You may have been surprised to learn that women can be commissioned as acolytes (altar servers) and readers at mass. The announcement was made in Rome just over a week ago.
In this country we are used to seeing women carrying out these duties, and others, but there are many countries, including some in Europe, where women are not allowed on the sanctuary nor in these ministries.
Now Pope Francis has said they have the right to serve and read. Some may stubbornly resist the permissions and not allow “it to happen here”, but this can be seen for what it is – prejudice, not tradition.
“Nothing will ever happen here for the first time” is the joking reference to those who claim tradition/custom/the old ways/”we’ve always done it this way” should guide us. “The good is the enemy of the best” is another slogan (do slogans weary you?) but is willing to admit the old was good in its time but the new is better. Not always true. There are clear circumstances when the old ways, customs, the traditional, were always wrong – slavery, empire, racial religious and colour prejudice, women treated as inferiors and denied equality, education, opportunity, etc.
Pope Francis and those with him are slowly steering the barque of Peter into the present age and even looking to the future. The Church does not have a reverse gear. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them in the ages to come: not what he, Jesus, said and did, but to preach and live the love of God in ways that the people of each generation would be able to understand.
“Our God,” said Israel. “Our God,” said the Christian community. “Our God, not yours” said the Christians to the Jews, said the various Churches to one another, said and say Faiths against each other. “Our God” says the Catholic Church, wanting now to include the whole world, but our arrogant and excluding attitudes of the past are still barriers for many outside the Church.
If someone were to meet you who is reading this letter and ask about the teachings of the Church, the history of the Church, our Inquisitions and Crusades, insisting Catholic baptism was necessary for eternal life – would you be proud to defend the Church, its military and political alliances, its refusal of church unity and communion, its threatening damnation as a frightening part of its teaching?
If you were asked how could anyone accept as a spiritual leader the popes Damasus I, Alexander VI, Boniface VIII, Benedict IX, John XII – would you know what was being asked? “My church, right or wrong!”, “My country, right or wrong!” is tribal not faith. And that is what so many see – religious tribes who have hated rather than loved one another.
Faith, church, government, society should claim our loyalty only in so far as they speak and live the truth. Truth is the unity to bring us together – but we must speak, hear and live it. Dogma is easily dismissed, mere human words which can be answered by cleverer human words – or silenced by persecution and destruction.
Militant Tendency, Momentum, English Defence League, Trumpism, Nationalism, Isis, Fascism, Empire, etc. – so many small and great barriers to genuine love and community we are aware of. Are there barriers in your life? If you shout at them they won’t move. The people behind them must be willing to take them down. That requires persuasion. Would you like to win an argument and lose a friend? Unless we listen to one another we stay separate and separated.
Which is why (going back to the beginning) what Pope Francis has done in making altar serving and reading “official” positions in the Church is worth noting. They are two small barriers taken down – but they are a beginning. We all are aware of bias against women in all societies down the ages, including male-dominated religions. Pope Francis will continue to bring down barriers and some of his bishops are showing the way ahead of him. The Holy Spirit will guide us in the way we have always been guided: listen to God, listen to one another, listen to your heart.
God bless us,
(31st January 2021)