Do Women Have a Role in the Liturgy and in the Church?

When I was at the Gregorian in Rome, I had a female professor who was convinced that there had to be women present at the Last Supper, and as such, could be considered to have been ordained priest along with the rest of the disciples. What was her argument? “Well, you honestly think a bunch of men were going to put on a dinner, serve it, and clean up after it by themselves!” I don’t know enough about Near Eastern archeology to ascertain whether she has a point or not, but it did certainly get a rise out of the seminarians! As a dogmatic theologian, I tend to depart, not from scriptural texts, but dogmatic definitions. So, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which Blessed John Paul II wrote that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women, suffices for me. The perennial teaching authority of the Church has made it very clear that women have never been validly ordained priests. The same authority has also made it clear that the difference between the ministerial and the common priesthood is not one of degree but of kind. The two are completely different.

Some people conclude from this, that the liturgy then, is closed to half of the human race. They offer this as proof that the Catholic Church is anti-woman, and that the Church is stuck in an outmoded patriarchal system that harbors a fundamental injustice at its very core. This is a very serious charge, and in an age in which equality has degenerated into egalitarianism, many young people, formed in universities that are “Catholic in name only”, have decided that the Catholic Church has erred. It is simply not enough to repeat the classical doctrine of the Church as formulated in Ordinatio sacerdotalis; we must put forth reasons why that teaching is actually in accord with the Gospel.

Now, here we are not going to solve that problem. But we do want to examine certain aspects of it so as to attempt to answer some of the more controverted problems of it.

It is important to discern what it means for a baptized Christian to participate in the liturgy? Two things must be brought to mind. First, Baptism confers on its recipient a potestas, a sacred power, to participate in the Mass. While a very etiquette-conscious Zoroastrian friend may come to Mass with us and sing, stand and kneel at all the proper times, he cannot be said properly to participate in the liturgy. Why? Baptism makes the individual part of the Body of Christ, and it is the Christ who in the liturgy re-presents Himself, offering Himself up in sacrifice to the Father. Because we are grafted onto the Christ who is both sacrifice and victim, priest and offering, we are also grafted into that mystery. Second, in the Body of Christ there are many members: there is the Head, and then there are the other members who cannot function without the Head. Ordination to the priesthood confers on its recipient a potestas, a sacred power, to offer the Mass as Christ the Head, and not as the members of Christ’s body.

There are thus two different sacred powers associated with two different sacraments which were instituted by Christ for the salvation of souls. But they both are intimately related to the sacrificial offering and priesthood of Christ, although in ways irreducible one to the other. These two distinct powers mark the difference between the ministerial priesthood of Christ the Head conferred by Ordination and the common priesthood of the members of Christ’s Body conferred by Baptism. Just as Christ’s Body and Head are distinct, but cannot live one without the other, so too the priesthood and the laity are distinct and cannot live one without the other.

Note that in none of this discussion has the difference between the two types of priesthood been described in terms of function. The difference is not functional, but sacramental. Furthermore the two are not parallel to each other as adversaries, but mutually complementary to such a degree as to be impossible one without the other. Thus we understand why Blessed John Henry Newman, when asked what he thought of the laity, responded, “We’d look foolish without them!” Just as a head would look foolish without a body.

If the Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father, the sacramental distinction between ministerial and common priesthood is logical. But once we begin to see the Mass as a sacrifice of praise given by a community to God, it is hard not to transform our idea of the priesthood from a sacramental one to a functional one. Once the functional trumps the sacramental, the ministerial priest becomes one elected among the assembly of the faithful who presides over them by gathering them together and organizing their common prayer. The common priest is then one who participates in any way in such a common prayer. Then the question arises: if the priesthood (common or ministerial) is merely a question of function, Who decides who fulfills those functions?

Note that here the sacramental reference to Baptism and Ordination is removed. Participation in the liturgy is no longer: 1) according to the mode proper to a sacred power received by a sacrament, 2) a mystical participation in the redemptive act of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, participation is: 1) a mere being part of a common prayer by self-selection in to the community that celebrates that prayer, 2) an earthly participation in an act of praise to God.

This Advent 2011, in the English speaking words we will hear for the first time in our own language the priest saying, Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. Up until now, we have heard since 1969, Pray, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. I could be wrong, but I think that this sentence alone will raise a lot of questions. First, isn’t “mine and yours” ours anyway? Isn’t it just easier to say ours in English? Second, is this sacrifice somehow no longer mine, or at least as it was in the same way as it was from 1969 to 2011?

We should not underestimate the capacity for misunderstanding and bad feeling here. It is entirely conceivable that some may interpret that the priest presider-celebrant, may be seen to deliberately distance himself from his people by such an awkward phrase. Some may then conclude that this is just another example of clericalism and “turning back the clock” to a time when priests were on a pedestal from which they have fallen in disgrace.

Also think of how the people will see the priest when he says this prayer. Until the post-Vatican II reforms, the priest said, in Latin, the same thing which will be said again from 2011 on: “my and yours.” He turned to the people and said that, and then turned right back around to the altar. In doing so, he visually reminded people that they had a part in the sacrifice as well, according to their Baptism, and then he asked them to unite themselves to that sacrifice in that way as he then turned away from the people towards the Cross, the visual cue to the sacrifice that he would then participate in according to his Ordination. In 2011, in many places, the priest will say “my and yours” and continue to face the people, with the Altar actually becoming a visual barrier between his priesthood and the people’s, with the Cross, the visual cue to the sacrifice, barely or nowhere to be seen.

So, although we are returning to the pre-Vatican II verbiage, although in English instead of Latin, in many places we are not returning to the pre-Vatican II position of the celebrant at the altar. I fear that this will create an ambiguity of meaning. If one has an essentially sacramental notion of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of the ministerial and common priesthood, the orientation of the Mass is always to the Cross by that very fact, although that fact is very eloquently symbolized by priest and people all facing the Cross together. But if one has transformed the meaning of the Mass to a common prayer in which function is the only differentiating factor, then “my and yours” sets up an intolerable division. Likewise, if one has transformed the meaning of the Mass to a common prayer in which the presider only has the function to organize the prayers of the assembly, the phenomenon of the presider turning away from the people he has been called by them to preside with is seen as rude and meaningless.

