Thursday, October 31, 2013

Catholic Mass from Pagan rites


Christians believe Jesus is uniquely divine. There is nothing Jewish about this belief, but Pagan beliefs included mortal humans becoming immortal divinities.  Christianity flared into flame in Jewish communities well leavened by Paganism, as Christian scholars acknowledge.  Richard Reitzenstein, German historian of religions, writes in Hellenistic Mystery-Religions that some parts of Judaism “had dissolved in paganism.” Christianity took off in these communities embedded in the Pagan milieu, where our hero Jesus, who was born, lived, and died a Jew, took on the traits of Pagan gods.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that Christians borrowed Pagan religious practices—their beliefs, sacraments, modes of piety, and liturgical language. The most important factor in the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world was mystery religions. They created “the climate in which a new Eastern cult such as Christianity could be propagated,” writes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

Mystery religions had gods and goddesses, rituals of initiation (like Baptism), rituals of renewal and penance (like Confession), and sacred meals (like Eucharist). These religions predated Christianity and influenced its beliefs and practices. There is no possibility that the beliefs and practices they shared with Christians originated in Christianity; they existed in Pagan religions prior to Christianity. Pagans helped to shape the Christian religion, more than the reverse.

There were many varieties of mysteries—some Greek, some Hellenistic (a blending of Oriental and Greek), some public, and some private. They met in small communities like Paul’s Christian communities, which assembled in homes for their sacred meals. The mystery ceremonies portrayed the god’s or goddess’s experience, which incited in participants at the ceremonies a sympathetic union with the deity. They felt with Isis in her struggles over Osiris, with Demeter in her search for Persephone, with Aphrodite in lamenting the deceased Adonis (Reitzenstein). And they hailed the resurrected one, Attis.

These Pagan devotional themes abide in the Catholic Mass and other sacraments as well as in Christian meditations on the life of Christ. Both Pagan and Christian devotions engage our emotions. Christian adopted the Greek word “mysterion” for our rites called “mysteries.” Striking parallels developed between the myth of Mithras and the myth of Christ. (I do not refer here to the life of the historical Jesus.)
Mithras was born on the winter solstice and sired by a deity in a Virgin Birth, which was witnessed by shepherds and by Magi who brought gifts. Mithras performed an assortment of miracles—raising the dead, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, casting out devils (I believe the miracles of Jesus were real and explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky).
With 12 disciples Mithras celebrated a Last Supper, which was commemorated in a sacramental meal called mizd (echoed in the Latin missa and English mass).  This was one of seven Mithraic sacraments, models of 7 Christian sacraments. These details are unveiled in Barbara Walker’s The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

In addition, Mithraic theology included apocalyptic Last Days with a Judgment. The death of Mithras was mourned on March 22, the Day of Blood, and his resurrection was celebrated on March 25 in a vigil with lights. The likeness of Good Friday and Easter to Mithraic feasts prompted Pagans to accuse Christians of plagiarism, wrote Christian historian Henry Chadwick. The accusation was correct.

The word “mysterion” meant “something secret” or “secret rite” and referred to the rigid secrecy shrouding pagan mysteries from all but initiates. A vestige of this exists in the Christian catechumenate process, which puts converts through a period of learning before they participate in sacraments. Pagan secrecy prevents us from knowing exactly what happened in their ceremonies but, because writers like Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch wrote about the sublime mystical experience of initiates, enough is known to indicate similarities to Christian ceremonies. Pagan participants awoke to transcendence.

These facts do not discredit our Christian religion. They do refute its exclusive claims—that ours is the one and only true religion, that our spiritual master Jesus alone possesses divinity. We have stopped vilifying Jews and now acknowledge our bond with them. It is time for Christian humility, time to acknowledge our debt to the other religions from which we borrowed.

It doesn’t help that today “pagan” is used to suggest something evil. Consult a dictionary and learn that it simply means not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jesus, savior and sacrifice


At the School of Theology we were planning a liturgy in Frank House where non-seminarians hung out. A fellow graduate student said firmly, “He’s not my savior.” It was an electric moment for me. Not because I accepted the belief that Jesus died for our sins but because I didn’t and had not had the courage to say it. Her statement spurred me to be more honest. I see many, many religious people refusing to tell what they know for fear of losing their jobs.

For more than three decades I have studied Christian doctrines in comparison with other traditions religious and non-religious. Christians who can step out of our religion’s traditional mindset get my respect. One such wrote an article that a member of our Mary Magdalene, First Apostle, community found during her theological studies—“Sacrifice and Social Maintenance: What's at Stake in the (non-)Ordination of Roman Catholic Women” by Joseph Blenkinsopp.

