The Choreography in Rome

I noticed on Twitter last Thursday, in a stray-minded moment at a Notre Dame conference near the Colosseum, that Pope Francis would be saying Corpus Christi Mass that evening in front of St. John Lateran, just a few blocks away from the meeting rooms. I went with a group of scholars—experts in global Islam and Catholicism, mainly—as well as a fellow magazine reporter from New York—an eminent one, and a Jew. She and I stuck together as we made our way into the gathering crowd an hour and a half early, after the appropriate on-site bureaucrat declared our effort to secure press privileges “impossible.” So we ventured among the tourists and families, the restless boys and determined old women. There were stray nuns among us too, but must of the nuns were cordoned off to the side in row after row of seats, organized in patches of color associated with the habits of this or that order. A few had no habits at all, but very few. The bloc of them formed the long base of an imaginary cross, whose center was the altar; the arms were large, elevated blocs of men (except for a few nuns at the very back), from cardinals to seminarians to members of this or that costumed fraternity; the head, of course, was Pope Francis.

His voice was about as close as we could get to him. Wilting and sweet, but with a throaty fullness of timbre, it made the whole square into a private chapel. In the penitential rite, in the homily (whose meaning, except for the predictable ecclesial words, I only caught in news reports the next morning), in the Eucharistic prayers, his voice was at once a whisper in each of our ears and an echo off the facades of the buildings along the perimeter. Except when a blaring ambulance needed to break through the crowd, the silence between his words was absolute, and his syllables eased in and out of that silence like a violin, like a whale surfacing for air.

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The Mass was long and high. We followed along with the Gregorian notation in glossy booklets that boy scouts handed out along with bottles of water. A nun not far from us interpreted the liturgy in sign language. It was hard to see the distant activity at the altar through all the arms raising up phones and tablets and cameras to capture some outline of the proceedings. At communion I received the Body on my tongue for the first time in my life that I can recall, from the fingers of a priest reaching into the crowd across a barricade. At the end, slowly, a procession formed toward Maria Maggiore, starting with groups of priests and cardinals, who made their way from their seats of honor leisurely, spaced out, and flanked by guards in various shades of uniform. Ushers in coats and tails guided them. May readers forgive me for not knowing better the proper designations and titles associated with each set of dignitaries; but surely in that deficit, among the longing, listening, doubting, and supplicating throng of souls that surrounded me there, I was not alone.

At last came a white pickup truck, which had on its bed a white canopy with retractable, red-carpeted stairs in back. The Blessed Sacrament was placed on a stand there, and a pair of strong-kneed priests knelt before it, clinging to the railing as discreetly as they could while the stairs were retracted and the truck began lunging forward into the procession. (According to Catholic News Service—I couldn’t have seen it myself—the truck bore the plate “SCV 1,” which is normally that of the Holy Father.) Soon, the sea of nuns began surging into a river behind it, with none of the careful pacing and leisure that had been allotted the clerical dignitaries, for in the nuns’ case it was clear that the Sacrament would not be waiting around for them. Behind and among them was everyone else, many carrying candles into the dusk of a perfect, clear, warm night.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the situation in such fullness of force. I see traces of this at Mass each Sunday, but the altar girls and the fierce women in the front pews help to offset the effects. I saw Benedict XVI pass by twice as pope, once in St. Peter’s Square and another time on Fifth Avenue in New York, but the order of things is less evident in passing. At St. John Lateran there were probably hundreds of men closer to Francis than the closest woman, and given the courtly origins of the choreography, this is a meaningful distance. That distance is distance from power, from voice. This is not complementarity, it is hierarchy. I’m sorry: It is patriarchy. And the church that I love tolerates it, persists in it, insists on it—as if it is of a piece with the beauty of the costumes and the music and the gospel. Peter hid from the cross while Mary stayed, yet his heirs are blocking the view of hers. My companion, the Jewish reporter, was less surprised than I; she found the spectacle easier, simply, to enjoy.

