Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Challenge of Staying

Jennifer Zickel and her two daughters, Emily, 4, and Natalie, 7.
I was an altar server. I don't remember the age when I started, but I think it was fourth grade or so. Sister Theresa was charged with the task of getting a bunch of kids--literally--to fill the role of aiding the priest (Father Gideon in my case) with Mass. Our parish was amazingly small. I still don't understand how it even stays open. I guess I want to say that, looking back, it definitely wasn't one of these intimidatingly large cavernous spaces. 

You had one of two options: you were responsible for the "book" (or Sacramentary if you're all about accuracy) or the "bells" which were rung during the Eucharistic Prayer. After serving for a while, I got the hang of everything and started to enjoy it. Throughout high school I would help out with various Masses, covering Midnight Mass at Christmas. Looking back, the experience was positive for me. It got me thinking about my religious tradition and enabled me to participate. In all honesty, I think I did like how I was special. I got to wear an alb, swing incense around, and generally be special. As a kid, it's amazing how important such things can be. 

I'm happy to say that I matured in my understanding of Catholicism and was less into bells and smells and more into the deeper, fundamental questions about the human experience. Without going into detail, I immersed myself in theology, ending up with undergraduate and graduate degrees and working as a campus minister. Then I had enough. The ritual. The hierarchy. The basic tenets of the faith didn't align with what I thought. It was only later, years actually, that I was open to returning to the Catholic world in a way that was more than an obligatory visit for one reason or another. I feel much more comfortable in my very nuanced understanding of what it means to be Catholic. 

I've become part of a really amazing parish in Ithaca, New York. It's diverse and welcoming. It's filled with thinking people. It helps that Cornell is down the street. The pastor is genuine and a true friend. Homilies aren't expected fluff or so stale that the homiletics books from 1970 remain central resources. The parish is alive. 

One thing I hadn't thought much about lately is the fact that on most weekends those helping the priest and pastoral associates (who are women) are girls. More often than not, the altar servers are female. One of them often wears headbands that are bright and sparkly. Just as one would expect from a young girl. It almost reminds you of Winnie from The Wonder Years. She makes me smile because she seems to really enjoy participating in the liturgy in that way.

So I think about this because of something I just read in The Washington Post. It's a story about a parish in Virginia that is no longer going to train girls to be altar servers. It's not the first. While the Diocese of Columbus had opened up the opportunity for girls and women to be altar servers quite a while ago, others have been much slower and some still restrict the role to boys and men. It's as if we're still in a time when Studebakers were parked outside and priests had to say daily Mass, even when that meant they were mumbling to themselves.  The Second Vatican Council opened up the church to new approaches to an ancient way of life and practice. Priests turned around, common language was used (although we're about to have some changes to that), and women were more fully embraced by a church that had for centuries relegated them to second-class status. I love that the cool girl here in Ithaca wears her headbands.  
When Mass was a daily necessity for the individual
priest and less about the celebration of a community.

So now, I read this story about a parish in Virginia and it makes me sad about this church that professes to be universal and welcoming. I've never had to deal with exclusion. I'm a white male who is educated and comfortable financially. I don't have many of the worries or feelings that others do because of marginalization. But that doesn't mean I don't care or I don't think of myself as an ally to those who are excluded. As someone who is about to become a parent, I am realizing that such decisions could impact my child if I had a daughter. Yet, even if I had a boy, I still feel like I'll have discomfort being part of a church that excludes individuals because of their sex. I don't think I want to have a son be part of something that reinforces a view of the world that should have faded a very long time ago. 

I guess I don't think about these things often because I do live in a community that values diverse views and experiences. I live in a community that is highly educated and thoughtful. I don't think the sparkly headbands are going away. But the church is much more than simply the parish I belong to these days. What's going on in Virginia and elsewhere is damaging to the whole. The challenge for me is to try to make sense of why excluding women helps to build a more just and peaceful society or even a more dynamic church. Women have long played important roles in the church and that's only continuing to increase with lay ministers and lay leadership. So what's going on with something like this? If there is fear of watering down Catholicism, then I'll have to say goodbye. Jesus wasn't really into excluding people. I'd prefer to follow his example rather than some bishop's grasp for a church and a time that is gone. The challenge of staying is believing that issues such as these, in the longview, will be seen as subtle steps backwards in the long march of a pilgrim people to right relationship with one another and with God. 

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