Catholic Women, Liturgy, and the Transformation of the World

May 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 3 Comments
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Those of you who read my blog with any regularity may have come across my references to the Grail, an international women’s movement that I have been active in since my senior year in high school (fifty-two years, in case you’re counting). The Grail is not very well-known these days, at least in the U.S., but it played a significant role in securing a place for lay women in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. The following is a revised version of my review of a book that explores the place of the Grail in one aspect of Catholic modernization in the twentieth century, the Liturgical Movement.

There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959 by Katherine E. Harmon (Liturgical Press, 2012). 412 pp. Paperback: $39.95 (but on sale right now for $25.97 at https://www.litpress.org/Products/6271/There-Were-Also-Many-Women-There); eBook, $31.99.

Despite the positive impact of the women’s movement over the past half century, many kinds of sexism continue.  One is the omission–exclusion–of women from histories of various developments and movements.

One history from which women have been significantly excluded is that of the liturgical movement in the Roman Catholic Church. In There Were Also Many Women There, historian Katharine Harmon examines the influential and largely undocumented role that women, that is to say, laywomen played in the Roman Catholic liturgical movement in the United States. (All Catholic women are considered laywomen, even nuns, because women cannot be priests). To do so, Harmon first explores the European origins of the liturgical movement, and then focuses on the liturgical movement in the U.S. The Grail movement, the women’s community in which I have spent my entire adult life, figures significantly in both sections of the book.

So what is the liturgical movement, and why is it important? Begun in the 1830s, the liturgical movement was an effort to reform the worship practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Some consider it an attempt to return to the romanticism of the Middle Ages, but Harmon demonstrates that the movement was, from the outset, a profoundly social development. It was social because it moved Catholic worship beyond the isolation of the Latin Mass, where individuals had engaged in private devotions like the rosary and encouraged instead responding to and singing together during the Mass. In effect, the goal of the movement was to make the liturgy a socially unifying experience, so as to bring the liturgical participant “into union with the Christian community and, thus inspired, to expand this spirit outward for the renewal of society.”(11)

Launched in Benedictine monasteries in France, the liturgical movement took on new energy after the catastrophic effects of World War I. Active, intelligent liturgical participation in the oneness of Christ’s body would enable God’s grace to permeate and redeem the world. Not coincidentally, the Society of the Women of Nazareth, the group which became the Grail movement, was itself founded in 1921, to convert the world from the callous and demoralizing values evidenced by the war.

Harmon acknowledges that the Women of Nazareth and the Grail Youth Movement they launched in 1928 were not explicitly part of the European liturgical movement. But she argues that the massive colorful religious performances that the Grail staged with thousands of Dutch girls in stadiums beginning in 1932 was “one of the most courageous and public realizations of Catholic Action (the lay Catholic turn to social justice) in the years between the world wars.”  She also quotes an early article about the Grail in a publication of the US liturgical movement stating that the Grail movement was paradigmatic of the essential relationship between liturgy and lived Christianity: The Grail seemed “to be enlivened with a living appreciation of liturgical life and an active understanding of the real meaning of the lay apostolate.” (45).

After the Grail’s arrival in the U.S. in 1940, the liturgical dimension of the movement became even more explicit. U.S. co-founders Lydwine van Kersbergen and Joan Overboss attended and spoke out at national liturgical meetings, and nationally recognized leaders of the liturgical movement led courses and celebrated the Eucharist at Grail centers. And in the U.S., as much or more than was the case in Europe, the Grail celebration of the liturgy, including the singing of Gregorian chant, the creation of other chant-based liturgical music, and liturgical dance, was inextricably connected to the Grail’s commitment to Catholic Action—social justice—and the fostering of an integrated life on the land.

Lydwine van Kersbergen stressed that “the first principle in the training of lay apostles is the understanding that the experience of the sacred liturgy is the integrating center of life” (224).  The great Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day made retreats with the Grail outside Chicago and at Grailville and commented enthusiastically on the unity between prayer, singing and action in the Grail. For Day, this same integrated vision was at the center of the Catholic Worker movement. And as Harmon demonstrates, thousands of other U.S. women also took their Grail liturgical training back with them to parishes and lay groups across the country.

So why does this matter? Because the liturgy, and especially liturgical singing, were fundamental to the formation of the generations of Grail women who helped the change the Catholic Church and the wider society in which that church played an influential role. And many of these women went on from that formation to engage in amazingly hard, brave, and even heroic work to establish what they understood to be God’s kingdom on earth. I am thinking here of the Dutch Grail women who continued to hold underground meetings during the Nazi occupation of Holland, although they knew they would be sent to concentration camps if they were caught. And others who stayed at their mission stations in Africa and Latin America in the face of horrifying violence—in one case, remaining in central Africa even after a Grail member was murdered in her bed in the next room during a tribal civil war. And then there were the women who worked their entire lives for subsistence at the Grail’s farm and national center in southwest Ohio and other Grail centers.

The Grail is currently active in eighteen countries around the world. Over its near century of existence, it has supported, enlivened and educated thousands of women and girls, running schools and hospitals, leading pioneering programs in progressive education, feminist theology, social transformation, and agriculture. And for many years the Roman Catholic liturgy was at the heart of such action for social change. What will provide the foundation for desperately needed action in 2017, in the face of the rise of nationalist populism and religious wars around the world?

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