In a million ways I thank God that the church is slow and insistent that old things still matter. Maybe this dramaturgy (inadvertently) serves to remind us that the domination of men remains rampant in our societies, despite the hasty optics of political correctness that might claim it is over and done. Maybe we need to hold on to this liturgical territory so it can be the site of a final Armageddon against sexism everywhere, once and for all. In a way the church is perpetually like this—at once, a display of the love that we long for, and also of what we’re up against in ourselves.

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Bill Mazzella
2 years 6 months ago
I guess Francis can't change everything. At least that quickly. I was refreshed at his early Masses at small churches in Rome where he came out and sought out those who came. Good reporting which is needed to get changed what must be changed. Gives an idea of what Francis is facing.
Molly Roach
2 years 6 months ago
Same old, same old. Ugly, predicable and for most not affected by it (i.e.-men) not a big deal. It's a big deal to me. I eagerly await God's explanation for testosterone at the Last Judgment. It apparently leads many men to believe that women have cooties. Those men who do not believe that mostly shrug their shoulders. Nathan, it is absolutely refreshing that you NOTICED this. Believe me, we do not NEED to hold on to this liturgical territory for any reason at all. Masculine ignorance and pride keep us there. I wouldn't go to a papal Mass for all the money in the world--I have my pride too. No thanks boys.
Molly Roach
2 years 6 months ago
Same old, same old. Ugly, predicable and for most not affected by it (i.e.-men) not a big deal. It's a big deal to me. I eagerly await God's explanation for testosterone at the Last Judgment. It apparently leads many men to believe that women have cooties. Those men who do not believe that mostly shrug their shoulders. Nathan, it is absolutely refreshing that you NOTICED this. Believe me, we do not NEED to hold on to this liturgical territory for any reason at all. Masculine ignorance and pride keep us there. I wouldn't go to a papal Mass for all the money in the world--I have my pride too. No thanks boys.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 6 months ago
We were in Rome (St. Peters) for Easter Mass in 2014. We had tickets to get into the square for the outdoor Mass, and arrived a little before 8AM for the 10:30AM Mass. Much to my surprise, we were 4 rows back in the 2nd section, putting us about 150 feet from the altar. We could see Francis, and everything else, very clearly. There were women lectors, but other than a few nuns (in habit) in the choir, there were no other women on the "stage". We were able to receive communion. After Mass Francis, in his open jeep, traveled down the aisles separating the sections, coming down our aisle twice. This put us about 10-15 feet from him, with a clear view. It was a thrilling experience, not just because of Francis (although he was my major draw), but to be in that place at that time seemed very miraculous. Bells were tolling, birds were soaring. It felt both extremely worldly and other-worldly at the same time. I am grateful, and wouldn't have missed it.
RANDELL BUSBY
2 years 6 months ago
America, you play a vital role in helping the Church open herself to all of God's creation. Well-written, humane, articles like these are vital to exposing and naming the sinfulness of the male-centric, often emotionally stunted, hierarchy (patriarchy) of our Church and of our society.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 6 months ago
Congratulations to America on publishing this article. That our sacramental theology is biased by patriarchal gender ideology is bad enough. When the patriarchal bias distorts the liturgy, it becomes so disgusting that it makes the heavenly liturgy practically invisible. Complementarity is not the problem. Hierarchy is not the problem. PATRIARCHY is the problem. For heaven's sake, how much longer shall we have to endure the liturgy reduced to an spectacle of male hegemony? In today's Church, the male-only priesthood is becoming an obstacle to grace.
IGNACIO SILVA
2 years 6 months ago
Next time I get to lead a prayer I will begin with "Mother, Father, God, Creator of Heaven and Earth..." A few eyebrows will twitch. Good for them: they're listening.
Robert Hugelmeyer
2 years 6 months ago
