Judge Not, Zita Fletcher

“The Latin Mass becomes a toxic cult of tradition.” 

This striking headline encapsulates the fears of progressive Catholics surrounding the Latin Mass. It is crowded with buzzwords evocative of women’s subjugation. The shadowy accompanying photo shows a kneeling female with a Rosary and a mantilla. She has no face. 

But what hides inside Zita Ballenger Fletcher’s November 5th editorial for the National Catholic Reporter? Evidence of a Handmaid’s Tale writ Roman? Or personal prejudice writ large?

Fletcher’s condemnations of the Extraordinary Form are overarching. She claims to uncover structural sexism, clericalism, and injustices inherent in the EF. The priest speaks in an ancient language. He turns his back on the faithful. “The congregation plays no active part in worship. All people inside the church are expected to kneel on cue at various points. The priest is at the center of the spectacle.”

These are common objections, but are they objectively indicative of oppression? Fletcher provides only her opinion. The heart of her editorial suggests she’s not accepting any counter-arguments: “Anyone who may accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about … would be wrong. My opinion is based on facts and experiences.”

As one strong-willed woman to another, Zita Fletcher, I have a few opinions of my own. But rather than conflating these personal opinions with objective truth, what follows is entirely my own experience: 

I, like you, was educated as a journalist and author. I have poor tolerance for elitists and sexists. But the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite is the Mass that I feel most closely proclaims my dignity and strength as a woman.

I appreciate the liturgy being prayed in a language other than my own. Rather than serving as a stumbling block, it expands my intellectual horizons. Though I do not speak or read Latin (or German, for that matter) I am fully capable of knowing what’s happening around me in either environment. Instead of sitting back to listen passively, I am actively following along with my senses and my prayers. 

I find ad orientem prayer to be egalitarian and liberating. No longer is an individual male literally talking down to me. Instead, we are facing God together, and I am encouraged to pray the Mass along with him. I have also found the Latin Mass to be more forgiving of individuality of posture–some faithful kneel the entire time, the sick and elderly sit, parents pace with infants in the back, children scamper back and forth. The movement feels organic, not scripted or forced. This is also active participation–the natural needs and lives of families ebbing and flowing under the song of the Mass.

Head covering, too, is a personally freeing experience. I feel like I am putting on the armor of God, even vesting myself in a way that the lay male is not allowed to access. But at the Extraordinary Form Masses I have attended, I have never found skirts or veils to be a prerequisite for entry. I have seen plenty of manes and pant legs, but no pitchforks or torch mobs. 

That does not mean the mobs are not present. You say you have had unpleasant experiences at Latin Mass, and I believe you. But these dark places in the Church exist in every form. All the structures of the Church hide misogynists, because all the structures of the world hide misogynists. They come in every style and sex. Some of them leer and say things like “women look the most beautiful in church when they are veiled.” Some of them sneer and say things like, “get that napkin off your head.” Some men won’t date a woman they cannot dominate by forcing her to veil. Some men won’t date a woman they cannot manipulate by forcing her to abandon  “oppressive” religious beliefs. Some sniff at earrings and leggings. Some at long fusty skirts. Toxicity, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry are everywhere. Sometimes they are shrouded in incense, but sometimes they stand stark and proud, right in the bright spotlights of modernity. 

You have called attention to Pope Francis’ wise words on hypocrisy. “He described hypocrisy as ‘appearing one way, but acting in another.” He said that a hypocritcal attitude “always kills.’”

In turn, I would like to apply that definition to your editorial, specifically to one of the stories you use to illustrate your point. 

A professor takes his wife to Church. She “was a mere ghost of a woman. She was covered from head to foot … Even her entire neck and her hands were covered. She kept her head bowed and always walked behind her husband. She carried a rosary and looked physically weak — almost ill. The professor, by contrast, looked swaggering and hearty. He strutted around and chatted with others in church as she followed him like a pale shadow. Seeing this, I believed I had witnessed a very dark side to the professor’s spirituality. His religion was a mechanism of abusive control.”