So what does this have to do with women? When we read why some Catholic support women’s ordination, it is crucial to understand what they mean by several things: 1) what is the Mass? 2) what does it mean to participate in the Mass? 3) what does it mean to be a priest? It is entirely conceivable that there are supporters of women’s ordination who hold the orthodox answers to those three questions: 1) Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ to His Father, 2) participation in the Mass is according to the mode of the sacred power given by sacraments received, and 3) the ministerial priesthood is of essence, and not degree, different than the common priesthood.

But for many supporters of women’s ordination, the answers to those three questions are entirely different: 1) the Mass is a common prayer of those who have self-selected to join in it, 2) participate means to be a part of that common prayer, 3) we are all priests.

Varying answers to those questions have actually split the proponents of women’s ordination into two camps. In the first, ordination is sought as a way to correct a perceived injustice and confer a power on those who to whom it has been denied. In the second, as feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza brilliantly put it, “Ordination is subordination and that’s exactly what we don’t want.”

As to the first, it must be noted that, if participation in the ministerial and common priesthood is a sacramental relationship with Christ, the only relationship of justice in the Mass in between God and human beings. How do we render justice to God by our worship and our life, not how do we render justice to other human beings, which, although it is am important question of Christian life, as nothing to do with the Mass itself. Second, the power of Baptism and Ordination is not a juridical power which priests and laypeople exercise to the benefit or the detriment of Church and society. The power of Baptism and Ordination is a capacity to worship. That capacity to worship puts both ministerial and common priesthood into a double relationship: of ordination to God, as the power orders them to union with God, and subordination, as the power also must make them servants to the God experienced in the Mass.

Both camps of women’s ordination supporters then, are at odds with the classical teaching of the Church, not because they think that women should be priests, but because their understanding of priesthood, Mass and power is completely different than that of the Church.

One of the things that Schussler Fiorenza correctly identified was the subordination aspect of the ministerial priesthood. Just as Christ the Head was both Priest and Victim, and offered Himself up entirely for all (although it would only be the many in whom that offering would be fruitful), the ministerial priest must offer himself up entirely for all as well, as Priest and Victim after the imitation of Christ. Because the liturgy is principally the action of Christ, the priest then cannot in any way not be subordinate to Christ. The way in which the Church calls for the liturgy to be celebrated sub-ordinates the Priest to the action of Christ in the liturgy. His “my” in “my and yours” is not a “my” belonging to himself. The “my” belongs entirely to Christ, and that sacrifice in its ritual form must be accomplished according to the “my” of Christ spoken through His Church, not “my” arbitrary feelings of the way the Mass should be celebrated.

The ad orientem position of the celebrant at the Mass also underscores the fact that “my” does not belong to the individual ministerial priest, but to Christ. The priest faces the Cross, the visual cue of the sacrifice, which is inseparably connected to the Altar, the place of sacrifice, when Christ is re-presenting the sacrifice through the Mass. Facing the people during the sacrifice displaces the visual cue to the sacrifice and then makes the place of sacrifice into a barrier between the “my” of the priest and the real “My” which refers to the sacrifice on the Altar.

One may argue that the Church could in theory preserve the classical understanding of the Mass, the priesthood, and ad orientem celebration and still ordain women. But the Church has already “definitively” taught that she has no right to do so. So what is the role of women in the common priesthood of the faithful during the liturgy?

First of all, the radical gender equality among Christians is a truth for the common priesthood of the baptized. The fact that women are not ordained to the ministerial priesthood does not take away from equality among the members of the Church, Christ’s Body. As such, it is crucial for the laity to understand what it means when the priest asks them: offer “your” sacrifice to the Almighty Father.
Here is where we can profit from an insight of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He wrote that that there are two ministries within the Church: the Petrine and the Marian. The Petrine can we can associate with the ministerial priesthood of Ordination. The Marian we can associate with the common priesthood of Baptism. One of the arguments opponents of women’s ordinations often put forward is this: If Jesus intended to ordain women as priests, why would He not have chosen His Mother, Mary, especially as she was sinless? The counter-argument, that Jesus was conditioned by the patriarchal society of His time, is unacceptable because it dismisses Christ’s divinity (in which case, why have any discussion at all?), and because the Ancient Near East was very familiar with priestesses of many types.

Behind that question, however, is an assumption: that people should be chosen for the priesthood because of their moral worth. Their dignity for ordination comes from the fact that they have qualities which others recognize which fit them for the functions of the priesthood. It is a functionalist, and not a sacramental, vision of the ministerial priesthood. So when women are told that they cannot be priests, some ask whether the Church by excluding them is saying that they are somehow unworthy of the dignity to undertake the functions of a priest. But, as we have seen, the classical Catholic teaching is that moral worth, talent or qualities is not a reason to ordain someone. If it were, then the Twelve would not have been chosen! The Church chooses some people, among celibate men who have been formed in a particular way, to be ordained to the priesthood.

But if Mary was not a ministerial priest, then can she be said to even belong to the common priesthood? Apart from the theological question of whether Mary was baptized, we can say that she offered her own sacrifice in union with that of Christ. The sacrifice she offered was the continual obedience of her life to the Word of God and her close union in prayer and love with her Son. She exercised a priesthood of sacrifice, sacrificing herself in love, prayers and works of mercy; she was a victim for love, not holding back even her own Son for love; she was a sacrifice, giving up herself entirely over to the Triune God to do with her according to the Divine Will. Mary participated in the liturgy, in the Mass, because she offered the sacrifice of her life in union with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

When the priest turns to the people and asks them to offer their sacrifice, theirs is a true sacrifice, they do participate in the sacrifice of Christ. But it is not the same sacrifice as the one by which Christ offers Himself to His Father. But the sacrifice, victimhood and priesthood of the laity is nonetheless a real one. And it is real to the extent that it is really united with the Sacrifice of Christ which gives it meaning.