So PC with little or no knowledge of church dogma and her Magisterium, the teaching arm of the Church who resounds with the truth as guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was a revolutionary but not equalitarian. Women have play a major role with significant responsibilities through the Church's history. So many references throughout the New Testament of the contributions of women. As predicted by then Cardinal Ratzinger, the Church will be greatly reduced in numbers and be divided by those who disagree with Church teaching on matters of women priesthood, same sex attraction, same sex marriage, and abortion on demand. Those who remain faithful will be knowledgeable of and deeply devoted to living as true disciples of Jesus in loving one another as he commanded.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 6 months ago
Specifically with regard to a patriarchal hierarchy of governance, the Church has been PC for 2000 years. What's wrong with being PC as the patriarchal culture passes away? The Church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic," but not necessarily patriarchal. Wonder if "those who remain faithful" will remain faithful if and when the Church recognizes that apostolic succession is not contingent on masculinity. Many other issues of human sexuality are not so well defined, but this one is clear cut: either "apostolic" means "patriarchal" or not. If it is, let it be infallibly defined as such; else, let's start ordaining women (at least, celibate women) as soon as possible.
ed gleason
2 years 6 months ago
So I take it Hillary will not get your vote? (-:
Victoria Schmidt
2 years 6 months ago
I have had a similar experience of being at the back of St. Peter's with a throng of men in the fore. In my prayer, I often appeal to God for some deliverance of this inbred patriarchy. So entrenched is it, that another century of time cannot make a dent in its armor, I fear. Try we must, to continually work towards a reckoning of this moral evil in our world, for if we do not, then we are to blame for never having tried to make things better for the poorest women who receive the brunt of this painful patriarchy in their daily lives. The men of the Church have no idea how their allegiance to this patriarchy impacts the lives of women everywhere. They model this lifestyle for the world to see. I live comfortably with good employment and housing, but so many do not because of the incestuous sin of patriarchy. Thanks for writing this piece and exposing the proverbial elephant in the living room.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago
Once again we have an article that stokes the fires of the Grievance Industry, this time sexual instead of racial. While it is phrased as a call for a more numeric evenness, the grievance contains an implicit reverse hierarchy of value: clergy < laity, men < women, and nuns in habits < nuns without habits. This thinking is very un-catholic, especially in the universal meaning of the term. And, in the article, this thinking appears to have spoiled a holy religious experience. I note that not that all privilege is criticized (for example, the effort to get press privilege to gain a better seat, and there is no complaint that Pope Francis had a uniquely special place at the Mass). Our Church has been naturally hierarchical from the beginning and will always be so - a hierarchy of service (taking the lead from our Lord: 1) Jesus as the Savior, 2) Mary for the Incarnation, 3) Peter for the Petrine ministry, 4) 12 Apostles from the disciples, 5) bishops from priests, 6) Catholics from non-Catholics, etc. Of course, we fallen humans often re-interpreted the hierarchy as one of power (remember the story of the Sons of Zebedee Mark 10:35-45). The sin of clericalism also rests on an interpretation of the clerical role as something to be grasped (hence the persistent clericalistic drive for women priests - despite the infallible teaching otherwise). Power is the main interpretation of the Grievance Industry, and a shift in a power balance is demanded as THE measure of reform. A more Catholic interpretation would rejoice at all the people coming together to worship the Lord, each with their special gifts and roles, and not by head counting of Us v. Them. It is very prudent that pastoral change and doctrinal development should change very cautiously and slowly, because it is hard for contemporaries to distinguish clearly between the Spirit of the Truth and the spirit of the Age. I believe we are living in an amazing time of unscientific gender confusion, where a natural, biological, psychological, spiritual and vocational complementarity of the sexes is either denied in full or else marginalized, to the detriment of human happiness in temporal and spiritual relationships. This ideology is currently burning fiercely, and many human institutions (e.g. most mainline protestant churches, scouts, clubs, parts of the military, schools, etc.) are being extinguished by it. But, it too will pass. The Truth does not change, unlike political correctness or fashion, which have very little to do with truth and everything to do with power.
Nathan Schneider
2 years 6 months ago

