Many of the women come for strength. Some come for sustenance. Others are there because they don’t fit in the Church. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they see their gatherings as an expression of the friendship and equal partnership they feel with Jesus and each other.
Their gatherings aren’t secret nor are they officially sanctioned, but they do give the women the opportunity to experience the hidden, feminine side of Church, which they find spiritually enriching and can’t get in the patriarchal Church.
The group calls itself Women’s Eucharist or WE for short, and it is part of a nationwide movement that has grown over the past couple decades without much promotion or fanfare. In fact, according to Sheila Durkin Dierks, who studied 100 WE groups across America for her book Women’s Eucharist, many of the women start a group without knowledge of other groups.
Sister Beth Rindler, 73, one of the founders of a WE begun in Detroit in 1990, started the group because she was restricted by Church law from celebrating the sacraments simply because she is a woman. As a pastoral associate with a Master of Divinity (M. Div.) degree from Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, she found that her ministry still was not welcomed by parish priests.
“Priests really wanted women to be servants to them and not partners,” she says. “As a religious I thought of myself as a partner to live and share the Gospel in a demonstrable and public way.”
Another member of WE, Peggy Bennett, had no aspirations to the priesthood. Instead, she was looking for a practical, everyday spirituality and was “re-exploring [her] Catholic heritage after being away for a long, long time.”
Bennett had been studying in a two-year Jesuit spirituality program at Manresa in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, before she joined WE. As she looked for the “Spirit” she says she couldn’t find it in the Catholic Church—or any other organized religion. Eventually, she found that Manresa, too, lacked the kind of spirituality she was looking for because, like the Church, it was “too intellectual.” Nevertheless, her advisor suggested that she start a women’s spirituality group and that led to her finding Sister Beth.
The Detroit WE originally met on the 18th floor of a downtown apartment building that overlooked the Detroit River, consequently, the members called themselves “the Upper Room.” However, when one of the members moved out of her apartment and the group needed a new gathering place, Bennett volunteered to hold the meetings at her house in Ann Arbor. Now the group calls itself “The Cathedral” because of the high ceilings in Bennett’s house.
For Bennett, WE exemplifies a democratic form of spirituality: she offers her home and plans the music and dance for the gatherings, but it is the members of the group that make WE a participative and life-giving experience through their sharing, reflections, prayers, and meal after the service.
The intimacy of the group’s celebrations are a means toward joining the personal, political, and spiritual life, says Rosalie Riegle, 68, another member of WE, a professor and founder of a Catholic Worker House in Saginaw, Michigan. Women’s Eucharist is a feminine extension of the home Masses she attended during the early post-Vatican II period.
“[With Women’s Eucharist] everything flows together: the Eucharistic meal and our potluck, the friendship and the love we share and the love we have for God,” says Riegle, who started a Women’s Eucharist group in Saginaw, Michigan, before her recent move to Chicago.
Historical Context of Women’s Eucharist
What led women to this celebration of the breaking of bread did not just happen. Rather, it was and continues to be an evolving outcome of a changing Church in the midst of the vast social and political changes.
According to Dierks, The Council of Trent (convened three times between 1545 and 1563) re-emphasized the Eucharist as a community meal, a holy meal, for all of God’s people. Nevertheless, over the centuries Catholics remained only watchful observers of the priests’ engagement with the Eucharist.
This exclusive practice of the Eucharist was a far cry from the early Christian communities where people met in each other’s homes to share bread and wine and pray. There was no authorized leader, priest or a sacred language in the service. Both women and men also participated in the ministry through the preaching of the word, caring for the needy and managing resources because they believed they were called to these works by virtue of their baptism.
However, something happened in the third century to supplant these communities from their egalitarian structures by a select group of leaders who modeled themselves after the Judaic hierarchical patriarchy. This group became known as kleros or clergy; it differentiated itself from the rest of the people who were referred to as the laos or laity. By 1208 the order of the priesthood was fully institutionalized in the Church. Eventually, the sharing of bread and wine became ritualized, Latin became the language of the Mass and the people became further isolated and closed off from vital participation in the priesthood of Jesus, according to Swiss theologian and priest, Hans Küng.
The Vatican II Council (1962-65) reaffirmed Jesus’ call to inclusiveness while the “unleashing” of the Spirit to all people led to a re-discovery of the meaning of the “royal priesthood” into which all Christians are baptized. In calling for reform, the Council also advised a look back to the early Christian communities as a guide.