After Vatican II, the priesthood of the laity has been seen not so much in sacramental terms of a power to offer the sacrifice of their lives in union with the Sacrifice of Christ. It has been seen in functional terms, and so we have seen the laity assuming what they felt to be heretofore the rights of the ministerial priesthood. It is important to realize that many of the laity have done this because the clergy themselves confused the sacramental distinction with a functional one. Especially in the United States, many laity enthusiastically responded to the invitations of their priests to take on these functions. We should be reticent to criticize them for responding generously to an invitation. But we also need to redimension the participation of the laity and the clergy in the life of the Church so that it reflects the true nature of the Mass, the priesthood, and the sacramental rather than functional distinctions between them.

All of the above, however, is applicable to the laity. The common priesthood of the baptized offers the sacrifice of its life in union with that of Christ on the Cross. But what about women specifically? Are they merely just to be considered part of the non-ordained laity? Is there something special for them specifically, just as there is something specific for some men in the ministerial priesthood?
This is not an unimportant question. Especially given the long history of self-sacrifice of women for the Church and the liturgy, a history which has not been duly valued, celebrated, or thanked! Is there a special way in which women can participate in the liturgy? And is there such a way which is not bound to historically or culturally conditioned notions of masculinity and femininity?

Before offering a few thoughts on that subject, I would like to make an observation. One of the phenomena that contemporary women are grappling with now is how their struggle for equal rights in civil society has effected their specific notion of what it is to be a woman. So often, the goal was to prove how women could be equal to or better than a man. The problem was that, the reference point was always men. Now many women are trying to discover how they can be equal to men but still be who they are, women.

Does this have a counterpart in the liturgy? Often, women were pressed into service to show how they could be as competent in the same functions formerly performed by men in the liturgy. Many women have enthusiastically and competently discharged the duties of lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, as well as many other non –liturgical functions within the Church. But often, the reference point was the male ministerial priesthood. For that reason, many began to ask, “If Mrs McGillacuddy can do X, Y, and Z as well as or better than Father O’Connor, then why not let her do it?” But if Mrs McGillacuddy is an orthodox Catholic, she has no desire to be ordained as a ministerial priest. So is the only way she can participate in the liturgy either as a non-gendered layperson performing functions once reserved to the male priesthood, on the one hand, or being a part of the all-woman Altar and Rosary Society washing and ironing the linens and doing the flowers, on the other?

An orthodox Catholic woman seems to have only such two alternatives. And often, when orthodox Catholics talk about what woman should do in church, it usually revolves around the answer to the question, “Should women cover their heads in church?” (Of course, St Paul already answered that question in the affirmative, and not because he was a misogynist!) The question becomes: how can women offer the sacrifice of their lives as women in union with the life of Christ, exercising the power of their Baptism to worship God? However they may answer that question, it does not exclude them from doing certain things (fulfilling certain roles at Mass, singing in the choir, teaching catechism, ironing linens) that all laity can do.

When we look at the women in the New Testament, we get an idea of what women’s participation in the life of the Church and the liturgy should look like. As equal members of the Body of Christ, they had no need of ordination to worship God, or to do the amazing things that they did. And those things were often more remarkable, and had more staying power, than what the Twelve did. The constant close attention of the women in the Gospel to Christ and to others, serving them and in doing so, serving Christ. It is entirely correct to say that a woman’s place in the Church is one of subordination, just as all disciples freely subordinate themselves to love God and all people. A woman’s place in the Church is to follow Christ, lavish her love without cost upon Him, serve the needs of the poor and the defenseless: in other words, a subordination to the law of love. In doing so, women can find that they are not indeed slaves to an outmoded patriarchal system drunk on abuses of power and justice, but friends of Christ. And there can be no greater freedom and noble role in the Church and world than that!

The Effects of a Hermeneutic of Crisis on the Liturgy

There has been a lot of talk for the past forty years about the fact that the Catholic Church finds itself in crisis. Various phenomena, such as decreasing Mass attendance, Baptisms and Christian marriages, have led many to posit that there is a profound crisis gripping the faith in our time. Observation of these worrisome phenomena has led many Catholics to ask why we are in such a crisis, and they have come to interpret everything in the Church’s life under the rubric of crisis.

But there are also two different ways in which the rubric of crisis has been interpreted in our time. The first is the Reform Hermeneutic of Crisis. According to this theory, the Church is in dire straits because she has refused to engage in a real dialogue with the contemporary world and change her doctrine and practice to be relevant to modern persons. The second is the Counter-Reform Hermeneutic of Crisis. This theory posits that the Church has sacrificed her doctrine and practice at the altar of relevance to modern man who has denied God. As a result, a Church no longer distinguishable from the world has rendered herself meaningless to modern man.

There are other interpretations as well, and these are admittedly gross-oversimplifications of two trends in what I call crisis theology. These two very different hermeneutics, however, share a common theological basis. For them, the True Church is in the heart of believers who know their way out of the crisis, and the Visible, Institutional Church of today is at variance with that True Church. As Catholics, they know that there has to be some kind of relationship between that True Church and the Visible, Institutional Church, and for the two to become one again, the crisis can be overcome only by structural reform (or Counter-Reform) of the Church.

In reality, many of the phenomena that people indicate as being evidence of the crisis in the Church are very real. The Reform crowd can point to innumerable instances of misuse and abuse of authority by the hierarchy, and to the virtual absence of the Church’s presence in many spheres of culture, science and intellectual life. The Counter-Reform crowd can point to gross deviations in doctrinal orthodoxy and morality as well as widespread disobedience throughout the Church.

