If you don’t recall the Forrest Gump reference, it comes from the 1994 movie of the same name, which was a sweeping look at 30 years of tumultuous American history seen through the eyes of one man. Many look at the institutional Catholic Church and see an unchangeable monolith, but that hasn’t been my experience. Like Forrest, I have ridden the tidal wave of tumultuous change, in my case in the Church, for as long as I can remember.
I basically grew up in the fourth pew on the left (a.k.a. Mary’s side) of my parish church. My younger brother was an altar server who learned the Latin responses to the Latin mass, rang the bells at the consecration, moved the book from one side of the altar to the other, and held the paten under my chin when I knelt at the altar railing for communion on the tongue.
I knew all the Latin responses and desperately wanted to be an altar server, but I was a girl and that was that. The altar rail was the great divide between male and female. From time immemorial, women had only been in sanctuaries during off hours in order to clean.
Then Vatican II happened, and I experienced a seismic shift in church world. A large, plastic-coated card appeared in the pews with the new mass responses printed in English. They were to be spoken aloud at various times during the mass. It felt odd to talk out loud in church, but I gradually got used to the new normal,
although I still wore a chapel veil and wondered what was going to happen to all those people who went to hell for eating meat on Friday now that the dictate had been revoked. It seemed like Monopoly with a get-out-of-hell-free card.
When Forrest Gump was fighting in Viet Nam, I was at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, singing folk songs and watching up close and personal the battle between Los Angeles Cardinal McIntyre and the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What went down in Catholic Los Angeles in the late 60’s and early 70’s formed my Catholic identity, and I will be forever grateful that I got to witness the courage and conviction the sisters showed as they faced patriarchy square in the face long before it was fashionable.
Their passion for the Gospel as seen through the hopes and dreams of Vatican II, was stronger than their fear of repercussions. The struggles they endured both broke them and renewed them, resulting in a reimagination of what a religious community could look like.
Sometimes the institutional Church drags its feet and at other times the foot draggers are the people in the pews. In the 1980’s the time for girl altar servers had finally arrived. It so happened that my own daughter was on the altar the first Sunday that girls served at my parish.
As the priest and servers processed out of the church that morning, they were met with a picket line of Catholics from God-knows-where, who were protesting girls serving on the altar. As Forrest Gump himself said, “stupid is as stupid does.”
Like Jacob wrestling all night long with the angel, some Church issues are wrestled with for years. A few years after the girl altar server picket line, and deep into the AIDS epidemic, my son was a chorister singing at a mass celebrated by then Cardinal Roger Mahoney. As we left the church, protestors threw condoms to protest the Church’s prohibition of their use.
Through the years since, there have been a number of Catholics and theologians who have dissented from the Church's position on the use of condoms. It is one of the moral issues - like the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae prohibiting all forms of contraception - that is often more honored in the breach.
On a happier note, a few years later I happened to be sitting with a priest friend when he got the call that he had been laicized by Rome.
This meant that not only could he leave the priesthood in good standing, but he also could continue to teach at a Catholic university. That night was a reminder to me that the institutional Church is capable of profound mercy and change.
Recently I attended the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. While there I connected with friends working in the Catholic Ministry to Gay and Lesbian Persons for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, as well as with friends in the Discerning Deacons booth who are working to promote the ordination of women to the diaconate in the Catholic Church.
Pleased at the presence of these booths at a major Archdiocesan sanctioned Catholic event, it occurred to me how unthinkable, even heretical, they would have been in the Church of my youth, which in Church time is a nanosecond ago.
Cardinal John Henry Newman said more than a century ago, To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. In my lifetime the unchangeable monolith of the Catholic Church has changed in many ways:
*Communion rails, which had symbolically divided churches into holy space for the people and even holier space for the clergy, were removed. This helped us all better understand not only “where” is holy but “who” is holy. The laity entered the sanctuary as lectors and Eucharistic ministers.
*The mass was translated into everyone’s mother tongue. Mass went from something you attended, to something you participated in.
*Catholics were encouraged to read the Bible, and Catholic biblical scholarship mushroomed. As a child I remember being told that the Bible was something that we needed a priest to interpret for us. We had one in my religious home, but it was stored in a closet and never opened.
*The regulation not to eat meat on Fridays was rescinded, with the exception of the Fridays in Lent.
*Limbo closed its doors. The Church now entrusts children who have died without baptism to the mercy of God.
*The Eucharist, once forbidden to touch, is now received in the hand from the hands of a lay person. As a child I worried about getting the host stuck to the roof of my mouth. If that happened, we were told to work it off with your tongues because you couldn’t touch Jesus with your finger.
*St. Christopher and other more obscure saints with sketchy canonical pasts were removed from the Church calendar of feast days. St. Christopher medals, which came in a variety of colors and were the rage, went out of fashion.
*A new rite for male deacons was established – a role that had been on hiatus since the Middle Ages.
*The Church quit circling the wagons, claiming loudly to be the only way to God and Jesus, and opened its doors to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue.
*Sexual abusers were outed as well as those in high office who covered up for them. Not a clean sweep, but an on-going change.
*Pope Francis established the role of Lay Catechist in the Church, giving religion teachers the respect they deserve.
*Women religious were placed in high administrative positions within the curia in Rome.
As my quick review shows, the Catholic Church is far from static. Today we find ourselves engaged in the Synod on Synodality, a world-wide listening process that is challenging us to become a more Gospel-driven, field hospital kind of church. It is an unprecedented opportunity for input and action on the part of all of us. Run, Forrest, Run!
To paraphrase Steve Jobs: