If women rose to the altar. A theologian’s analysis

What kind of liturgy

 Che genere di liturgia  DCM-007
01 July 2023

In one of my last conversations with Silvano Maggiani, the well-known Italian liturgist who died two years ago, I confessed to him my discomfort in participating in the liturgy. I told him that everything seemed fake to me, whether that be the gestures, the words, or the vestments.  I went on, if I look around myself, “I see people who are bored, of which there are fewer and fewer, and those who are present are there out of habit. In short, no joy, no community, nothing that really touches those who are present, including the celebrant, who is also unconvinced and unconvincing. I said this with a certain pain. He replied saying that this discomfort was also his own. My peer had lived through the start of the Vatican II liturgical reform, the years of experimentation and enthusiasm, in the sign of the noble simplicity to which the rites were to be restored and in the sign of the actuosa, the creative participation of the people of God in the active symphony of their charisms-ministries.

Nearly 60 years have passed since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the magna carta of liturgical reform, and, looking around, one can see how that breakthrough, that effort, was insufficient, if only because everything is perpetually in flux and demands constant and flexibility in adaptation. Not to mention those who are nostalgic of the ancient rite.

Certainly, the liturgical celebration constitutes a great big problem today; and one of its stumbling blocks concerns women. Indeed, a “gender” dystonia is evident in it. 

The participation of women has never been easy. Having left the ekklesia kat’oikon, the Church in the homes, where perhaps they also presided over the Lord’s Supper, more often than not they were suspended in a limbo of non-participation, like the laity for that matter. Augustine testifies to the separation of men and women within the nave and justifies it from the intertwining of male and female voices. Chrysostom, however, says that this was not once the case and laments the departure from the praxis of the older communities.

It can be stated with certainty. The women-prayer link is not broken, so much so that communal life, informal at first, institutionalized later in communal forms, inscribes praise on their duties. Their task is the sanctification of time; and since the use of the Psalms and the Scriptures characterizes it, it is because of this ‘liturgical’ task that they are obliged to know how to read and write. This will produce that feminine theology in which distinguished nuns excel.

It is thus, for example, that in the peace of the monastery of the Holy Cross, the deaconess Radegonda commissioned from Venantius Fortunatus the hymn that we still sing on Good Friday. Then later on, with ingenious creativity, the wonderful Hildegard wrote the text and music for her monastery in the form of the officiatura. There is also evidence of monastic liturgical creativity in the East. The hymn sung to this day in the Byzantine rite on Holy Wednesday is attributed to Cassia, Emperor Theophilus’ unsuccessful bride.

This inventive and prayerful function, the same one that even today delivers the book of the Liturgy of the Hours to nuns in the context of the Rite of Profession, is not matched in the exercise of female liturgical ministry. Yet, especially in the East, female deacons have been there. Their main function, the very one that later led to their decline, was the anointing of women at baptism. In truth, they did other things as well, but we have no irrefutable evidence about their ministry even though we know they were counted among the clergy.

There are pale traces of their service that have remained in the formulas related to religious and monastic profession and in the privilege of abbesses to sing/proclaim the Gospel in the context of their community.

Today, nothing remains of all this. Although the perception and status of women in the Church has changed by a large extent, yet relative to the liturgy they still remain marginal. It is only men who preside over the liturgy, except in the case of a Sunday Celebration in the absence of a presbyter. Women have recently been admitted to the ministries of reader and acolyte, that is, to proclaim the readings and to serve at the altar. Tasks from which they have long been excluded because of their gender, because they are considered unfit for liturgical ministry. It is no coincidence that in the provisions for sacred music, Pius X, in the early twentieth century, deprived them of singing, which he rightly considered a ministry.