But is the Church really in crisis? Can structural reforms help the Church out of the crisis? First of all, I would like to affirm the fact that both camps have accurately observed that many people in the Church have done things which are not in consonance with the message of the Church, and the scandal caused by these errors has caused many to question or abandon the practice of the faith. But there are deeper theological and philosophical considerations we can make about the Church in crisis.

First of all, the hermeneutic of crisis is not unrelated to a very real phenomenon in contemporary philosophy. According to certain currents in philosophy, the nature of being is change. There is no real essence or nature to anything. The Church, then, cannot be anything other than a mutable, essentially human thing. Appeals to unchanging doctrinal or moral norms are meaningless, because they do not reflect the truth that there is no objective truth. Human activity, inside or outside of the Church, is a constant process of actions and reactions making and unmaking reality in a creative and destructive procession without an end. Crisis, then, or chaos, is what life is all about. For the Church to be in crisis, then, is a sign of inner vitality; for it to be always questioning and re-inventing itself is a the fundamental mark of its own authenticity.

This current of philosophy is rejected by the Counter-Reform school, as being inconsistent with their vision of reality in which there is objective truth, which can be known by man by reason and the living authority of the Church. But even as they reject the tenets of this current, Counter-Reform partisans often grant the basic premise, that the Church is, like all of modern society, in crisis. And so they too view every phenomenon in the Church under the rubric of crisis.

How does this understanding of crisis affect the liturgy? For the Reform school, the liturgy, if it is to be an authentic expression of man’s religious sentiment, must be creative, always changing, and acting and reacting. Liturgical crisis is actually desirable. For the Church to find its way out of becoming irrelevant to modern persons, the crisis must be revealed, produced, or even engineered. If people are not going to Church, we must change the life of the Church so that they will come. If notions of hierarchy, immutable dogma, moral norms, and liturgical rites detract from the fundamental evolutionary process of humanity in perpetual crisis, they must be challenged, destroyed, and their memory annihilated.

For the Counter-Reform school, the phenomena of the crisis have their origin in a cause: the liturgical reform as the incarnation in the life of the Church of a crisis of faith. Liturgical crisis is the effect and the cause of crisis in the Church’s life. If people are not going to Church, we must then return to a situation before the crisis. If notions of hierarchy, immutable dogma, moral norms, and liturgical rites are challenged by man, lost as he is in crisis and chaos, the Church must impose all those notions, as found before the crisis, in whatever way possible.

Both schools propose structural reform as a way out of what seems to be the lessening of Catholic practice in our age. The liturgy, because it is the way in which most Catholics experience and practice that faith, must correspondingly be altered, either by changing it radically to look unlike anything ever seen before, or by imposing it as experienced by previous generations and excising what has come during the crisis.

But is the Church really in crisis? We raised that question before. Many optimists have continued to tell us that there is a New Springtime in the Church, that, contrary indications aside, the Church is very much alive and renewing herself. Yet the hermeneutic of optimism cannot, or does not wish, to explain the phenomena accurately observed by both the Reform and Counter-Reform schools. So how are we to think of these numerous indications that Catholic life in many parts of the world seem to be terribly fractured and fractious?

Sound Catholic theology has always rejected the idea of change as the nature of reality. From this point of view, there is no constant existential crisis in which man or the Church finds itself. But, there is another sense in which, yes, the Church can be said to be in crisis. From the moment that the Church was born from the side of Christ on the Cross, until the Second Coming of Christ, the Church is, has been, and will be in crisis and scandal.

The crisis is that those who have been baptized into Christ, and hence are the Church, are always short of their full potential as Christians. There is always in the Church a tension between the contingency of the new and the fulfillment of the not yet. This is why the Church does not have as her fundamental orientation this world, the present. She has her eyes firmly fixed on the East, whence will come the Rising Son; hers is a fundamentally eschatological orientation, not towards a future that will come, but to an eternity which irrupts into the daily and which will one day be our complete reality. The scandal is that we often do not use the gift of free will to choose Eternity over the present in every moment of this earthly life. And so crisis and scandal are a part of the Church’s life in this world because they are inseparable from our own individual human lives until the consummation of all things in Christ at the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

The crisis and scandal, which mark life in the Church in this present world, point to the fact that no human structural reform of the Church’s life can preclude the ongoing immersion of the individual Christian in crisis and scandal. The way out of the crisis and scandal, therefore, cannot be had by such human attempts at changing the way people pray or believe.

The Second Vatican Council will always be known as the Council of the Church. In so many ways, the Council provided a rich theology of the Church. It clarified the sacramental and spiritual as well as the visible and institutional nature of the Church. It gave a missionary mandate to the universal common priesthood of the baptized and gave an indication of how that mandate could be lived in communion with the ministerial priesthood within the Church. There has been a lot of talk about the Church.

Unfortunately, however, all of this talk about the Church has eclipsed an even greater truth of the faith. Jesus Christ. Many people have come to feel that, to be faithful to Jesus Christ, they must challenge or contradict the Church. The Church is no longer the Mystical Body of Christ lived as a communion of believers, but a People who can change their message to be in accord with what they think Jesus wants of it. The words of Alfred Loisy, the Modernist, Jesus came to preach the Kingdom and it is the Church that has come, have convinced Reform and Counter-Reform alike that the True Church must regain its visibility by imposing structural change.

Even as this Modernist dictum has seeped into the deepest roots of Christian civilization, many in the Church have lost sight of what I feel is the greatest achievement of Vatican II: the solemn recognition of the universal call to holiness.

As long as Christians are focused on the Church, the crisis in the Church, the scandals in the Church, and how to change the Church, they lose sight of Jesus Christ. True Reform, or Counter Reform, or Renewal, or Restoration, or whatever you want to call it, can never come from us. It has to come from a life of holiness, the life of grace of God lived in us. Each individual baptized Christian’s free response to conform his life to Jesus Christ, a life lived in communion with the Church which is True where it is visible and institutional, is the way in which the tension of the already and not yet of the Church’s life is resolved.

