Cork woman Jennifer Sleeman’s call for women to boycott mass on September 26th is continuing to generate impassioned discussion throughout Ireland. As a writer to the letters page in Tuesday’s Irish Times remarked, ‘the debate goes on ad nauseam.’
An indication of the power of Sleeman’s proposed action was that last week it prompted a response from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Communications Office said,
“The Mass is a community sacramental celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus.
“We would encourage people not to absent themselves from the Eucharist, where we re-enact the Last Supper and the Paschal mystery, following the command of Jesus, ‘Do this is memory of me’.
“The celebration of the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation is essential to the practice of the Catholic faith, as the Sunday Eucharist is a pivotal aspect of the spiritual lives of Catholics.”
Sleeman has since said men are welcome to join women in the boycott.
Reading the comments on my own blog, as well as letters in various newspapers and contributions by experts on radio programmes, I’m struck by the way in which many of those who oppose Sleeman’s action assert that she doesn’t know what she is doing.
For example, on my blog, John Lynch wrote,
Jennifer, you are obviously not a “serious” Catholic, since you are not boycotting the Catholic Church but Christ Himself. As you should believe, Christ is present on the Altar at every Mass and therefore asking Catholic women to stay away from Mass on September 26th is asking them to boycott Christ, their Lord God and Maker. Many Irish men and women lost their lives down through the years for their love of God and the Mass. If you want to protest, stay away yourself, but do not involve other souls by asking them to join you in your boycott.
Jennifer Sleeman, with the best of intentions I’m sure, has so completely misunderstood the importance of the Celebration of the Eucharist to Catholics that I say “let her at it.” Indeed, for anyone who wishes to join her protest, go for it. Any Catholic who could so denigrate the Sacrifice of the Mass to a mere political tool has no business being there in the first place.
But I think that Jennifer Sleeman knows exactly what she’s doing. I couldn’t put it better than Tanya Jones did in a comment on my blog,
Do you think that perhaps it is the seriousness of Jennifer Sleeman’s Catholic faith that makes her action so powerful and poignant? If, as I imagine, she truly believes in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and is prepared to forego its consolation for the sake of the Church and her brothers and sisters, this shows the extent of her generosity and compassion. After all, fasting means very little if we don’t believe in the wholesomeness of food, and the truest celibates are those who acknowledge the holiness of marriage.
I think that Mrs. Sleeman’s proposal should also be prompting us to ask questions about just who is ‘boycotting’ Christ?
- Is it the people choosing to stay away from mass on September 26th – people who are relatively powerless to change the structures of the Catholic Church to which they wish to remain faithful?
- Or is it the people in leadership who have treated victims of clerical sexual abuse and women so badly?
In Tuesday’s Irish Times, theology Professor James Mackey of Trinity College Dublin continued his series on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland with a commentary titled, ‘Let the Struggle for Women’s Equality in the Church Continue and Intensify.’
Mackey quotes the ancient Irish saint Columbanus’ Letter to the Pope as an example of a Christian who knew when it was right to challenge the church hierarchy,
“As long as you teach truth, your authority over the universal church holds; as soon as you teach untruth, your authority ceases and reverts to the people of God, as a ruling custom of my (Irish) people illustrates.”
The sentiment behind Mrs. Sleeman’s proposal to boycott mass seems to resonate with Columbanus’ letter from so many generations ago. But as Sleeman herself told Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times, it’s up to Catholics themselves to decide,
“I’m not going to tell people what to do. That’s what the church does. People can do what they want.’”
(Photo of Hore Abbey, Cashel, sourced on flickr, by kelley.ch)