By Tina Beattie in THE TABLET, 4 June 2020

A few weeks before lockdown, I was asked to contribute a short piece to the Christian magazine Reform, offering a Catholic perspective on the topic, “This is my body. Really?” The editor Steve Tomkins approached me recently, asking if I wanted to tweak my closing paragraph before it went to press in the light of how things had changed. I asked him to withdraw the piece, because I have no idea what I would say now.

Here is how I had ended that piece: “… the real presence of Christ in the Mass requires my real presence. In these days of televised worship and the individualism of a spirituality which resists the communal dimensions of worship, there is a deep desire in me to go to where others gather, and to be really present in that place where the eternal mystery of Christ becomes really present in the time and place of the Eucharist. Here, matter is divinised by grace, eternity ruptures chronology, and the body of Christ gathers up and redeems all Creation – even me!”

I read those words now – written with such confidence three months ago – and I realise that this crisis has brought me nearer to the edge of the Catholic Church than at any time since my conversion in 1986. It’s been a rocky ride, but for the first time I feel like an outsider. I can never regret becoming a Catholic – belonging within this vast tradition has changed my way of being in the world, it has given me an inspiring and eclectic group of cherished friends and it has made me feel part of a worldwide community – but I wonder if I’m about to become one of those people sociologist Grace Davie describes as “believing without belonging”. I know I’m not alone in feeling this sense of dislocation and alienation.

I’ve been particularly interested in the conversations that have been taking place among Catholic women’s groups during the crisis. Its impact on women and its significance for the role women might play in the Church that emerges from the pandemic is a neglected issue – for example, women were not even mentioned in the recent pieces in The Tablet on what post-Covid Catholicism night look like. Yet this has been a time of intense dialogue and activity among Catholic women, with many challenging questions and creative insights emerging.

In lockdown with my non-Catholic husband, I haven’t personally created an alternative liturgical life in our home, and prayer has been a bit of a solitary struggle. However, I’ve been fascinated to observe the emergence of a truly domestic church, with the dissolution of the boundary between the formal liturgical life of the Church mediated by an exclusively male priesthood, and a more informal domestic world of homespun liturgies and improvised rituals, often presided over by women. As Italian sociologist Paola Lazzarini writes: “If the Easter proclamation had not risen from our homes, silence would have covered the Alleluia.”

The home has become a sacred place in which women have assumed priestly duties, transforming family meals into eucharistic celebrations or finding their own ways of actively participating in or creating livestreamed liturgies. Some women like the informality of watching liturgies from the comfort of their homes, maybe while enjoying a cup of coffee. Some join in the priest’s Communion with homemade bread and a glass of wine; others use the opportunity to go virtual globetrotting and experience many difference forms of Mass.

But there is a recurring theme. The livestreamed official liturgies expose more starkly than ever how male-centred the Eucharist is. Women have been rendered almost entirely redundant by the shift to virtual Masses. Several women say they simply switch off the livestream after the liturgy of the Word because, in the words of one, “it seems to be just a man doing something of which I have no part”. Another described “the absolute lack of female voices” as “uncanny”, adding: “I usually don’t realise it as much when I’m in a church full of women (even if they’re silent).” Another who made a similar comment said: “I am witnessing how tone deaf the local hierarchy can be to the silencing of women in the Church.”

Many women have said what a difference it has made when the priest has been sensitive enough to incorporate women’s voices into the liturgy – through recorded readings, hymns and prayers, for example. The loss of participation in choirs during Mass has been a deep source of grief for many women, particularly since this aspect of worship is likely to be curtailed for a long time to come, given that singing together is a potent way to spread the virus.

I have only watched two livestreamed Masses. The first was a papal Mass in the Casa Santa Maria, attended by a small and socially-distancing group of men in suits and nuns in black habits. I found Pope Francis inspiring, but I felt alienated and even angered by that non-representative congregation. A notable contrast was when at Easter Pope Francis stood alone in the rain-drenched emptiness of Saint Peter’s Square.