This call to holiness is more than just the minimal observance of moral norms, for Jesus Christ is more than just a moral examplar. The life of holiness involves a complete self-giving to God and to one’s fellow man. And such a life of holiness if not dependent on structural reform of the Church. It is a grace which comes from God, and, as such, it ushers in the Kingdom of God inasmuch as every single soul is conformed to Jesus Christ.

The liturgy, which is the reflection of heaven on the earth, in which the fruits of the Redemption are received in sacramental form, cannot be seen from the point of view of crisis and rupture. It cannot be manipulated and changed as a mere human construct on the way to producing an ideal Church for an ideal human person and society. The liturgy must be humbly accepted for what it is, and celebrated by each member of the Church according to his own role in it, for the purpose of conforming his life, and thus the Church’s, ever closer to that of Jesus Christ. We have no need to invoke a hermeneutic of crisis and seek ways out of the crisis to explain the varying phenomenon of the way our contemporaries practice the faith. We do have need of becoming holy as our Father in heaven is holy.

Pasch of the Resurrection in Andalucia

Fr Luke Melcher, Fr Christopher Smith, and Fr Pedro Jimenez Barros shoot confetti bullets
towards the Risen Christ to celebrate Easter 2011 in Coripe, Spain

Oldtimers in Southern Spain do not remember a worse year for rain during Holy Week. I apparently chose the wrong year to come, but it has been nice to live Holy Week with some calm instead of running around from dawn until way past midnight every day going from one procession to the next. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were a washout, but the Rising Sun was warmly greeted this Easter morn. Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I made our way to Coripe for Easter Sunday Mass. Of course, I found out at the last minute that I was on as MC and Preacher, so imagine my frantically composing my Spanish homily during the Victimae paschali!

The Mass was not surprisingly packed, and Chant Café Readers will be happy to know that Fr Luke sang the Vidi aquam from the Parish Book of Chant on an IPad. The rest of the Mass was a ‘traditional’ Flamenco mass with castanets, guitars and some powerful lungs belting it out from the choir loft. Latin according to the best of Solesmes style was provided by the American clergy as Spanish in the best folksy tradition descended upon this little village church in a liturgy few would ever forget.

But what I would never forget was what happened after Mass. Of course, a Procession! The Risen Christ was carried on a float by the costeleros of Coripe, with a recently formed band that meets twice a week with professional teachers. In front of the church several men of the village stood at attention with rifles and shot into the air confetti bullets. As we processed around the village for an hour, shots rang out and confetti and roses rained down all over the place. Of course, your clerical commentators, always eager to suck the marrow out of life, did not hesitate to take up arms more than once and shoot confetti into the sky. The South Carolina contingent, raised more on philosophy and French, was impressed by redneck Louisiana’s marksmanship, and learned a thing or two during pick up lessons in shooting from the hip in mid-procession.

Once the procession returned to the church, we ducked into a bar for some Cruzcampo and to greet the townsfolk while the men of the parish brought a scare-crow looking effigy of Judas with Qadaffi’s face to hang from a tree next to the north wall of the church.

I can only imagine the reaction of the insurance adjusters of American dioceses at what we saw next.

A firing squad appeared, this time with rifles with real bullets, and they shot at Judas until the kerosene tank in him exploded. And they kept shooting until there was nothing else left of the Traitor. The children rushed to throw stones at the stray pieces of straw and cloth that littered the tree, the remains of the faithful’s revenge on Judas. No felix culpas here!

After a brief respite back at the rectory, we made our way to Castelleja to see what cannot be called anything else but the Battle of the Virgins. Two neighborhoods in the same tiny smart Southern Spanish town have been involved in a West Side Story kind of struggle for so long they have two separate processions at the same time on Easter Sunday afternoon.

The Immaculate Conception procession goes up and down one street of the town while the Sorrowful Mother Procession goes up and down the other main street at the same time. Two different parishes, two different confraternities, two different worlds, all literally one street away from each other. United in the same faith, but divided by historical ties that no one really understands, no one seems to be bothered by this Battle of the Virgins that has gone on every year since time immemorial.

It was an odd way to end our Semana Santa experience in Seville. Fr Luke is staying to race Ferraris with some new friends found in the area, and I go back to my hermit lifestyle of a doctoral student in Pamplona. We started this amazing week with the impressive processions for Palm Sunday all over Seville and Don Pedro’s explanation of their origin in the Catholic Reformation’s desire to keep Spain away from Protestant iconoclasm. And we ended it with a little town which had kept that same faith, but was still divided over other issues. We saw the best of popular piety and what public manifestations of the faith can to do to promote Catholic identity. And we also saw how that deeply felt faith does not always translate into a moral life, a Catholic spirituality from day to day, orthodox belief, and the quest of the entire People of God for holiness. But I am deeply grateful to all of those friends new and old that became incredibly dear to me in this Sevillian Great and Holy Week, for allowing me to experience the Mystery of Redemption as I never have before, and perhaps never will again.

In the meantime, however, I will find a way to shoot the hell out of Judas on Easter Sunday in my next parish. Somehow I think that South Carolina just might find that Spanish tradition a welcome addition to the Palmetto State’s celebrations of the Paschal Mystery!

Many thanks to Don Pedro Jimenez Barros of the Archdiocese of Seville and Father Luke Melcher of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, for their expert guidance through Holy Week and or their priestly fraternity and friendship, as well as to all of the wonderful priests and laity we were graced to serve and get to know during this week.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

Maundy Thursday in Coripe

As the Director of Religious Education was driving me to Coripe, a small village outside of Moron, to celebrate the Mass In Cena Domini, we were listening to CanalSur to what was going on in Seville. It had been raining all day long. I had been sick all day long with a stomach bug. The center of Seville and all the towns of Andalucia, which were usually thronged with people, were totally lifeless and empty. Everyone was in their houses watching to see what would be happening. The whole region was on edge, because they usually spend all night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the madrugada, processions until dawn.