I agree with much of what you say, including the grace of slowness in the church, which I am in many respects grateful for. Also, I should clarify that I don't think the Mass was in any respect "spoiled" for me; the risen Christ was still present in it, regardless of the choreography.

It strikes me as strange to say that what you call the "grievance industry" is what is fixated on power. Nowhere more than in our church today does one find such clearly orchestrated dramas in which the lines of power are made visible. And I don't have any quarrel with that; indeed, all the better that hierarchies should be explicit rather than implicit, on display rather than behind closed doors. I don't object to hierarchies here per se; I mourn for how they are organized—with such a clear divide between male and female, with male in the position of dominance and preference—because I think in the process many "special gifts and roles," as you put it, are not being given their full opportunity to shine. Power is part of how we incarnate our calling to be a church, and how we distribute power is, in some senses, part of our worship.

I'm glad we share the goal of a church that is truly universal, in which people can come together as one. I hope that the tone of my article is not divisive, except insofar as it highlights divisions that already plague us, and that beg us to reconciliation.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago
Nathan - we can agree that the relationship between men and women should not be one of dominance and preference, but of complementary service. It seems to me that this distortion of the most intimate relationship of humanity is a consequence of the Fall. Before the Fall, both were given a shared vocation: Gen 1:28: God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Then after the Fall, both receive different punishments while not losing the original vocation. The women still participated in being fruitful but now with painful labor, and also (Gen 3:16) "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” - possibly because it was Eve who first succumbed to temptation - and when the man is especially cursed with the pain of physical labor. And both with death instead of life. In any case, that was before the coming of Christ, and pain and dominance and death will eventually be no more for those who are fully faithful to the Savior. We know definitively from the Church that the priestly role is reserved for men, just as the maternal role is reserved for women (and no one can honestly say that the father's parental role is the same as the maternal role - complementarity again) - the recent gender ideology notwithstanding. but, all men and all women are still sinners and inordinate dominance (from men and women) and inordinate submission (from men and women) will not end just as jealousy and envy and pride will not end until the Parousia and Eschaton. But, bean counting is not the approach that will reduce dominance - it is just power by agitation - a political power.
Nathan Schneider
2 years 6 months ago

Just to clarify: I think we can at least partly bracket the question of women's ordination here. Many of those men up near the pope were not priests (though many were). Just as Pope Francis has called for women to play a greater leadership role in the church while not entertaining ordination, I think it would be reasonable to expect that women (religious and lay) can play a more prominent role in the papal liturgy without necessarily being ordained. Indeed, I think that would make a stronger statement about complimentarity; it would demonstrate that, even if women are not priests, their presence and ministry are no less equally valued.

Molly Roach
2 years 6 months ago
There is no infallible teaching regarding the ordination of women. The papal charism of infallibility has been invoked only twice--in regard to the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. "Infallibility" as it is defined is invoked only for teachings regarding faith and morals. Ordination is regarded as a matter of the church's discipline.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago
But, it is infallible, and has been declared as part of the Deposit of Faith by each pope since its definitive declaration by St. Pope John Paul II. Here is the sequence: 1. pope JP II declared the following in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994): "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html 2. Pope Benedict XVI, when head of the CDF, in responding to those who still had honest doubts about the teaching's infallibility (Responsum ad Dubium - Oct 28, 1995), wrote an excellent explanatory letter that confirmed its infallibiity: "To this end, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Holy Father, has given an official Reply on the nature of this assent; it is a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say, irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church." 3. Pope Francis has twice confirmed that decision, most definitively in the July 2013 press conference. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/july/documents/papa-francesco_20130728_gmg-conferenza-stampa.html So, all three popes have declared it to be part of the Deposit of Faith, with the Creed and all other definitively held beliefs. It would be a very odd thing if we Catholics thought only 2 rather narrow Marian dogmas were the only ones we could be certain about (which is what infallible means). Could it really be that the Real Presence or the Divinity of Jesus or the many statements in the Nicene Creed are somehow less infallible than the Immaculate Conception? Or, to argue like Fr. Dollinger and the Old Catholics, that the Councilar declaration on Infallibility was itself fallible? The great thing about being certain of a teaching like this is that it should stop us from wasting our time with attempts at false progress (just as when St. Peter tried to stop Jesus from taking up his cross Mt 16:22 - laudable and understandable but still wrong and contrary to the evangelical mission) and can concentrate on reform that is consistent with what Jesus wants. Again, it is a matter of gratefully accepting revealed unalterable Truth and leaving behind the never-ending political procedures of false reform, so evident in the protestant churches. For a nice summary in more detail, I recommend the following: http://jimmyakin.com/library/womens-ordination-its-infallible

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