You appear to be showing concern for the professor’s wife. But you have fallen ill with the same sexist infection as the people whose behavior you claim to loathe. You have judged a woman for her appearance, her dress, even her husband’s mannerisms. You claim oppression for her. But in my mind’s eye, I imagine illness. A physically weak woman might be covering her body to keep warm. Falling behind her husband because she cannot move quickly. Bending because she can’t stand straight. Gripping her rosary because it helps her hang on for dear life. Her husband might be heartily chatting in relief after an exhausting week of caregiving. I can imagine this because it was my own personal experience. As a cancer patient, I closely resembled this woman — right down to the long clothes, downcast countenance and shuffling gait. My experience is no less likely than a scandalous tale of abusive control, but the truth is, neither of us will ever know. That is, unless we take the time to encounter the woman as an individual rather than hoisting her up as a banner for our own cause. 

Attendees of the Extraordinary Form, especially our fellow women, deserve the same individualized compassion and dignity that you exhort them to provide for others.They are not a monolithic enemy to be rooted and shut out, nor a caricature to be pitied, nor a symbol to be objectified. 

“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” said Jesus. He was not only speaking to traditionalists.

Here I Am, Send Me

I have had a bad week of it. My quarterly CT scans for cancer recurrence are approaching again, and every time they bring fear and anger with them. I struggle to prepare myself for three futures simultaneously:

“Congratulations, still no cancer! See you in three months!”

“Hmm, there is something uncertain going on here. We need to run more tests.”

“I’m so sorry. You have relapsed.”

I do not get to choose which one of these three divergent roads I travel by. And that has made me furious, and weepy, and impatient, and persnickety, and even sick to my stomach with terror. I sleep poorly. I have nightmares. I eat my feelings. I throw pans in my kitchen, and talk a mile a minute, and cry at odd times. These are the days I’m most likely to tiptoe up to the question I have told myself I will not ask: “Why?” These are the days that my temper turns inward and I berate myself for lacking the virtues necessary to arm myself against such a challenge: Faith, hope, patience, prudence, gratitude, fortitude, humility, bravery, perseverance, satisfaction with my state in life … Basically I am woefully equipped for battle. And it shows.

Nevertheless, I put on my meager armor and turn to Confession and the Holy Mass to be my strength. Because no matter how weak and unprepared I am, He always come through. This weekend was no exception.

The Old Testament reading from last night’s Vigil Mass was taken from the book of Isaiah, chapter six. In it, the prophet receives a vision of the Lord and his angels in all their glory. He is overwhelmed and frightened by what is set before him. He cries out, “Woe is me! I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Oh, Isaiah, how I feel you, buddy.

The prophet knows he can’t handle what he is going through alone. He is woefully equipped, and he knows it, so he cries out honestly —“Woe is me! I am doomed!”

How does Heaven respond to this imperfect man, who is unclean and unsure of anything except his own sin?

“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’”

When we come to him weak and sinful and fearful, but honest, and conscious of our own inadequacy, he will always come through to provide us with the armor we need for battle. When we cry that we are doomed in the sacrament of Confession, he will remove our wickedness. Then he will send his angels to touch our lips with the white-hot brilliance and almost painful holiness of the Eucharist.

These gifts are graces in and of themselves. But they are also means to another end:

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’

‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me.”

Send me, O Lord, down the path of good health, joyfully proclaiming your mercies for another three months.

Send me into the waiting room of uncertainty, resting in hope and witnessing in fear.

Send me to share your love from the operating room, the radiation machine, the chemo chair.

Send me wherever I can serve you best, wherever your people need you most.

Here I am, Lord.

I am weak, but I am ready.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wobbly Pillar of Potential

About a week ago, I went to a local pro-life rally. Clergy from several denominations gathered at our county courthouse, along with choir members from our local Catholic school, Knights of Columbus and a good cross-section of community members. Even one of our county commissioners spoke. It was heartening, respectful and peaceful. One part of the ceremony featured speakers who read out the names and birthdates of hypothetical children, some killed before they were born and some who were born and went on to have families, careers and other achievements. As each name was read, a student laid a rose in front of the podium. Together, we decried the loss of so many children, brothers, sisters, doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers, even citizens and taxpayers. 

