Last Sunday, through unforeseen circumstances, I arrived at Mass just a couple of moments late and came in during the first reading. As I made my way to the pew, I recognized the reading as the familiar celebration of the ideal wife from Proverbs 31.
Cool! I’ve always liked that passage. It’s got a lot of neat and insightful stuff in it.
Then, after the responsorial Psalm there was the reading from 1 Thessalonians about the end of the world, and finally the Gospel reading from Matthew 25’s parable of the talents. (Which, believe it or not, is where we actually get the English word talent, referring to an ability or aptitude. That usage comes from this parable, where the talents are used in their original, literal significance of an ancient measurement of weight, often used with precious metals, as in the parable. The idea of a master distributing talents of precious metals to his servants was rightly understood as a symbol of God distributing abilities to us, and so the main use of the English word “talent” came to refer to ability rather than treasure.)
During the general intercessions (or “universal prayer” we we’ll begin calling it in a couple of weeks) there was an intercession that went something like this:
For all the women who work hard to support their husbands and children, may their works praise them at the city gates.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “A little awkwardly phrased. We don’t have city gates these days, and a lot of people in the congregation are likely not to grasp the reference, even though it’s from Proverbs 31, since the priest didn’t explain it in his homily.” (The city gates were a public meeting place in ancient Israel, and a location where legal disputes were frequently settled.)
There’s also a tendency in some parishes, whenever women are mentioned in the readings, to draw a lot of attention to this fact—seemingly out of a desire to compensate for the “male-dominated” or “patriarchal” tone perceived in the rest of them. Notice all the attention that gets drawn to the reading where Jesus talks with the woman at the well—a reading that is sometimes done (contrary to liturgical law) in a dramatized fashion, with a lady from the parish taking the part of the woman at the well.
Still, it’s entirely legitimate to incorporate elements from the readings into the general intercessions as a way of tying the prayer of the faithful to the word of God. This may have been a little clumsy in that regard, but it’s a laudable impulse.
Then we got to the Offertory, and for an Offertory hymn (or “Offertory chant,” as the new documents call it) the cantor started singing a song I’d never heard before.
The opening verse—which was also the refrain—went like this:
Women of the Church . . . how rich is your legacy.
Women of the Church . . . how great is your faith.
Women of the Church . . . well-springs of integrity.
Lead us in the ways of peace.
Of course, there’s nothing like hearing a song for yourself, so here you go . . .
“Um,” I thought. “Shouldn’t we be worshipping God right now? This is Mass. This is the Offertory. The gifts are being prepared for use in the Eucharist. Shouldn’t our focus be on God at this particular moment? The focus shouldn’t be on praising members of the human community, with God not even mentioned in the refrain, which is the main part of this song.”
It’s true that in the verses that come between the refrains, Jesus does get mentioned, which takes the edge off a bit, but the focus is still on praising and celebrating women—not God.
Mind you, I think women should be praised and celebrated.
My problem isn’t with the fact that it’s persons of the female gender who are the focus here. I would have just as big a problem if the word “women” was replaced by “men” and the song were interpreted either as a paen to persons of the male gender or as a paen to human beings in general.
The point is: We’re at Mass and our focus should be on God. We should be singing his praises, not our own.
Admittedly, this song doesn’t have the Orwellian subversiveness of “Sing a New Church into Being,” which implies a fundamental rejection of the Church as it has been historically constituted (as well as the creation of a new one in a manner reminiscent of God speaking the world into being, though here it’s human beings doing the speaking/singing).
But it still strikes me as out of place at Mass. Not only does it inappropriately sing the praises of humans in a context where we should be singing the praises of God, it also can be perceived as an undue politicization of the Mass that intrudes gender politics where they don’t belong.
Certainly in a contemporary Catholic context where issues like women’s ordination and “inclusive” language have been hotly debated, a song like this inherently raises the question of whether it is being used in the service of a particular agenda.
It thus isn’t conducive to worship—meaning, of course, the worship of God.
I know I myself was totally popped out of the experience of worshipping God at the Offertory, and I found my mind consumed by questions about the appropriateness of this song.
I suspect others were as well.
What do you think?