Transformed Lives

In the past few weeks I have been following the discussions between the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference on Eucharistic hospitality towards interchurch couples. This question concerns me quite directly as I am Anglican and my husband is Roman Catholic.  Bishops, cardinals and theologians spend endless hours, months and years debating whether or not to open the table of the Lord to Christians not in communion with Rome, but whose baptism is nevertheless recognized by Rome. Jim and I are united in two sacraments: baptism and marriage. But the Church separates us at the table of the Eucharist. This cuts deep, undermining the integrity and ecclesial value of our marital union.

I have profound respect and affection for the Eucharist. Participating in the Eucharist, consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus has been pivotal in my own faith formation. The centrality of the Eucharist has continued in my new Anglican discipleship. But from this Anglican perch, I am becoming more and more puzzled and saddened at the sacramental antics in Rome. It seems that for Rome institutional communion trumps unity in faith and in Christ Jesus. It also seems that the table of the Lord is being treated as the table of the Church. Finally, it seems that a medieval philosophical category (transubstantiation) trumps transformed hearts and minds.

I don’t in any way intend to be disrespectful, but my deep love for the Eucharist and for the church prompt some serious questions. Is Jesus more fully present in a Catholic Mass than in an Anglican Eucharist or Lutheran service of Holy Communion? When I moved into the Anglican tradition, one faithful Catholic lamented that I was leaving the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” This betrays not only a lack of ecumenical knowledge, particularly about the Eucharist, but also a limited understanding of Christ’s Real Presence. I moved so as to grow more fully into Christ’s Real Presence in the world and in the church by living out the priestly vocation God had placed in my heart (despite my objections, I may add).

If the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is truly superior to anyone else’s celebration of the same, then why does this not show in a multitude of changed lives on fire with Jesus? Does the transubstantiation of hearts not take priority over the philosophical minutiae over how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus? *

I know the theological and ecclesial arguments well: it has to do with validity of Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession and visible ecclesial unity. But each of these terms suffers from a constraining definition, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out so succinctly in his seminal work Models of the Church.

In a 1993 letter to a Lutheran bishop, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a Eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit.

Holy Communion is meant to change us, Pope Francis said recently. Echoing St. Augustine he stated: Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! In fact, we invoke the Holy Spirit upon us God’s people to effect this transubstantiation in our own lives as part of every Eucharistic Prayer. Instead, a Catholic Mass can be as mediocre as any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in another church. Worse even, studies have been done on why Catholics arrive in church late and leave early.

I have been at many a Eucharistic celebration in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and now preside at the same in both. Never have I seen people leave before the end of the service. Moreover, every hymn gets its full verses sung as an expression of praise rather than only a couple of verses serving as “traveling music” for the priest. There is a gusto and an engagement in these services that I wish more of in a Catholic Eucharist. If the Catholic Eucharistic sacrament is somehow more whole, more authentic, then why does this not find expression in all who receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus in radical lives of service to others, simplicity of lifestyle, outreach to the poor, and advocates of justice for the oppressed?

It would behoove us all to sprinkle our private and institutional judgments of one another with a good dose of humility and self-examination, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. The Gospels are embarrassingly candid about how little the disciples actually understood Jesus during his ministry. None of us, not even a Pope, should place higher demands on one another than Jesus ever did for those who broke bread with him.

Clearly, none of us fully grasp the meaning of Christ`s sacrifice any more than the first disciples did. And none of us can add anything to our worthiness in receiving Christ’s sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist than what Christ has accomplished in his suffering and death for us. In fact, the seventh century mystic St. Isaac of Nineveh is quoted as saying, ‘Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So then — do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.

What would happen if the validity of the Eucharist was determined by “discerning the Body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29) and measured by transformed lives instead of institutional membership?

  • I highly recommend Gabriel Daly’s paper Eucharist: Doing the Truth with Christian Faith
  • Excerpts from a summary of the RC position on Eucharistic sharing:
    The norms published by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1999 stated, “Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.”
    At the same time, the 2008 guidelines of the Diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said, “the Church does not require other Christians to have more knowledge of the sacrament or more faith and holiness than the Catholic faithful have. This principle is particularly pertinent in applying terms of the law that speak of the other Christian ‘manifesting Catholic faith’ in the sacrament, having the ‘proper disposition’ and being in ‘spiritual need.’”
  • The final reporting on the meeting between the German bishops and the Vatican can be found here. Interesting to note that Pope Francis did not give the bishops a final answer, but sent them home with — work it out, boys.
  • Update May 12, 2018. Cardinal Willem Eijk from the Netherlands (my country of origin) has unleashed a sharp critique on Pope Francis about the matter. Dutch friends have been sending me responses appearing in Dutch publications, fiercely criticizing the cardinal, summed up in: dear Cardinal, close the book and open your heart.
  • Update May 28, 2018: This interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading and pondering for both Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike. Again it raises the question: what is non-negotiable in ecclesial unity and what is acceptable diversity? Rome approved the Eucharistic Prayer of the Armenian Church which does not have an Institution narrative or consecration of elements. What will it take for Rome to accept the Eucharistic prayer of other Christian traditions?
  • Update June 4, 2018: Pope Francis seems to claw back his command to the German Bishops Conference’s to “work it out.”
  • Update June 12, 2018: RC German Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg responds to Pope Francis’ most recent decree.
  • An interesting article sharing the story of a Lutheran-Catholic couple in Germany.