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Some days later, I was listening to Catholic radio as the hosts again described the devastating loss of human potential to abortion. Who knows what these baby lives could have grown up to be? 

In the same week, New York passed a new abortion-rights law, stating: “A health care practitioner licensed, certified, or authorized under title eight of the education law, acting within his or her lawful scope of practice, may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

A few days after that, a friend mourned the decision with a beautiful picture of a lit manger, stating simply, “one unplanned pregnancy saved us all.”

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“The patient’s life or health:” So much is left unsaid in those five words. So much pain and disappointment and anguish. So many mothers and fathers hoping for the same thing pro-lifers long for: a living and beautiful newborn, soft and snuggly, sleeping in peace and full of potential. A healer, a mother, an artist, a warrior. A bouncing baby boy or giggly girl. A hero that saves us all. 

Then, reality intrudes, rudely shoving away our dreams. Fear flies in and nests in the space we have prepared for the stork. 

“The delayed results are in. Part of your daughter’s brain is missing. She will be blind, deaf, and paralyzed. Her head will swell to an abnormal size due to the fluid pressure inside her skull. Death will occur likely within the year.” 

“Listen. Your child has Down syndrome and congenital heart disease. We suggest reading up on the hardships your family will go through as you support him into his adulthood.” 

“Ma’am, the tumor is malignant, and your prognosis is bad. You need to start chemo right away. Baby is 29 weeks old. We could deliver her, but we also know you don’t have the family to care for her while you’re undergoing treatment. And your future is uncertain.” 

“This kid is already addicted. Mom just HAD to go and relapse. It would be better for everyone if she could get clean without this and try again. She’s only seventeen.” 

Life and health. 

Nobody wants to abort a pink and promising future. But these babies? We imagine them grim and gray and white. Lonely in a clear box in the NICU. Drooling or writhing in pain. Abandoned or incarcerated or in tiny graves in the “little angels” section of a cemetery. They are children and never parents. Patients and never doctors. “Takers” and never taxpayers. 

We don’t mention them at the pro-life rally or on the Catholic radio show because we want to give people hope and drive away fear and remind people of miracles. What kind of an anti-abortion meme shows an infant gasping amid a tangle of wires? “One unplanned pregnancy could end just like this.”

But this is the truth and the fear that drives late-term abortion. It will never be dispelled with rallies and platitudes or even earthly hope. As Catholic pro-lifers, we must do better than “potential” and “promise” and “success” and “miracle.” To combat the fear and evil of New York’s Reproductive Health Act, we can only make progress by pointing to the deeper, eternal truth that clings to each of us like a garment: 

My life, my thirty-one years, my motherhood, my marriage, my bachelor’s degree, my achievements, my everything—they are worth not one whit more than that pallid baby doomed to die. I am neither better nor worse than the young man with Down syndrome. I am of equal dignity to the mother on crack and no more valuable to the Lord than her child, the one who will “drain the system” without “breaking the cycle.” I am no more worthy of life than the mousy “blob of cells” miscarried at ten weeks gestation. Me, my child, the future saint, the serial killer, the President, the Honduran drug dealer, the zygote, the healthy six-month-old, the snotty teenager, the terminal cancer patient, the elderly woman who screams and cries and wets the bed alone in the nursing home— our human dignity and value in the eyes of our God is exactly equal. We all came out of nothing, and we will all return to eternity. Our faith, thoughts, words, actions —they make us worthy of this or that, fame or failure, heaven or hell—but they do not affect our worth. 

