Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Saints Sans Priest

The All Saints Day Vigil Prayer Service at the Sisters' cemetery on 10/31/11
Yesterday, the Feast of All Saints, was a holy day of obligation according to the Roman Catholic Church. For me, it was a good excuse to go to the 5 p.m. Mass with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. Mass was a bit more well-attended than usual. Although "day of obligation" is basically a guarantee that college students will not come to Mass, there were still a good number, and a large number of the Sunday crowd. We started in the Gathering Place. The worship aids were printed and well prepared, the schola was in its best finery and also well prepared. The one thing we were lacking was a priest.

The priest, who had e-mailed earlier in the day to confirm he was on the schedule, never arrived. After frantic phone calls and some shifting of readers, one of the Sisters put on a simple white robe to preside over the Liturgy of the Word. We began our procession with the Litany of the Saints. The music was lovely. The readings were also wonderful-- that great cloud of witnesses in Revelation, the Beatitudes during which we reflected on those who have gone to their rest after so much service to the world.

There was a lot to reflect on this year. Yesterday afternoon Sister Giovanni Bieniek died at the age of 101. She was the 19th Sister to die from that community this year. Last week there were two funerals. One of my reasons for attending was to have some time to reflect on Sisters Suzanne and Rosemary, who I have been missing. Looking around, many of the Sisters looked tired. Some of them looked sad, strained, annoyed about the priest situation. The Sister who was presiding was very gracious and asked us to reflect on our solidarity with the many communities that, because of an increasing priest shortage, are not able to have daily Mass or even weekly Mass.

One man attending got up and went to complain when the presider read the Gospel. "Only a priest can read the gospel!" he told the Sister in the Gathering Place. "What are we supposed to do? We don't have a priest or a deacon," she answered. I would like to answer: Are we to be denied the Word as well? Sister Helene had already prepared a reflection on the Beatitudes, which she gave. Were we to have the reflection without the reading? He stormed out before the closing hymn, which is a shame, because the hymn, by Sister Delores Dufner, was a beauty, as was the organ postlude she had prepared.

I did not hear any criticism of the priest. One Sister said, "I'm worried about him. He did confirm, so maybe something happened to him. Maybe he fell or got in an accident."

There is also, however, always the spectre of a day when there will not be priests to come over from Saint John's Abbey for daily Mass. Last year, the College of Saint Benedict, a Catholic women's college that shares the campus with the Sisters of Saint Benedict's Monastery and has joint classes with the men of Saint John's University (SJU) five miles away, lost its regular priest for the campus Mass. This is a diocesan appointment, and the bishop said he would not appoint anyone. He said the college students have ample opportunities: the two Saint Joseph parish Masses (and one Saturday) less than a block from campus, the Sisters' Sunday Mass, the SJU student Mass at 9 p.m. He has a point, but it's a Catholic college. There was talk of trying to recruit a retired priest from another region. Having been at a Mass last Spring at the far end of the diocese, where a retired priest had driven the two hours to preside at morning Mass for a cluster of churches, I had a suspicion those retired priests are otherwise fully engaged.

The obvious solution is to ordain women and married men. I wrote a blog entry about a year ago about attending the Roman Catholic Women Priest Mass at St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud. The congregation, The Church of the First Apostle Mary Magdalene, meets at 1:30 p.m. every second Sunday of the month. I removed that post when it was co-opted by the conservative author of another website in an effort to discredit the Sisters (for whom I was working then as communications director). It didn't work, removing the post, because he just found a cached version to link to his site. It did point out to me the "third rail' nature of this issue.

That someone could be offended by a woman acting as "gospeler" truly shocks me. I really would have liked for us to share some unconsecrated bread, passing it to each other through the pews, as an alternative. Instead, the students who had processed in with the bread and wine in the hope that the priest would arrive, simply carried it back to the sacristy afterward, untouched.

It was a lovely liturgy, and liturgy is something the Sisters do very well. And we were all prepared. We were all present. God and the Holy Spirit were in our midst, and we, the assembly, were the Body of Christ. The only thing we were missing was a priest.


Jeff said...

You wrote about me in a very public way this past week on your blog. Like any good storyteller, you mingled the actual with the apocryphal, and I respond gently with a lament, a clarification, and questions that you might editorialize about further. After all, rhetorically a blog is a kind of personal newspaper, and it wouldn't be interesting unless you occasionally found yourself in the presence of letters to the editor.

It did strike me as unusual that someone other than a priest would read the Gospel; I have since learned this was not liturgically inappropriate. For the proverbial record though, I did not "storm out" on all Saints Day, but instead retreated a few minutes early, not angry but instead disappointed I did not get what I came for.

I am not optimistic about what answers you might craft to these questions, but we can still be friends in the face of the fact that you and I might answer them differently.

1. You make arguments on behalf of women priests, and attend clandestine "masses" where they attempt transubstantiation. Can you tell me how dissenting from Church teaching and assenting to this protest builds up the Church? Not even an angel can do that; by what method do you imagine this happening?
2. At many Masses offered by my former employers, the monks of St. John's Abbey, the faithful are told repeatedly that "all are welcome to the table." Have we not arrived at the time where this is true of everyone except those who respect Pope Benedict, the Vatican, and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church?
3. Which is true, the notion that the Church should adapt to the world, or that the world should adapt to the Church, and the teachings of Christ, which some believe never ever change?

Your brother in Christ, Jeff Johnson

Susan Sink said...

Hi Jeff,
Thank you very much for your comments. I apologize heartily for misrepresenting you in my blog. As you say, I'm a storyteller, and did get caught up in drawing a picture based on limited observation and a second-hand report for this story. There was disappointment all around on that day!

Perhaps the difference we have is in what would have minimized the opportunity for the disappointment. With a retired Episcopal priest in the congregation that day and holy women who are both ready and eager to be ordained and fully supportive of the church to the extent of dedicating their lives to her, it seems to me needless to not have Eucharist.

I think holding onto what are in my opinion indefensible historical customs until it is no longer possible for the people to celebrate the Eucharist regularly is not in the best interest of the church. The arguments for a male-only priesthood just do not hold up in my opinion.

I also think there is room for a wide variety of celebrations in the Catholic Church, including Latin Masses and more "conservative" communities. I think those in attendance should respect the service that they are attending and participate fully. I would no more criticize and question the celebration in a more conservative Mass (though I might not like it) than I would in the middle of the celebration question the Sisters' liturgy. Personally, I have never experienced the Sisters to be unwelcoming to anyone. I believe they go to extreme lengths to make sure their liturgies have integrity.

I do thank you for your gentleness and the respectful critique offered here, Jeff. I have to say, I don't really ever think people read my blog, so it was surprising to see your comment here-- and heartening in its way!

I wish you all the best, and hope to see you at a future liturgy at the monastery.


wilfred theisen said...

nearly all the theologians i have talked to have affirmed that there is no theological reason for postponing the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. the pope and the patriarchy are guilty of a grave sin of injustice by depriving so many communities of daily eucharist. in many other Christian communities the Holy Spirit is inspiring young women to be ordained to the full ministry of the gospel. How can the pope assume that the Holy Spirit is not inspiring RC women to pursue the same full ministry? the eucharist belongs to the people, not the pope. but the pope has put celibacy on a higher level than the eucharist.