The most important of these processions was that of Cristo Gran Poder and the Macarena. Out of all of the floats and processions in Seville, this is by far the largest, longest, and most beautiful procession. The statue of the Macarena, of Our Lady of Hope, is the most beautiful image of Our Lady in the world, according to Sevillians, and she is covered by a velvet green cope whose gold embroidery was so rich you could hardly see the cloth underneath. The procession also has Roman soldiers in their distinctive battle dress uniform with enormous white plumes and the best bands and singers.

Everyone wants to see the Macarena, and so everyone was glued to radio, TV and internet. Would she leave the Basilica at 1am as she has for almost 500 years?

But in the meantime, there was another Seville tradition to be followed: the Visit to the Seven Repositories for Maundy Thursday. The repositories are called monumentos, and are decorated by the Confraternities. Not surprisingly, everyone competes to decorate the most beautiful repository. By the far the most beautiful one I saw was in Moron itself. They had constructed a terrace of wood planks, hidden by red brocade, flowers and candles in silver vases. The tabernacle was surrounded by more red brocade and silver and gold.

Don Carlos, a young priest from a neighboring parish, joined us on our visit, as we went from church to convent to monastery to chapel to say a brief prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament and greet other worshippers who were making their visits as well. But of course, both Don Carlos and Don Pedro had every priest’s nightmare to do tomorrow: funerals. Don Carlos has a Procession from 6am to noon, a funeral at noon, the Liturgy of the Passion at three, and then another Procession at 6pm in his parish. So the priests were all looking forward to some sleep, but we were all decided to tough it out in case the Macarena was going to process in Seville.

Having visited Jesus in the repositories, we made our way back home, anxiously awaiting word if the Macarena would process. At 1am, the gave the word. No. Driving sheets of rain would make that impossible. But on the internet, we could see what was going on inside the Basilica. All of that preparation, the money spent, the hopes dashed, was way too much for many to handle. To see some of the costeleros kneeling the midst of the throngs, weeping like little children, to hear anguished cries from the brothers of the Confraternity, was not melodrama. It was profoundly moving. This year, devotion to Christ and Our Lady would have to take the form of obedience and mortification, not obeying the orders of the Precentor and extreme bodily penance, but the obedience to weather itself and an internal mortification of the will.

So I had an early night for once this week!

Spy Wednesday in Moron de la Frontera

I don’t normally wake up at the crack of noon, really, but what can you do when you have been running all over Andalucia catching one procession after another? So today was a relatively quiet day. The church was full all day long with the elaborate procession today in Moron de la Frontera, and the men and women (and the clergy) went back and forth between church and the bar across the street. Flowers, silver polishing, beer, candles, vestment pressing, wine.

By 6pm it was time to start the procession and the costeleros were ready to begin their arduous superhuman task of carrying the floats of Christ Suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane while the Apostles sleep and Our Lady of Loreto. I wondered how this procession would be different than the ones we have seen before. Because the Confraternity belongs to Don Pedro’s parish, the parish clergy (Don Pedro and his two American friends) had to be present in an official manner. The three of us in our cassocks and the large medal of the order suspended from a silver and blue cord were given silver bastones, walking sticks topped by an image of the Holy House of Loreto and the Monstrance of the Blessed Sacrament. At first I wondered why everyone had these big sticks. I soon would find out that, though they were beautiful, they were also practical.

Since Moron is a military town, with Spanish and American air force bases in its outskirts, the Spanish Air Force is given a place of honour in the Procession. We met the Comandante of the Air Base as well as a delightful military cadet who was a local boy. He grew up as a costelero in Moron and was coming home to see his family and hometown, who were honored to see their native son take part in the procession as a dignitary. During the procession, the clergy and the officers chatted whenever the float was called to a halt.

Some of those pauses were just to keep order and a stately pace. But there were four pauses where Our Lady of Loreto had to go and visit some of her special friends. The first time the statue and its float would be turned around was at the nursing home, as the oldtimers were wheeled to the windows so they catch a glimpse of their Madonna. The second time as at the Carmelite Monastery. As the costeleros went about the delicate business of whipping the float around, Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I ran to the grille of the convent to chat briefly with the nuns, of whom only one is Spanish; all of the others are Kenyans. We begged their holy prayers and then let them pray with the Blessed Virgin. We also paused when one of the soloists from a balcony serenaded the Virgin with his Arabic-sounding saeta, and his powerful and loud performance was greeted by enthusiastic applause. Finally, underneath one balcony, a family started to throw rose petals. The crowds stood and watched as one, then two, then three, then four and it kept on going, trash bags of rose petals were emptied over the canopy of the Blessed Virgin. I am not sure how long we stood there as this deluge of roses descended upon the float to applause, but the Verger finally had enough of waiting and with his stick banged his way through the Procession to get everyone moving.

Two hours passed as if it were nothing, but as two turned into three and then into four, as we made our way up and down the hills of Moron, I began to use the baston less as a decoration and more to support my back and legs. All the while I could see the faces of the Apostles on the float, terribly peaceful and unaware in their deep sleep that their Master and Commander was sweating blood and suffering at the thought of the Passion just a few feet away.

Perhaps Jesus’ question, Can you not watch one hour with Me? was in the back of the minds of all of those thousands of participants and spectators to encourage them never to give up. When we saw the imposing bell tower of the Church of San Miguel come closer and closer, after four hours, I was so relieved! The floats made their way into the church and I said to one of the Airmen, “Wow, that was cool, but I am really tired. Glad we made it.” He looked at me quizzically. “But, Father, we have to go back in procession as well.” There was only one procession in Moron that night, and it had to go back to Don Pedro’s church. In the Church of San Miguel, I was edified to see the Airmen steal a quick prayer in various nooks and crannies of the church before they assumed once again their formation for the trek back.

