James Martin, S.J., infamous celebrity priest and editor-at-large of America magazine, lent his considerable PR weight on Monday to another attempt to rile up ire at the longstanding traditions of the Church to which he and his magazine swear faith. Taking a much-needed break from his incessant obfuscation on sexuality, Martin weighed in on a debate about laywomen preaching during the Mass.
Sharing a piece published in America on the subject, Martin commented, “It is stupefying to me that women cannot preach at Mass. The faithful during Mass, as well as the presiders, are missing out on the wisdom, experience and inspired reflections of half of its members. St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.”
It is no surprise that Fr. Martin is stupefied by the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is certainly a disappointment. He is supposed to be a teacher and a shepherd to the faithful. Instead, he substitutes the politics of the moment for the tradition and law of the Church. In so doing, he inevitably leads many of the faithful astray. Given the failure of Father Martin and other should-be leaders of the Church, the ignorance displayed by Jean Molesky-Poz, the author of the piece in question, is at least understandable, if not forgivable.
After relating the story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus following the resurrection, Molesky-Poz begins, “In our parish in Northern California, lay women began to preach the good news during the Sunday liturgy in 1996.” Let’s get one thing straight here: It’s the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, not just a liturgy. That may seem like a trivial semantic quibble, but it’s important. Describing it simply as a “liturgy” makes it seem like this is just a worship service that can be redesigned at will. Recognizing it as the sacrifice of the Mass forces us to confront the fact that this is something much more, something not easily tampered with.
Molesky-Poz justifies the practice of women preaching in Mass by paraphrasing part of a complementary norm to canon 766 of the Code of Canon Law. The canon does allow bishops to permit supplementary preaching by the laity when necessary or particularly advantageous. The law makes it abundantly clear, however, that this lay preaching cannot take the place of a homily, because the homily “is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon.”
Molesky-Poz ignores that distinction, repeatedly referring to the reflections offered by herself and her peers as “homilies.” Any attempt to justify her claims on canonical grounds is immediately undermined by this direct rejection of the letter of the law. Another detail of her language reveals where Molesky-Poz is coming from in her criticism of the Church: She glibly remarks that the reason women cannot be ordained is that they have been “deemed unworthy of holy orders.” This is a mischaracterization of Church teaching on the subject that could only come from someone who disagrees with that teaching and feels the need to publicly oppose it. When Molesky-Poz writes of women giving “homilies,” she’s not being careless with her words — she’s hinting at a change far more substantial than the one she’s able to demand outright.
Throughout the piece Molesky-Poz writes positively of women turning away from the Church in protest of their inability to preach at Mass. She quotes, among others, one woman who alleges, “This church is not a healthy place for my soul.” What she means, of course, is that the Church is not a healthy place for her ego. Any Catholic with half a brain and faith the size of a mustard seed should believe quite firmly that the Church is the only healthy place for her soul.
Catholics have to make a choice about how we approach the Mass. Is it the solemn observation instituted by Christ in which we as a Church constantly live the Passion and experience the real presence of our Lord? Or is it a do-it-yourself liturgy where we play out our fantasies and fulfill our wishes, where we make sure that everyone is included in any way they want, no matter how much attention is shifted away from Christ? One choice serves our egos, the other, our souls.
We can guess pretty well which side Mary Magdalene — who stood weeping at the foot of the cross; who first beheld the glory of the risen Christ; who knew as well as anyone (save His Mother and maybe the first pope) the man and God who gave Himself as the Holy Sacrifice — would fall on.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us indeed.