The matter rose when we were dealing with a request that our liturgies employ the word “sacrifice” as in “sacrifice of the Mass” and “Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.”  Our newly-ordained priest Bernie explained that many have a problem with the idea of a god who demands payment for transgressions and asks his son to suffer for them. Jan reminded us that the word sacrifice comes from Latin and means “to make holy,” enlarging the meaning of “sacrifice.” Ruth reported on the Blenkinsopp article, which contrasts expiatory sacrifice with sacrifice as abandonment to good. The first preserves male ownership of the ritual.

Blenkinsopp informs us that, historically, priesthood meant a male performing a sacrifice. Menstrual and postpartum blood defiled the act, a belief that excluded women from the status of priesthood. Women were outsiders used for reproduction, but they were allowed no role in cultic acts except as spectators.

Sacrifice played a social role essential to cementing male status and power between generations. It preserved and passed on their material resources. [Let’s not forget that women in the Old Testament were property.]

Continuing Blenkinsopp’s analysis, the patriarchal frame assumes that Jesus chose 12 male apostles [a myth unfortunately accepted as fact] and, this thinking goes, while instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus deliberately expressed the relationship between men and women willed by God.Therefore, gender inequality is divinely ordained. [Let’s not forget that this belief system worships a male god]

Blenkinsopp cites examples to illustrate this mental frame through Christian history. 1) Apostolic succession was restricted to male celibates, an effective a means of preserving the given social order. 2) The Second Lateran Council in 1139 prohibited marriage for priests to protect church property [transmission of material resources]. 3) In the 1930s women could not obtain degrees at Oxford & Cambridge even though they had completed the coursework.

Finally, Blenkinsopp proposes a new way of expressing sacrifice—abandoning the aim of maintaining boundaries and restrictions to building communitas or unclogging channels of communication and collapsing distinctions of status.

In a subsequent homily, Bernie suggested, “To accept each other with all of our differences might be the greatest sacrifice we are asked to give.”

For me, Jesus is neither savior nor sacrifice. I add that Christians of the first centuries had no image of Christ on the cross despite Paul introducing the idea of Jesus buying us back or redeeming us (Romans 3:22-25). The cross pervades and dominates Christian life today but did not enter Christian imagery or writing until the 5th century.

I invite readers who have open minds to browse information HERE about pagan precursors of Christ. The information has been available in books for centuries, dug up by Christian researchers but not given to ordinary people. I want more people to be informed.

*  If anyone is interested, I can email the pdf of Blenkinsopp’s scholarly article, summarized inadequately here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Francis on women's authority

He remembers the exact intersection where it happened. He can still see how everything looked around them when the other man in the car suggested he pray “Our Mother” instead of “Our Father.” Immediately he rejected the suggestion.
It did not sit well with him because he had a long-standing and deep relationship with “Our Father.” But he was aware enough that he kept coming back to the idea and could not dismiss it.

He had to try it. And with repeated returns to “Our Mother” he realized how obviously appropriate it was. He thought of his own mother now passed away, his Grandma, other mothering women, the nurturing that mothers do.

Now he appreciates the gift given him when his business colleague suggested he relate to the Divine Mother. He can rest in Her heavenly arms. I feel privileged that he shared this with me and allowed me to share it here in the hope that it frees others from patriarchal training. One person needing such liberation is Pope Francis.

Amid the raving reports of the new pope’s truly wonderful shift in style and aspects of church governance, little attention has gone to this bit of news: Francis approved the ex-communication of an Australian priest just for supporting women priests. It shocked me. No priest or bishop who participated in clergy sex abuse has been excommunicated for their crimes.
We cannot escape the fact that this pope takes a hardline stance against women’s ordination, and there’s more. He accepted Pope Benedict’s harsh response to women religious leaders (LCWR), and his rhetoric about “women’s role” and a “theology of women” imply a deep mental block. Having prayed all his long life to a lord, the man needs to be educated to the possibility of women having authority

Like others, I pore over statements of Francis to figure out what’s in his mind. So much to cause rejoicing. And then occasionally a little spur to irritate.  Somewhere—I can’t find it now—he said women need larger roles in the Church as long as women don’t seek masculine ones.  What does this mean?  
It is consistent with subtle vibrations I’ve gotten from him since he was elected. For Francis, God is Lord. (“If God is male, male is God.”)  Sure, if pressed he would say nice things about Divinity including femininity, but I gather he can’t get his mind around the idea that authority can legitimately proceed from females. Again, I blame sexist God-talk.

