This year’s Mass of the Holy Spirit was my fourth as a Marquette student, and the first where I actually had a seat. It was a stellar seat—right in the throes of that annual beginning-of-the-school-year crowd—and on the aisle.
Chatter reigned until the choir sang. We stood, and I guess I hadn’t really grasped just how great a seat I had until the flaming bowl of fire that started the procession passed a mere six inches from my left shoulder. I laughed out loud at my surprise in that moment.
Delight continued as the priests filed down the same aisle. I saw the Rev. Tom, whom I interviewed once for a freshman reporting class; the Rev. Andy, who met with me once a week during Lent sophomore year; and the Rev. John, who worked with me as a junior to prepare my witness for a Marquette Experience retreat. The Rev. Pilarz brought up the rear with his happy swagger, and my eyes followed the procession up to the altar.
I saw 30-some people, all having committed themselves body and spirit to this family called “The Church,” slowly bowing in pairs to kiss the altar before taking seats behind it. Their reverence was tangible, and for a moment it struck me as unspeakably beautiful.
Just for a moment.
Because then it hit me that they were all men. The cold shoulder of institutionalized exclusion slammed me somewhere near my gut. I was shocked.
“What a sight!” were the first words from Pilarz in his introduction, beholding the behemoth student body. What a sight indeed, I thought, from my seat on the aisle as a young woman in the Church beholding the mass of men up front.
Where were the women? I had been to Mass thousands of times before; why was I so suddenly agitated?
I laughed again—softly this time, and mostly to myself. “Tradition” didn’t seem to cut it as an answer to “Why?” in that moment.
Thomas Merton, a Benedictine monk who lived at a monastery in Kentucky in the 1950s, laughed once too.
“Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable,” Merton wrote in his journal as he toured religious sites in Asia in 1968. “Then you decide that you are, nevertheless, religious.”
I laughed at religion at the Mass of the Holy Spirit. The lack of women in the sea of priests jarred me from my enchantment, and I saw it as a void. As things are today, any faithful, female lover of the Church will never stand and kiss the altar as these men were doing, simply because she possesses the wrong set of physiological traits.
My frustration that Sunday was definitely not directed toward these priests in particular. These are good men — many of whom I know, respect and have learned from. It is none of their individual faults that I, as a woman, cannot one day stand on the altar with them. Where, then, does this frustration come from? And why now?
As Merton’s quote suggests, whether or not we continue to be “religious” in the face of any personal beefs with the Church is each of our own decisions for the making.
There are moments in our lives that give us pause — instances that cause us to think, “Now, wait. Why do we do this again?”—and these moments cannot be ignored. It is in these moments that we get to decide whether we will turn away from or continue to embrace this uncanny organism we call “The Church.”