Still other events occurring during the 1960s would set the stage for the Women’s Eucharist. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, a doctrine that prohibited Catholics from practicing birth control. Its tumultuous effect resulted in many Catholics either leaving the Church or not receiving communion because they believed that practicing birth control had excluded them from the sacraments. Divorce rates among Catholics increased as the stigma of remarriage decreased.
Secular society experienced equally earth-shattering events. The women’s movement sought to equalize the power between men and women. The war in Vietnam stimulated an anti-authority attitude. Civil rights leaders encouraged the populace to take a stand for powerless and oppressed African-Americans. They also taught the other movements how to promote the Scripture-based principles of nonviolence and justice in order to transform a society ruled by white, male privilege.
As a whole, these social, political and religious movements affected Catholics and their relationship with the Church. In the United States, a 1987 poll noted that 66 percent of Catholics believed that they could be good Catholics without obeying the church’s teaching on birth control. In 1993 that number rose to 73 percent. A 1993 poll revealed that 74 percent of Catholics felt they should have a voice in selecting a priest for their parishes, just as the Protestants did. Sixty-two percent believed in the ordination of women.
Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School has said that Jesus’ call for inclusion in the Church especially appealed to women because the Scriptures showed that Jesus’ disciples were both men and women sharing fellowship with him.
Father Kenan Osborne, OFM, professor emeritus of systematic theology at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union GTU), has pointed out that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus call for an ordained ministry. “In fact, the word, priest, represented the sacrificial priesthood of the temple, not the discipleship of Jesus-infused ministry.”
St. Peter also emphasizes the priesthood as part of the discipleship of Jesus:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)
Many people interpret this passage to mean that ministry, priesthood and discipleship are for everyone, not just an elite corps of priests—who happen to be men.
Women’s Eucharist uses the bread and wine in a communal ritual in the same tangible way that the Mass uses them, as a sign of Jesus’ presence when “two or three gathered in my name.
“We are excluded, women and men alike, even in the midst of many priests, if the sacraments are played out on the ordained’s terms alone,” says Dierks. “When he sets the stage, chooses the language, selects the prayers and consecrates as if he were alone in the room, then we have been denied the Eucharist in its fullness.”
Those who participate in Women’s Eucharist value the inclusiveness of each other—without regard to race, class, ethnicity, and religion—and especially as a counterweight to the gender inequities of the Church. Consequently, for some WE is a refuge, for others it is a Church substitute, and yet for others it is a religious add-on to their regular Church worship.
Dierks says that WE is a gathering among friends who operate well without a hierarchy or the specialization of roles. In fact, friendship was the most frequent response to Dierks’ survey question about why people joined Women’s Eucharist. Frankly, she points out, friendship is the very model of relationship that Jesus preached to his disciples.
Rosemary Radford Ruether, professor emerita of feminist theology at Pacific School of Religion and GTU, recognizes the implications for friendship motivations in WE by calling it a “reapportioned theology” or a “de-clericalizing” of the Church that
“facilitates the taking back of ministry, word, and sacrament by the people…Eucharist is not an objectified piece of bread or cup of wine that is magically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Rather, it is the people, the ecclesia, who are being transformed into the body of the new humanity, infused with the blood of new life.”
And that brings up the issue of transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. Of course, only an ordained priest can perform transubstantiation during the Mass, however, the WE women are unconcerned about this for their service. First of all, since non-Catholic women attend the service, they would have a difficult time identifying with transubstantiation. Secondly, as Sister Beth says, if transubstantiation really happens in a traditional liturgy, then it must happen in the Women’s Eucharist as well, because “Jesus Christ is so inviting, I couldn’t imagine him being exclusive.” Thirdly, transubstantiation is not the reason the women gather for WE.
As radical as the WE group may seem in the eyes of some practicing Catholics, none of the WE women expresses an interest in breaking off from the Church to form a woman’s church because the group is not interested in institutionalizing itself. The members prefer to keep the group small and home-bound because numbers don’t matter to them. “The Cathedral” WE has anywhere from three to 19 women attend its services and it “holds a space” for those absent.
Women’s Eucharist also defies definition or recognition by the official Church, but that, too, matters little to its participants because they are simply no longer waiting for institutional approval or sanction. They believe that inclusion for all the People of God should be the issue for Church, so they are simply giving up their attempts to work within the structure.
“If they [the Church hierarchy] can’t hear us,” says Sister Beth, “we’ve got to look out for ourselves.”