My friend Mary leaned over to me, tears in her eyes, when the congregation was singing the soul-stirring-hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” and said, “We can’t let them wreck what is still so beautiful.” We were at the Sunday Morning Worship Service at Chautauqua Institution and she was referring to the horrific Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic church that had just been released. What does she mean, I wondered? What is still so beautiful that we must hold on to for dear life while we rage against the crimes committed against innocent children and demand justice for the abusers and the hierarchy whose “I was only following orders” made it possible? I looked around at the beautiful faces of more than 1,000 people in that huge amphitheater who were singing their hearts out to God. To God, not to any institution. Trust in the institutional church may crumble over the sexual abuse scandal, and it should. But what the sinful system cannot be permitted to destroy is the beauty of the living communion of saints. The beauty of all those people placing their trust and love and faith where it belongs, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.”
We went to Chautauqua to hear Rev. Winnie Varghese, senior priest for justice and reconciliation at Trinity Church Wall Street. She chose the Annunciation as the reading and urged us to listen to women’s words, especially Mary’s. She pointed out that on the two big feasts of the year—Christmas and Easter—when most of the Christian family gathers, the church selects readings where women’s voices are heard. It is the warmth and tenderness of our God that we draw on, that we need to hear at these grand moments. Varghese is an Episcopal and said that Mary was not a focal point of her religious formation, but now she wants to be with her, to listen to her. She cautioned about making Mary bodiless, a deity, or “blessed” or “virgin.” She recounted how as a response to #MeToo, she began to address Mary as simply “the woman, Mary.” “It helped people recall their own stories of powerlessness and abuse. Some people responded with tears and some not,” she said. “Some got angry because we called Mary only a woman.”
She told an inspiring story about a Mary celebration in her native country of India. It takes place on the feast of the Nativity of Mary, Sept. 8, and coincides with a celebration of a goddess in the neighboring Hindu temple. “The women say Mary and the goddess are sisters,” Varghese said. The priests will have none of it. Ten thousand women come to the festival and take over the area. These are poor women, oppressed women who for a few days create a new reality.
“The order of the world is turned upside down,” she said. “That festival becomes a vision of the reign of God. Then, Varghese continued, “the world goes back to normal and patriarchy rules. I want to stand in that upside-down moment,” she concluded. “That is the inbreaking…it is a moment when we see truth so great that the soul cries out.”
I wept through the homily. It gave me a sense of peace and renewal and hope. Oh, how the church suffers because it refuses to allow an inbreaking of the leadership and wisdom of women.
In the car ride home, Mary said to me, “About 30 years ago I heard Sister Mary Luke Tobin speak at a conference of religious teachers (Mary Luke was a leader in church reform). She told us, ‘The church will be brought to its knees by women and children.’ I didn’t understand what she was meant but I never forgot it. Now I know.”
Following the worship service, we went to the coffee shop and met a woman we knew. She went right to the church abuse scandal and asked us, “Where can I go? Should I stay in the church? So many priests named in the report were my friends. One of them married my husband and me.” It’s a question that many are wrestling with. It’s a question I ask myself daily. And it comes back to that beautiful communion of saints. When Dan Berrigan was asked why he stayed in the Jesuits, he replied, “It was the friendship, community, the promise of support for one another, a vision of great work to be done, which those before you had done so well.” For me, that suffices.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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