And the beat goes on …

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I must speak again

Fair is fair. When my Church fumbles and betrays the Gospel of Jesus, I weep and speak. When my Church surprises by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in delightful new ways, I rejoice and must also speak. Yes, something surprising and delightful occurred on March 8 at the occasion of International Women’s Day. Last month’s conference on women (see “I must speak” earlier) was not only secretive (or so it appeared) but also painfully contributed to women’s sense of ecclesial invisibility and voiceless place in the household of God. The fact that the February conference at the Vatican was closed to the public, was attended mostly by ordained celibate men yet was entitled Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference, merely added insult to injury — or again, so it seemed. It certainly fed suspicions for subsequent Vatican conversations about women.

But you just never know what’s cooking behind those ancient walls. The March 8 event entitled Voices of Faith presented the opposite: from the heart of the Vatican, online live-streaming technology enabled the world to see and hear powerful women sharing deeply moving accounts of their work with some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people on the planet (the video is now posted here). Moreover, conference organizers took some bold new steps, making me wonder if I was dreaming :). But the news reports in subsequent days told me no, I wasn’t dreaming. I cannot describe events more succinctly than Joshua McElwee and Sr. Christine Schenk did over at National Catholic Reporter, and Gerard O’Connell in America Magazine.

There were several “firsts” in the Vatican on March 8: one of these was that a woman, Kerry Robinson (photo above), shared the homily with Archbishop Anil Couto. British theologian Tina Beattie, herself one of the four-member panel which discussed women’s leadership roles in the church as part of the event, shared these words: (Kerry) spoke with eloquence and passion about Jesus turning over the tables of the moneylenders. He shows us, she said, that anger too can be holy, it can be of God. We are called to reverence those things that are precious to God — and what is more precious than human beings? — and to feel holy anger when human dignity is violated and people are exploited. Several people said it was one of the best homilies they had ever heard. The first part was a rich affirmation of women’s gifts and struggles by Archbishop Anil Couto, and again its content was unprecedented in its insight and inclusivity. The full text of Kerry’s homily can be found here.

To outsiders it must look ridiculous and even delusional to place so much hope and dreams on an itsy bitsy step like the Voices of Faith event. The world outside the Vatican moves at lightning speed with its social changes and technological advances, while inside the Vatican time and change is still measured and lived in centuries. So many times when I hear of others leaving the Church because it becomes too painful to stay, I too wonder if it will ever be my turn to pack the ecclesial bags. But something quite the opposite keeps happening: every time I consciously ground my life in Christ’s saving grace, new energy is released and surprising, life-giving ministry opportunities present themselves, making my spirit soar once again. Being a Catholic woman, exercising ministry in a non-ordained capacity, continues to be an intense, stirring dance between liberation and confinement.

Jesus1This Catholic Church is my spiritual home, despite all its shortcomings and violations of the very Gospel message it keeps proclaiming. This Church is the keeper of a “dangerous” memory — the memory of God’s great Restorer and Equalizer Jesus of Nazareth who came to announce God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy. This Jesus, God in the flesh, who came to bring life to the full for all God’s people, came to us in a male body, yes. But the human qualities and characteristics God placed in him bear an uncanny resemblance to what recent Popes, Francis included, have been calling the “feminine genius” — generous and gentle, compassionate and passionate, merciful and meek, healing and serving, patient and peace-bringing, reconciling and uniting.

The Christian tradition, and the Catholic tradition within that, is so much more than what the world perceives it to be. The memory of Jesus as liberator, rejecting all forms of hierarchy and domination, continues to stir and challenge, even in the bosom of a highly patriarchal and institutional church that bears his name. This “dangerous” memory will not cease to disturb until all, both in and outside the Church, share equal respect, opportunities and freedom to grow into God’s image and likeness, our birthright: The glory of God is a human being fully alive (St. Irenaeus).

