When liturgy tells a story ....


Of course, good liturgy tells a story well.

Liturgy spoke at several levels during a meeting of the International Union of General Superiors here in the last few days. It will take me a while to fully unpack this important gathering. But here's one attempt. Something transformational seemed to have happened today, on this the last day of the five day assembly.

I reported on the NCR web site several days back that the symbols were not working on behalf of good communication between the women religious and the Vatican representative, Fr. Eusebio Hernandez Sola. The Augustinian priest stood in for Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The women were told that Rodé was "out of town."

A number of women privately said they thought he was afraid to show up and face them, given the Apostolic Visitation he unleashed on the U.S. women a year-and-a-half ago.

Sola works in the congregation Rodé heads. By all appearances he is a shy and somewhat formal priest.

At the first mass he celebrated he stood alone behind a dais, no altar servers to help him - despite the fact that 800 women stood before him. While we know well that any Eucharist is a sign of unity, a priest celebrating mass alone before such a large gathering of women spoke loudly and was, well, sad. You didn't know who to feel worse for, the isolated man or the marginalized women.

But to Sola's credit he stayed through the five day assembly, which ended today. He made himself available and tried to mix in. He celebrated mass daily, though other priests after that first Eucharist took the central role in the liturgies.

Each day, from the first day forward, more women placed chairs behind the altar/dais. Day by day, the feminine presence grew. And day by day, the liturgies grew more lively.

Today's liturgy, the final Eucharist, was a Vatican-shaking, or, at least, Sola shaking, celebration, featuring a Congolese Women Relgious choir and African song (in four languages) and dance. Meanwhile, no fewer than eight women stood slighly behind the two male celebrants, and assisted the men during the liturgy.

At the end of the mass Father Antonio Pernia, SVD, favorably answering a request of UISG President Notre Dame de Sion Sister Maureen Cusick, rather than giving a final blessing, asked the UISG leadership to do so. So instead of the traditional final blessing, the women asked all attending the celebration to place a right hand on shoulder of the person to one's right.

What followed was a joy-filled communal blessing.

Meanwhile, Sola, at the end of the mass, took the microphone to say that he had been deeply moved by the spirit of the women.

"This had been a huge grace for me," he said. "Thank you for sharing your hopes, dreams and difficulties with me. I am very moved. If there is a word for what I feel it is 'hope.' Jesus is with us and loves us."

Sola's words were unscripted and later a number of women said they felt, at least hoped, he might have had a kind of conversion during the gathering. They left feeling, at least, that he had a better grasp of their hopes and dreams - and gifts.

Will Rodé hear this message? Who knows?

Thinking about Sola and the women, knowing so well the painful divide that has grown over the years as women have continued to be denied the full celebration of their gifts within the church, one could only hope that some small steps were taken to improve communication.

At the start of these five days it appeared neither side knew precisely how to approach the other. The women and Sola were always polite but seemingly uncertain. Each appeared to be searching for the right language, the correct key to unlock the code. Eventually both seemed to have found them. More properly, the women seemed to have overwhelmed Sola with their openness and spirit.

I left recalling a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, "Close Encounters of a Third Kind." You might recall the scene that captured that first tentative effort to communicate, human to extra-terrestrial, and how, after several attempts by both sides they finally figured it out. What came from it was music.

And that was what all seemed to experience today.

Fox is NCR Editor and can be reached at tfox@ncronline.org.

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