it as an internal Dominican matter.

This act is not, of course, an internal Dominican matter. It is and has been a very public matter. Desmond has preached for seven years to those thousands attending St. Dominic’s six weekend Masses. It is an important matter to Catholics adult enough to want adult education. And to the larger community of Catholics who do care about the role of women in a male-dominated church.

O Rome. Oh what a boxed-in God and truncated Jesus they envision.

O Catholicism.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s California-based editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001