One woman eloquently summed up what that moment meant: “I experienced a beautiful moment of faith when I watched Pope Francis leading the Easter Liturgy and especially his moment in St Peter’s Square – empty, dark, rainy. That was probably the moment I felt completely at one with him, with the suffering Church, a suffering world – united in Christ … an important moment in my faith journey. … I am still grappling with the fullness of its personal meaning – for me.”

My second livestreamed experience was watching a priest saying Mass before a fixed camera in a cathedral. I thought how lonely he looked – a solitary figure in an empty church saying Mass into an abyss. I felt an immense sadness – in these days of declining vocations priesthood is surely lonely enough, without the added burden of social isolation. But when the time came for the priest to take Communion, I felt utterly detached and excluded. What on earth was the point of watching this solitary ritual. For whose benefit was it being done?

Sara Parvis wrote movingly in The Tablet recently about her sense of mourning over the closure of churches and her hunger for the Eucharist. She too described the impact of women’s exclusion. Despite her appreciation for the “shining witness” of her local Dominican friars, she experienced the Triduum as “some kind of clericalist fantasy: no lay people, and above all no women”.

Sara Parvis’ mourning and hunger are shared by many, but many also express deep anxiety over zealous campaigns demanding that churches be reopened and for public worship to be recommenced while many scientists still advise that is not really safe to do so. Some point out that, when numbers are restricted, only the most persistent tend to gain entry, while vulnerable and elderly people are less likely to risk participation. One woman observed that “there seems to be a division happening – ultra-conservatives physically more visible than the rest of us in our faith community”. Vastly complex challenges lie ahead as the Church attempts to respond to whatever the “new normal” might turn out to be.

I identify most closely with those who are finding that a deep sense of the healing and joy of nature has come with the enforced cessation of so much human activity. One woman observed that “the richness of this spring has fed my faith, almost more than anything”. I have found myself wandering through meadows speckled with wildflowers, alive with the sound of birdsong, or gazing at the stars through London’s clear night skies, and I have wondered why people think they need to be inside a church to pray. This is not my latent Protestantism reasserting itself, but it is a deep questioning of what matters most to me about my Catholic faith.

I cherish the heightened sense of the sacramentality of Creation that I owe not just to Laudato Si’ but to many years of studying Catholic theology and participating in the Eucharist. There is a rich materiality to Catholicism – an all-encompassing affirmation of bodily, sensual life – which I still experience as the fundamental difference between my Protestant upbringing and my Catholic faith. Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is an important expression of that, but it belongs within a wider sense of the cosmic Christ who sanctifies all of creation.

During the last few months, women have become priests of the household and priests of Creation – gathering their people around the table for eucharistic celebrations, consecrating Creation to the creator on walks amid the sunshine and birdsong, and caring as best they can for the lonely, the poor, the sick and the bereaved as well as their own families, with all the sense of helplessness and humility that we have all felt during lockdown.

When this is over, Catholic women are not going to be pushed back into the pews to perform roles of submission and subservience to a clerical elite. While its leaders seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of when the faithful might be permitted to re-enter churches to kneel to say their prayers on disinfected pews, we have seen a great unleashing of energy among women in the Church. If this energy and creativity are not harnessed, they will dissipate or find other more welcoming outlets.

One woman said that after lockdown she may not want to spend her time “watching other people (mainly men) doing rituals when I can be participating and challenging myself to grow through prayer, study and trying to live out God’s Word. I’m not leaving the Church as such but I am better nurtured elsewhere.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many women who have found fresh nourishment in study and prayer in recent weeks, and are now questioning their formal relationship with the Church for the first time.

What will this mean for the post-Covid Church? Paola Lazzarini puts it concisely and forcefully: “Returning to Mass is a joy, but if it is translated into reducing God’s people to spectators once again, regarding these past few months as a parenthesis to be quickly forgotten, it would be a sin, in the proper sense of the term, a wasted opportunity and because of this sad and short-sighted. We women do not start again. We move on.”

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, London.

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