The clergy, not surprisingly, decided to leave the procession and have dinner. After a lovely meal of croquetas and gambas al ajillo, we joined up the procession again, two hours later, as it was about to enter the church again.

But, this is Spain, so the float was taller than the church door. So where is the make-it-fit button? Where was the tractor to haul in the float? The valiant men underneath, the floor, of course! As the float made its way over the threshold, the Precentor rang out orders, and rank after rank, the costeleros knelt and walked on their knees to get through the doors. 100 pounds of pressure evenly distributed on each man’s back, as they walked on their knees into the church. Another knock, and they stood, and gave one last triumphant jump in the air with the float on top of them.

For one more year, after 500 had already passed, the brothers of the Confraterity of this adorable little town had made their citizens, and surely also, their LORD, proud. Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and hugs and kisses and water bottles and bandages went all around. It was quite a feat, of strength, of perseverance, of love.

It is now 2.30 in the morning. Don Pedro wisely bought me ear plugs, because all around the church and rectory, the celebratory party will go on all night. We are still deciding whether we want to drive out to Seville and see what is going on in town. I have a feeling tomorrow I may be awaking at a way too early afternoon hour. But I am also thankful I will be in better shape than most of those men I respect I saw today.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

Holy Tuesday in Seville

Like many dioceses in the United States, the Archdiocese of Seville moves its Chrism Mass to the Tuesday of Holy Week so the priests can get together for this important annual occasion without having to rush around at the last minute thinking about the Triduum. It was the first time since I was ordained to the priesthood that I experienced the Chrism Mass outside of my own cathedral with my own Bishop and my own presbyterate. But the fraternity of the priesthood exists in every diocese and every language.

The Chrism Mass was the usual standard Chrism Mass, with the canons singing the Redemptor sume Carmen (I kept hearing Bizet in the background of my mind as we were down the street from the nicotine factory famous in the opera). But before the Mass, the entire presbyterate gathered in the Parroquia del Sagrario, the sacristy of the Cathedral which is its own parish, to hear each other’s confessions. After the Mass, we all processed singing the Hymn to St Juan de Avila to the Chapel of the Virgen de los Reyes, where St Fernando, King of Spain, is buried. The Archbishop publicly thanked all of the silver and golden anniversary priests and gave a fervorino to encourage the clergy to participate in World Youth Day.

As we enjoyed a reception in the Patio de los Naranjos, every Sevillian’s worst nightmare came true: driving rain during Holy Week. And so what could we do? No float would dare go out on a day like this. And so we went to the Ritz Hotel Alfonso XIII, a seventeenth-century royal palace festooned with handpainted azulejo tiles, for coffee and tea.

There was nothing to do other than ask my Spanish friends to accompany me to the Corte Ingles department store to buy CDs of the Sevillian Holy Week music. As we made our way back to Moron de la Frontera, we listened to the ESPN of Processions. The Bofetada Procession, of Our LORD slapped by the Roman soldiers, decided to brave it. Each confraternity has an elected Big Brother, or Gran Hermano, who makes that fateful decision. It is risky. If the floats go out under the rain, the cloths are ruined, the canopies destroyed, and the costeleros underneath the floats find it even more difficult to breathe. The Yes was given, and as soon as the Bofetada got out into the street away from the Cathedral, torrential downpours started.

As we listened on the radio to the shocked commentary of the onlookers, one phone call after another came in to our host from priests and lay friends from all over Seville, “Are you following what is going on?” with as much earnestness as the last play of the Super Bowl. Finally, after a few minutes, it became impossible. We parked on the side of the street, ran into a bar, and watched on television as the float worked its way backwards into safety.

In the meantime, Moron was having its smaller, but very similar procession of the Cross. As the nazarenos, barefoot with their pointy black hats and white robes with external hairshirt-corset looking vests of hemp, worked their silent way up the winding streets of Moron, Fr Luke retired for the night, felled by a fatiguing few days and a nasty cough. It was a reminder that, as the famous antiphon goes, In the midst of life we are in death. Good thing we priests had the great honour to renew our ordination promises in one of the largest cathedrals in Christendom and then enjoy in the excitement of the Andalucian laity who are spending all night in the church working on their floats for tomorrow.

Don Pedro got a phone call. He has a funeral tomorrow. But how do you do that when the pews have been taken out of the parish church whose nave is filled with two enormous floats. We’ll figure that out tomorrow morning.