Pope Francis and much of the world need the transformed consciousness that comes with relating to the Great Mother. In the Bible She was called El Shaddai, Asherah, Anath, and, less obviously, Sophia (Wisdom). From other religious traditions come thousands of names for this feminine image of the Divine, various names for one monotheistic concept. Likewise, Father, Adonai, God, Vishnu, Lord, Allah, Krishna and thousands of others name the Divine Masculine. Monotheism did not begin with and is not unique to the Judaeo-Christian heritage. In pre-historic times the Divine Feminine infused life with meaning and Her reign has not ended. In Catholicism it continues in devotions to Mary.

I am grateful Francis is our pope, but we have work to do. This wonderful man Francis softened his stance on gays since his election to the papacy (consider his history in Argentina), and he is a listening kind of person. Can he let himself be transformed regarding the subject of women?  We have to try. We have to teach our pope and other recalcitrant clerics that women have authority equal to men, that our “special role” includes ordination, leadership, and decision-making.

Francis admits the church has made mistakes. Let’s hope he will not be a saint on the Other Side before he admits the official church made a colossal mistake in relating to women.


Hierarchy vs. LCWR, August 22 

Page through any Catholic publication and look at the pictures. If you see mostly women, you know they are audience at a religious gathering. If they are mostly men, you know they are decision makers with power over others—mostly women, because more women than men practice religion. Pictures alone tell the story of what’s wrong with Church governance.

And look at attempts by the hierarchy to control religious sisters. American bishops upset over religious sisters ministering to people’s needs instead of pushing the bishops’ agenda pulled strings at the Vatican to rein in the sisters. The Vatican’s doctrinal conference, formerly the Inquisition, readily complied. After all, that is the job it loves—telling people they’re wrong. It tried to rob the sisters of their self-determination by appointing an archbishop as their overseer. A potent example of what’s wrong with Church governance, the pattern of domination/submission.

The Vatican and bishops appointed by the last two popes should take lessons in governance from women religious, who eschew authoritarian decrees and rely on communal discernment. Instead of learning from the sister’s wise models, religious officials try to boss them.

Consider this: Mature women—leaders of communities both religious and secular, founders and administrators of prominent institutions, missionaries, miracle workers among the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lonely and spiritually needy—told to submit to the control of a man.

At the LCWR assembly last year everyone waited to see what the sisters would decide—either give in or not. Never underestimate the cleverness of women in circumventing either/or. Members at the conference representing 80 percent of U.S. Catholic women decided to continue discussions with Church officials. They did not compromise their integrity and also did not defy Church authority, giving it the opportunity for more attack. S. Pat McDermott, president of the largest group of women religious in the Western Hemisphere, says that what the bishops want is unacceptable,
looking at our materials, our publications, giving direction to the assembly . . . That’s not a conference that most leaders want to belong to.
Nor would leaders of any organization. Imagine male leaders submitting to the control of a woman.

I smile when I recall the Vatican's accusation that LCWR has “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” S. Theresa Kane says, “I haven’t yet heard of one example . . .” In the statements of repressive Church officials I always see “feminist” preceded by “radical.” Even these ultra-conservatives sense that there’s nothing wrong with being a feminist, that is, advocate of improved lives for women.

The fact is, most religious men have dropped patriarchal attitudes of the past and disagree with the Vatican’s repressive actions. So what’s going on? Helmut Schüller, the Austrian Priest who decries the dictatorship of the hierarchy, gives this assessment:
This church is run more and more by priests of two or three movements. The Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei. That means the correspondents, the creation of the documents, the decisions . . . are at these movements. . . . The church is more and more led by relatively young priests of these movements . . .
When will Catholic men and women stand up to irresponsible officials in Rome and take responsibility for a healthy church?

I happily wear the hat of radical feminist, waiting, hoping, and advocating for radical change. I have a dream that someday women will make as many decisions as men, that women will have as many opportunities for leadership as men, that feminine images of God will be as frequent as masculine ones. I have a dream.  



The Invisible Domain, September 5

I do not have a vocation to priesthood, in answer to the question frequently asked. Like ordained women priests and women frustrated in their priestly vocation, I too enjoyed play-acting the priestly role as a child. But I am not called to be a priest. I am called to nudge minds into new thoughts, to challenge calcified assumptions, to awaken minds asleep.

Driving me and my work to improve women’s status are the motives of justice and awareness of human consciousness evolving. Once we see the sordid reality of patriarchy, we see the need to mend the damage. There is no better way to overturn the world’s injustices, inequalities, and militarism than to place women in positions of leadership. If women had been dominant as long as men have, we might say the woman-centered system needs to be overturned. As it is, the dominance of man—and I do mean man, not humankind—needs to be corrected.