Every time the Church acts in ways that activate this “dangerous” memory of Jesus something new is born in the world. Scripture is clear, Jesus is clear: women occupy an equal place with men in God’s economy. Jesus’ life-death-resurrection redeemed us from sin and death, and restored the original unity between male and female, a unity lost through the Fall. While men have enjoyed leadership in the Church for most of history, the “dangerous” memory of women’s witness is being retrieved and reclaimed by women everywhere today. For a succinct overview of women’s role in early Christian history, visit The Junia Project website.

ElizabethMaryWomen were the first evangelizers (Mary & Elizabeth), women were the first to learn Jesus’ true identity as Messiah (woman at the well, Mary and Martha), women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, women were the only faithful disciples to remain with Jesus at the cross (okay, along with John), women lead the first Christian communities in their homes.

Women, like Christ, bleed without dying; women, like Christ in the Eucharist, transform ordinary food and drink into new life through the biological process of pregnancy and childbirth. Women, like Christ, nurture life at great sacrifice. Women, like Christ, welcome home the wayward, bind up the wounded, advocate for the voiceless, heal the broken-hearted, bring liberty to captives. Whoever decided women could not act in persona Christi, it certainly wasn’t Jesus the Christ.

As far as I know, nowhere in the New Testament are the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus referred to as priests. I don’t think Jesus ordained anyone at the last supper; ordination as we know it today came much later in Christian history.  I also see the last supper as a culmination of all the times he ate with sinners, women and tax collectors; “Do this in memory of me” was a command of our Lord given to remember him in the breaking of the bread with the entire Christian community.

As Jesus embodied so eloquently, qualities and virtues are not gender-bound. Gifts and charisms are not gender-bound: all gifts are distributed to serve the needs of the community. Subsequently, God calls according to gifts and charisms, not according to gender. As Kate Wallace expresses so well as she begins her reflection Life as a Woman in the Church:

I grew up learning about youFeminism1
I saw you in the love shared
by everyone around me
I heard about you in the sermons
and sang about you in the songs
I read about you and thought about you

And so I came to you, and you met me
You loved and cared for me
You grew me and taught me
You fashioned me and called me

And I took what you had given me
and went back to the place
I had first heard about you
I was filled with anticipation –
what would they have me do?
You had given me so many gifts …

Pope leads encounter with young people outside basilica in AssisiSadly, too many gifts of women have gone unused and untapped, undeveloped and unblessed. We are all the poorer for it. While the Voices of Faith event was going on inside the heart of the Vatican, Pope Francis was visiting a parish somewhere in Rome, a parish marked by poverty, unemployment and drugs. But that same morning, at his weekly Angelus, he had delivered his message for International Women’s Day: “A greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalized is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts.”

Thank you, Holy Father, for your kind words. It is regrettable that you were not present at this unique Voices of Faith event right in your own house. Your visit to the troubled parish was certainly equally important.  Next year, though, pleasePopeFrancisWomen1 clear your calendar and make an effort to listen to the very women whose gifts you praised so eloquently on International Women’s Day. For a church where women are marginalized is a barren church.

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I must speak (updated)

(While I have not changed this post, don’t miss some important updates at the bottom — Feb. 22)

So yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a very committed Catholic girl. My faith experience has grown a deep relationship with God in, with and through the person of Jesus. The sacramental life of the church has been a life-giving and love-giving source of spiritual water for my thirsting spirit. The deeper I grow in my Catholic faith, the bigger my heart grows towards all people of good will — Christian and otherwise.

Yes, my love for the Catholic faith and my thirst for learning and insight lead me to study the Holy things of God with fellow Christians of many other denominations, enriching me in unparalleled ways, resulting in my Masters in Theological Studies. It was then that I awoke to the realization that, while women’s faith witness is revered in my Catholic church, women’s voices are not considered in decision-making or having anything worthwhile to say in the public worship of the faith community. I readily admit that this has created much tension in my life and ministry. Yet at the same time it has also provided opportunities for challenging spiritual growth which may not have occurred otherwise. To my surprise, God has also blessed me with creative and life-giving ministry opportunities in both Catholic and ecumenical circles. O happy fault indeed …

So far so good, for the most part. Until now. I rejoiced this past December upon learning that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Cultures announced a conference on Women’s cultures: equality and difference from February 4–7, 2015. I rejoiced when on December 28 this same Council invited women from around the world to submit short videos to share their experience of being a woman. The video posted on the Council’s website inviting submissions was rather strange to my way of thinking though  — a sexy blonde woman waving her curls back and forth with flair, looking more like a commercial for hairspray, quite unlike most women in the world. But what the heck, I thought, let it go. Then the timing and deadline for these submissions were a bit odd too: during the holiday season, deadline January 4. A minuscule window of communication easily missed by most of the world. Nevertheless I remained my natural optimistic self, always give the benefit of the doubt esp. to the men in Rome.