Holy Monday in Seville

Fr Luke made a very profound point yesterday as we watched procession after procession in the Cathedral of Seville on Palm Sunday night. As priests, we are so used to being the ones who guide others spiritually, who tell others to have faith, that we forget that we have to be led as well. It was a pious thought, but we were able to put into practice today.
Don Pedro let us observe the processions very much as outsiders yesterday. This morning he said, “OK, so today we are going to do the processions my way.” As an Anglo-Saxon, I have always seen gate-crashing as a particular form of rudeness. I could never imagine just walking around in and out of processions like I owned Seville. But, lucky for us, Don Pedro does not have any of that Victoria reserve, and so we spent most of the day winding our way through one procession after another, and most of that time directly in front of the floats. Not only did no one consider the native son and his two American friends as interlopers, we were always guided to the spot where we needed to be.
Of course, directly in front of the floats you have Spanish army officers in their black plastic hats, servers in their albs and dalmatics, precentors of the confraternities with sticks they know how to use to keep order, and lots of people. There is perpetual motion, and even when the precentor uses the silver knocker to signal a stop, the stop is less a period than a comma, a brief pause in an other wise endless undulation of bodies.
How could there not be accidents? Men carrying literally tons of precious metal, sixteenth-century statues, velvet cloths, candles and flowers in abundance. What could go wrong? Everything! But it doesn’t. How? These processions are not choreographed with the precision of military ceremonies; they are as natural as the Sevillians are natural.
During the procession today of the Condemnation of Christ by Caiaphas and Annas, I began to see why nothing ever goes wrong. Trust. As a priest, I say I trust in God, I tell others to trust in God, but deep down inside I am as much of a pragmatic cynic as anyone else. How do you walk backwards in and through hundreds of people when there is a two ton float coming at you with men underneath it who can’t see what is in front of you? The costoleros who carry the floats are practically blindfolded and do their work in the hot, sweaty undercroft of the float. Their only instructions are given by the loud banging of the knocker. It is all instinct and obedience. For those in the light of day participating in the procession, everyone guides each other by hands, arms and elbows as the procession moves its way as one united motion.
This procession is different than many processions, because at certain points, the costoleros in unison not only jump high in the air, but they move as rapidly as 36 men holding two tons on their backs can move. The effect is one that I can only akin to the most majestic waves of the ocean, where sea foam is replaced by silver filigree and salt spray by velvet and lace. And the thousands of people that are in the procession all have to trust each other and work together as a team, all in instinct to the need for survival and obedience to the knocker. And as we three priests were right in front of the float, we more than anyone else had to trust the men who had our back, quite literally.
And so the dance began: tons of metal and statue rising up and down rolling forward like the crashing waves on the seashore, and the masses of people going with it like so many perfect surfers. But what we saw from our vantage point was not the azure sky or the reddening afternoon sun. At one crest of the wave it was the resigned face of the Savior, then a slave holding on his back the Law, another time Annas looking confused and bewildered. The music was a plaintive soliloquy of loss, pain and sorrow, and as I let myself be moved physically in this incredibly trusting way, I was able to surrender my own self-will to the obedience of the motion initiated by the Christ in whose honour this dance was held. Had I stood motionless, or tried to do my own thing, I would have been crushed, and would have imperiled other people’s lives. But I resigned my own will to the nature of the thing, and as such experienced a movement, bodily and spiritually, which lifted me beyond myself to trust in the LORD and my fellow men.
I nearly almost fainted from the beauty of it all, and that’s not being overly dramatic. It was that powerful. And when we finished the procession, we realized that we had traversed half of the city center of Seville in what seemed like a moment. But for Don Pedro the Indefatigible, we had other Prcoessions to participate in, each time as close as the first.
We followed Christ El Cautivo, bound in ropes and clothed in the purple livery of mock royalty. We followed the Betrayal of Christ by a Judas who was inches away from the kiss that sent the Prince of Peace to the Cross. We followed the Blessed Mother under her several titles and in her manifold dress as she followed her Son, pierced with a sorrow none of us can ever imagine. All the while, the music alternated between the minor Passion symphonies of the mysteries of Christ and the prophetic notes of joy that accompanied the Lady of Sorrows as she grieved for the pain of her Son while basking in the faith in his Resurrection to come.
Back in the parish of Moron, preparations were underway for the village’s Spy Wednesday procession. Thousands of dollars of flowers arrived from all over Europe as the men who would be disguised under robes unloaded and prepared them and the thousands of dollars of candles that would go on the one float they were preparing. It made me wonder. How on earth could a small village afford all of this? There were no wealthy Sevillian patrons of the aristocracy who could underwrite the thousands of dollars that went into making one float, much less the thousands of floats that floated all over Andalucia every Holy Week. And none of that compared at all with the inestimable value of the floats themselves.
My question was answered. We went to another village called El Coronil where a team of grandmothers were working overtime making pestinas, fried pastries soaked in honey, lemon and sesame fabulousness, as some wag called it. We knocked on the door and were ushered into the Kitchen that Makes Millions, a modest kitchenette in someone’s home where the abuelitas of El Coronil make this delicious pastry.
At first it seems odd to make pastries of this lavishness during Holy Week. I thought they must be for Easter. But in Seville, penance during Semana Santa does not apply to food. According to venerable custom, anyone in Seville who participates in the processions is exempt from fast and abstinence during Holy Week. The anxiously awaited fax from the Archbishop’s Palace arrived on Don Pedro’s IPhone granting those who participate a dispensation from fasting and abstinence on Good Friday.
So are the Spaniards weaklings who just can’t fast one day of the year? Are they really that pathetic? Actually, the immense physical exertion that those who participate in the procession, particularly the costoleros and the penitents, endure, is so great that they must eat big and healthy meals with lots of protein and carbs to manage. The bodily penance that they endure is more than anyone can imagine, and, in order to do the penance, they have to eat.
This is where we see the wisdom of Mother Church even in her laws on fast and abstinence, and how she adapts herself to unique situations all over the world. It also gives a unique character to the ascetical life of Seville’s Holy Week. The Manichean, Jansenistic, Puritanical tendency that stalks Catholicism from time to time tends to want to whitewash, denude and hyperperfect everything in a Pelagian attempt to use soulless penance to channel grace. Thank God for Seville and its Baroque piety, which destroys that heresy. For this spirituality, penance is done in an extreme way amidst a sumptuous and sensual display that delights the senses and moves the heart. Just as in the Incarnation, Divinity charges mortal flesh with the grandeur of God, during Holy Week, mortified flesh and bone meets a Christ whose real human suffering is retold in a display of beauty, chant and light.
As the day went on and the procession continued, silence descended upon the city. As one procession after another prepared for the Procession of the Cross, silence reigned. We were entering into a place where words and sound could do nothing. There was only the Cross, and that to end the evening. The silence of the tomb came down as so many droplets of dew from the heavens, bringing Seville to serenity.
But, the Blessed Virgin of the Waters was not far behind. And so, the silence was unexpectedly broken by a band out of nowhere, as joyful notes poured forth into a torrent of expectation for what would come on Easter Sunday. The great wood and copper doors of the Cathedral were closed shut and Seville had an early night at 1am.
Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.