We know this, Catholics. We should know this better than anyone and we should proclaim it loudly instead of leaning on the wobbly pillar of potential. In fact, this equal dignity is one of the most amazing promises of Christ for his faithful: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Galatians 3:26-28

The Scriptures bear us this same lesson over and over again. The late workers receive the same wages as the early. The Prodigal gets the fatted calf. The prostitute is allowed to anoint the King. Martha works, but Magdalene is favored. The sick and the young receive His attention while others are made to wait. The last will be  first. And far from being scary or unfair or even hard to understand, it gets simpler and easier the longer you think about it. 

Even without the lens of faith, it is easy to see that we are all human beings. Even without religion, it is easy to see that the history of humanity is that of the strong subjugating the weak, the worthy eliminating the unworthy, the fearful building fortresses to keep out heartache and pain. Even when these actions are undertaken with the best of intentions, it is easy to see the unraveling, devastating evil that rides in their wake. It is easy to see that pulling even one thread away from the tapestry of human dignity mars the whole picture. If we treat even one wisp of humanity as disposable, we forfeit our ability to preach liberty, dignity, and equality for all the others. 

Christ’s truth, which is everyone’s truth, is the only way out of it all. 

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.”  1 John 

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Matthew 10

“But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’
nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker
are all the more necessary,
and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable
we surround with greater honor … If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” 1 Corinthians

Christ’s message is more liberating, more egalitarian and more radical than any social movement or uprising or revolution. It dignifies us with protections no law can provide or revoke. He loves us individually and fully without expecting anything of us. He asks, pleads, only love in return. He values us for WHO WE ARE, not WHAT WE CAN DO. We are the children of I AM, not I CAN. The language of human potential pales in comparison. 

If we continue to ask only who the unborn could grow up to be in our fight against abortion, we are traveling on a crash course with those who would reply: “the poor, the sad, the sick, the criminal, the unworthy, the helpless, the suffering, the selfish, the lazy, the lonely, the wretched. The same people you didn’t talk about.” 

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As the New York legislation becomes law, it is time for Christians to re-examine our language and our hearts, then go out joyfully to proclaim the greater truths. 

 

** I am not the owner of any of these photos, and with the exception of the free stock photo used as the featured photo, all of them were found on Facebook being used as memes.

The Year I Lived

In counseling with my priest, I let out all my anxieties and fears surrounding my cancer treatment and my future. I don’t even remember what I said. I just remember crying and fistfuls of tissues and staring around the room at the shelves full of books. I’m sure it involved my fear of dying, my fear of going away and leaving my family forever, my fear that there was nothing left for me. 

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To the Mother Not Ready for Christmas

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Mary is roughly 39 weeks pregnant.

Her body is heavy and sluggish and so, so tired. She is hungry, then queasy. Her abdomen is sore. Her gait is wide and shuffling. Her feet are swollen. She is ready for this baby to be out! But there is just a bit more waiting to be done and a lot of work. There is a journey on a donkey, a fruitless search for shelter, the making suitable of a stable, the labor, the birth.

The wide, wide world has been celebrating a frenzied pre-Christmas since late November. But even a jolly secular festival cannot erase the uncomfortably pregnant quality of Advent. The nesting and preparation borne of love leaves us sluggish and spent. We are weighed down and swollen with obligations and devotions and tasks. We are sick with the customary winter colds and flus, with worries about bills, with heartaches over families. “I’m so ready!” we pray. But there is still a little more waiting and a lot more work to be done. Journeys to be taken, homes to be made suitable, labor to undergo.

This pregnancy, this work and waiting, is a feature, not a bug. Advent is not meant to be holly-jolly. It is meant to push us to our limits and tire us, to expand our trust and patience, to swell our souls and minds and bodies until we cry out to God that we are SO ready for this Baby! It is ok to be impatient. It is okay to be uncomfortable. It is ok to be tired. You have not failed if you are still sick, still laboring, still anxious, still praying, still searching. It is not time yet.

Christmas is coming, and at midnight on that night He will pass into the world, finally, as ‘light through a glass.’ It is then, and only then, that the true relief and the true rest and the true celebration can begin.

There is still time to prepare our hearts. Jesus has not come, not just yet.