The Vatican under our refreshing new papacy doesn’t get it. It’s too hard for most men raised in the cocoon of maleness to understand this. Read, for instance, the message of the Vatican overseer, Archbishop J. PeterSartain, sent to control the assertive women of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). He painted his idea of Mary:
She thinks and speaks of herself as a slave . . . she’s docile to the command of God, . . .
one who bore God’s word, listened to his word, pondered his word, kept his word, prayed his word, trusted in his word, and took his word as her own.
A perfect setup for persuading the good sisters to obey male authority. Mary, he claims, ponders,
Without, in a sense, any desire or a need to figure things out in the way that we normally think of figuring things out -- or resolve them to her own personal satisfaction.
So, American Sisters, do not think for yourselves. Just obey male authority.
One male from the cocoon of maleness does get it. Thank you, Fr. Wilfred Theisen, for your letter in the St. Cloud Times commenting on Pope Francis:
Even a pope as open-minded and accepting as Francis has a hard time breaking through the patriarchal shell that encrusts the Roman Catholic Church.
Wilfred noted the pope’s use of “fraternity” as in
all human beings are linked to one another in fraternity . . .
Wilfred suggests,
Perhaps some day a pope might say that all human beings are linked to one another in sorority?
Here is a man truly awake and sensitive to the male-centered bent in religious language. One like Bert Thelen (scroll down to “Father’s word waning").

I offer another example of male-centered language revised to language respectful of the feminine. When I read at Mass last Sunday I changed Sirach 3:18-19 from this:
The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself so that you will find favor with the Lord.
Many are lofty and renowned, but to the humble the Lord reveals his secrets.
For great is the might of the Lord, but by the humble he is glorified.
to this:
The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself so that you will find favor with God.
Many are lofty and renowned, but to the humble God reveals her secrets.
For great is the might of God, but by the humble she is glorified.
Notice the transformed feeling while reciting these verses. In our womanpriest Masses our God-talk is neither man nor woman-centered.

I received more responses to “A Creed to believe in”—all positive—than I could count. I hope what drew readers was that I overturned the “Kingdom” idea of the inner Reign with reminders of Jesus’ own metaphors for it. Jesus was not promoting a territory ruled by a male. He was prodding awareness of the Invisible Domain that thief cannot steal nor moth destroy, the Spiritual Realm that outer society denies or forgets and ignores.

We need religion that truly educates; we need relief from the lords smothering us, those guys in the sky.


July 21, 2014

Phyllis Zagano’s latest column in NCR nails it. She says what I’ve been saying since soon after our wonderful pope was elected—he doesn’t get it about women. Kind, understanding, and even shrewd he is, but hopelessly in the dark on the subject of women in Roman Catholicism. Women, period.

We can’t do theology without femininity, he says, but nothing indicates he has a smidgin of understanding that theology HAS been done without women, leaving it twisted.  He’s hopelessly oblivious to the serious harm inflicted by the male gods of our liturgy. I’m fed up with a lord inserting himself into our prayers at every turn.

In the future—I won’t predict when—a pope will apologize for Roman Catholic abuse of women, and for promoting an exclusively male God-image.  I do not expect that pope will be Francis. He does give hope, however, by opening the Church regarding other issues, breathing fresh life into an institution damaged by the two previous popes’ attempts to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

My op-ed in the St.Cloud Times aims to inform readers about the fact of Roman Catholic women priests despite official attempts to squelch them. My latest letter in NCR (not available online) also concerned Francis and the imperative of ordaining women. Women in the Church carry out Francis’ wishes for reforming clericalism. They offer healing to cast-off members of society, the ones receiving Francis’ public compassion. They eschew the career ladder. They demonstrate the humble but courageous and compassionate, heartfelt ministry that Francis calls for.

At the insistent urging of readers and fellow writers, I have started writing a memoir. My desire always being to educate, I hope to show my spiritual evolution from a blanketing Catholic background, as described in my series in the Stearns History Museum magazine Crossings (also unavailable online), to an all-embracing consciousness. I don’t know what difference that will make for this blog.  Along with you, my readers, I’ll watch developments.


October 22, 2014      Hardliners at the Synod

Conservative bishops at the Synod of Bishops nixed the reforms that progressives sought for gays and for divorced and remarried who do not obtain annulments. But the defenders of doctrine also failed to get the votes needed to approve their hardline paragraphs for the official statement.

There were three key words as far as I was concerned ... 'respect', 'welcome' and 'value.  I was looking for those words and they weren't there and so I didn't think that was a good paragraph.

Pope Francis again came up with priceless images to bring everyone together and warned against turning bread into unbearable burdens.

In sum, the synod broke some new ground.
To me it also revealed the strength of hardliners in the Church and a possible reason for Francis' continued hard line on women. I hope he lives long enough to effect a change in this department—the most far-reaching change of all.