Until this week when my optimistic and trusting nature got a serious beating from the most shocking source. I abhor the image above; I almost threw up the first time I saw it this past Monday. It still hits me deep in the gut every time it assaults my eyes and makes a bee-line for my good-natured spirit. It speaks to me of the objectification of women’s bodies, of men’s brutal sexual exploitation of women, an exploitation that creates bondage and feeds lust, rape, prostitution.

So what then is it doing here, you might ask? Because I need readers of this blog to know … and this is the most embarrassing and painful part to share … that this is the image “gracing” the pages of the PONTIFICAL Council for Cultures at the moment. The image is accompanying a working document for this above mentioned conference at the VATICAN on Women’s Cultures taking place this week, a conference without the active participation of women (participating are 13 Cardinals, 5 Archbishops, 8 Bishops, 1 Monsignor, 1 priest, 3 laymen and at last, 7 women “observers” — seen but not heard?). Someone please tell me that a hacker placed the image on the Council’s website instead of chosen by the dear Council Cardinals. Alas, media reports this week have laid that hope to rest.

I am no flaming feminist, not by a long shot. I am a pro-life, natural family planning advocating, anti-euthanasia, pro-marriage, environmentally-conscious Catholic mother, spouse and grandmother, trying by fits and starts to live a faithful life. This week’s events at the Vatican, though, are pushing me too far. I don’t even want to go into the grossly inadequate content of the working document or the composition of the conference participants itself. Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’mNakedWomanNo grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. But the image refuses to alter its message; it speaks a million painful words. As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, in profound sorrow for its refusal to accept Him, I cannot help but weep similar silent tears of grief, loss, sadness, embarrassment, shock and ecclesial alienation …

For more media coverage and commentaries on this subject, visit the following websites:

Vatican Effort Stirs Controversy

Spare Empty Words

Vatican Conference Funny

Update: I stand corrected — there are women addressing the conference currently underway in Rome. It would be so interesting to know the content of their presentations. See the conference schedule here.

Update on February 10, 2015: 
I had sent an email to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Cultures, sharing my dismay at the controversial image used. This morning I, along with others who had sent similar concerns, received the following email in reply from Cardinal Ravasi: “I have received your objection to the use of “Venus Restored” by the artist Man Ray on the Pontifical Council for Culture’s website to illustrate the working document of the Plenary Assembly on“Women’s Cultures: equality and difference”. While registering your complaint, we have chosen not to remove the image, as we believe it speaks clearly for one of the central points of our document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless). Gianfranco Ravasi” 

Towards the end of my original reflection above I wrote: Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’m grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. I’d say this is a prime example of the importance of checking assumptions and interpretations as close to the source as possible! This can be a lesson we can all take to heart every time we are tempted to judge another’s words or actions harshly.  However … as my own 28-year old daughter pointed out, the image remains objectionable as there is nothing that indicates why the woman is naked, bound, headless and limbless… And while these words might make Cardinal Ravasi look like a knight in shining armour, there is no acknowledgement of the “binding” of female voices in the church; after all, the voting members of the  Pontifical Council on Culture are all male and celibate … To be continued … 🙂

Update February 22, 2015
In many ways, we cannot ever know the real meaning of things. But we have to always make every effort to try to search the fullest meaning possible. So the Vatican had a conference on women without a lot of transparency and with some PR blunders, admitted by Cardinal Ravasi himself at a February 2 press conference. The PR blunders and the information vacuum quickly filled social media with a host of speculations and interpretations, mostly critical and negative, some no doubt justified but many others not. The extent of judging Vatican activities with either suspicion or hope depends not only on the Vatican’s actions, or lack thereof, but also on the fundamental trust or distrust on ecclesial affairs in the person making the judgment. I confess that I can vacillate between hope and joy on one hand, confusion and distrust on the other about activities, announcements and events in Rome, especially those pertaining to women’s role in the church.

Today I am happy to have found the first report from someone who not only attended the infamous conference convened by the Pontifical Council for Cultures, but who was also a presenter: Ulla Gudmundson. You can read her brief account here (make sure to bookmark this site as there will be more thoughtful reflections posted there leading up to the 2015 Synod on the Family). Gudmundson’s words help me swing from despair to cautious hope — are we making some headway, inch by inch? I know it’s Lent but I’m praying: Come, Holy Spirit, come …

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