As I walked through St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Conway, Arkansas, on Palm Sunday, I was handed a palm leaf. My friend Hannah is Catholic, and fortunately, she was there to walk me through the whole mass. As we approached the pews, I saw everyone dip their hands in holy water and then kneel before sitting. The service continued with a woman giving announcements and the alter servers lighting candles while dressed in white robes. I noticed all the statues were covered in preparation for Holy Week, and as I continued to scan, I saw that most people who actually dressed nice were elderly. Something else I saw: there was only one black family in the whole congregation, and the church was completely packed.
Hymns were being sung and a few passages from the Bible were read, followed by responsorial psalms. I remember feeling very uncomfortable at one point because one hymn basically told me I would die because I didn’t believe in the Eucharist. Soon the passage of Jesus’ betrayal was read, almost like a play, with the priest as Jesus, the deacon as narrator, and a woman as Judas/Peter. Toward the end of the service the whole congregation recited the Profession of Faith from memory, almost cult-like, followed by another hymn and the Eucharist, or communion. After the Priest said a prayer, Amazing Grace was sung, and everyone dipped their hands in holy water again as they left.
There were many little details that I noticed about the service that seemed to follow along the traditional lines of Christianity. Just like many churches, of different denominations, I found that the older people of the church still think that women should wear dresses, or at least dress pants, and men should dress nice as well. This is an example of culturally defined roles, roles that Phyllis Tribble believes we should move beyond. Her article within Womanspirit Rising, “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,” explains how Genesis has been used to establish and maintain patriarchal traditions and demonstrates how we can reinterpret the events to understand the truth behind them. The wearing of dresses may be a form of “respect,” but to whom? If it were to God then women should always wear dresses, not just to church.
If I were to look at this from Tribble’s perspective, I might say this form of dressing is a symbol of women’s acceptance of their gender roles. They accept that they are expected to be mothers and wives and do not care to leave such roles. They are expected to dress a certain way for church, and by following this traditional rule, they accept all the traditions that come with it. The fact that so many young women are moving away from these stereotypical norms can be seen in their clothing. Many of them do not dress up at all; they wear everyday clothing. Stereotyping is a judgment “upon our common sin and disobedience. The suffering and oppression we women and men know now are marks of our fall, not of our creation” (WSR, 81). It is very pleasing to see there is a move away from gender stereotyping; it is proof that women were not made subordinate, nor were they made to follow. Women were made to lead right alongside with the men.
Aside from the typical “norms” of many southern churches, I found a few sore thumbs sticking out in the service. During the reading of the passage of Jesus’ betrayal, I noticed the priest read the part of Jesus and the deacon was the narrator, which seemed to make sense seeing as how the priest is the most important person in mass and the deacon is almost like the “power behind the throne.” What caught my attention was that a woman read the part of Peter and Judas, the two disciples that betrayed Jesus. It may have just been a coincidence, but it is interesting nevertheless. Why couldn’t a man have read it? Peter and Judas were both men after all. I am reminded of the reading “Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastic Woman” in the book Women and Religion. Many of the Catholic church’s beliefs have come from saints such as Aquinas, and still hold favor today. Aquinas believed women were inferior and subordinate to men because they were fragile in mind and will.
Much of his belief came from Aristotelian thinking that woman is mentally and physically “defective” combined with biblical and patristic Christianity. Furthermore, he believed woman’s weakness to be the reason the serpent had approached Eve, and stated her sin was greater even though Adam took part also. I’d like to compare Aquinas’s thinking with the event at mass. A woman played the part of the two betraying disciples, and a woman is also the downfall of humanity. In both places we see woman and sin being intertwined, thus the woman reader “supports” Aquinas’s hypothesis that woman is feeble.
Finally, I’d like to refer back to the priest’s role as Jesus. I can understand how the priest would automatically get this role, but take into consideration that women are not allowed to be priests or deacons. Thus, women are not allowed to play the role of Jesus. According to Mary Daly’s “After the Death of God the Father” in Womanspirit Rising, “It is still not uncommon for priests and ministers, when confronted with the issue of women’s liberation, to assert that God become incarnate uniquely as a male, and then to draw arguments for male supremacy from this” (WSR, 58). In reality, a woman couldn’t be Jesus or the narrator, but she can be a betraying disciple. Many theologians, as well as Christians, don’t believe that Jesus could have been the “inferior” sex, thus they reinforce masculine superiority. Priests do just that; in a sense, they are like Jesus and cannot be the “inferior” sex.
Though I found a few concepts about sex within the service, most gender issues are hidden within the belief system. Catholics are patriarchal, just as other Christians, but there are not many practices or traditions they have that show outright the inferiority of women. Many saints have great influence on the modern Catholic Church’s doctrine and beliefs, such as Augustine, Jerome, and Aquinas, and the Bible is also another source full of patriarchic teachings. In order to get a more accurate representation of gender roles within the Catholic community, one must know more about the “hidden” concepts found within its teachings and values.