However, it would be reductive to trace this discomfort to the ministerial absence of women alone. The problem touches them –and not only- in terms of language. Our euchology, the set of prayers, rooted in a blind patriarchalism, re-propose these cultural stereotypes. If one pays attention to the declension of God “father,” one will constellate who to be invoked/evoked is the pater familias of ancient memory, emulator and substitute of the pater deorum. The same applies to the adjectivization of God, to the sacred aura that surrounds him. There is very little that remains of the One whom Jesus of Nazareth invoked as abba, papa, overturning all patriarchal hierarchy. In addition, what is problematic, too, is the naming of saints, except for martyrs, which is tied to gender stereotypes. What is more difficult and distant besides are the themes of sacrifice, contentment, sin, and gender hierarchies among humans. I think that for most people the language of our liturgies is at least foreign. The rupture of traditional sites of faith transmission has rendered ancient and beautiful metaphors incomprehensible. We need a translator at the very least! That is not to mention the homilies that are also distant, and hopelessly bent on touching and stigmatizing the present time, and never directed to offer the key to the rite celebrated.

Let us be clear, ritual is inscribed in our anthropological structure, while, in fact, we celebrate an infinite number of secular rites. We even speak of stadium liturgy with a reversal of metaphor. At issue, then, is not the ritual. The verb celebrate implies the reiteration of an action and leithurghia results from laos (people) and urghia (action). Strictly speaking, therefore, it should be an action involving the whole people of God, men and women, who then worship the Father through Christ and in the Spirit. However, beyond our inner circle privy to such things, who would understand what I am talking about?

Our churches are emptying out, and the middle-aged women, and the young men and women are no longer going there, certainly because of that brokenness that has caused us to lose the recognition code and of the church building and the church of living stones that we are.

Indeed, a single name binds the building and the mystery. Indeed, strictly speaking, the building itself should provide the sign code of the mystery. The altar is Christ, the ambo is the monument of the resurrection, and the baptistery is the place of rebirth. One becomes a Christian in the synergy of Word and Spirit, of Water and Spirit; and the memorial place of this fulfillment is the Altar, the table prepared to compartmentalize the Body and Blood of the Lord. In short, we are invited to a festive banquet, which requires mutual knowledge and care, and the sharing of joys and hopes. Moreover, as at any authentic feast, each person has to bring his or her gift for the growth of others. Instead, we entrench ourselves behind abstruse words, dress in outdated vestments, which are also ridiculous in certain details; instead of protagonists, we are bystanders, passive receivers, to whom, moreover, a seasoned bread is offered, because not only do we not participate in the chalice but neither do we participate in the bread breaking in that celebration.

No one senses the connection that runs between those gathered and the ministries rendered by them outside the liturgy. In addition, the same ministeriality made up of even different actions –the listening, responding, acclaiming, standing up, sitting, proceeding in procession- seems routine, and not an exercise of the common priesthood.

Add to this - and the discussion goes far beyond the tip of the iceberg of women’s dissatisfaction - the breaking of the pandemic, the clerical claim to celebrate in the absence of the people, the horrid media exposure of meaningless, shamelessly sloppy or theatrical Masses. In addition, to follow, the idea that after all, there is no need even for there to be a physical presence. As we have seen, we can participate in the Eucharist even remotely, perhaps by reciting the horrible formula of spiritual communion.

Crispino Valenziano, who for many years has been the professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute Saint Anselm in Rome, states that the liturgy is “Church in progress”. We really need to put our hands to the “reform of the reform”, as Adrien Nocent, a Belgian monk, one of the greatest experts on liturgy, involved from the beginning in the preparation and implementation of the liturgical reform desired by the Second Vatican Council. We need to reinvent the liturgy and make room for creativity and new points of view. Perhaps, if only we wanted to do so, we could even go as far as the so-called feminist liturgies, in their overbearing claim to corporeality and nature, which could suggest other signposts that need no mediation.

After all, the words “in remembrance of me” sealed the Lord’s last supper, but beyond that, it sealed, for the feminine, the anointing gesture of the unnamed woman – which are the gestures and events performed in the ecclesiogenetic intimacy of the home! We need it and we need fragrance and therefore smell, taste, sight, to hear, and touch. Our liturgies must return to express the corporality of salvation. We are the body of Christ and this is not a metaphor.

Theologian, vice-president of the Via Pulchritudinis Academy Foundation.