The Roman Catholic Church bears its age well – yet after 2,000 years it is still developing new features, still growing into its body. Perhaps 2,000 years may seem like puberty to world religions: you are of an age when many people know and recognize you, but internally you are expanding in ways that will still surprise them.
Georgetown is a place where some of the most important parts of the Catholic body are located: two schools, two parishes and a world-renowned university.
Now this oldest neighborhood in Washington, DC is also home to a growing part of the Catholic Church that many Catholics would surely take a bit of a surprise: priestesses.
On Sunday morning, September 18, in a secluded backyard garden on R Street, a community of Catholics gathered for what is likely the first Catholic Mass celebrated by a woman in Georgetown.
The Washington Home Inclusive Monthly Mass (WHIMM) organized the Mass and invited Rev. Kathleen Blank Riether to celebrate it. In person and remotely, around 30 Catholics prayed, read and prayed while sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist – bread and wine – consecrated by the Catholic priestess.
“Sounds like heresy,” said an elderly Holy Trinity member when I told him I was leaving. “My father would probably say the same thing,” I replied with a smile. I went anyway.
I’m not a big rule breaker. I wasn’t even sure how comfortable I would even be going to WHIMM’s show. I am also a Holy Trinity parishioner and go to Mass daily (not every day). I was born at Georgetown University Hospital and raised in a conservative Catholic family. I was teased by my Italian grandmother because I went to the “pagan school” – I went to the National Cathedral School. I graduated from Georgetown. And I’m a disciplined ex-ballerina who likes to adjust her belt to her shoes and pay her credit card bill early.
And yet it was at Holy Trinity that I first learned about WHIMM. A few months before the pandemic, the mission of WHIMM was shared with me at a congregational talk at McKenna Hall on women in the early church. The presentation was co-facilitated by the community’s RCIA coordinator and a PhD community member. in theology from the Catholic University, both women. When I learned that women were important preachers in the early church and were even ordained as deacons, these early Christian women reminded me of former NCS principal Aggie Underwood, whose incredibly intense academic environment taught us that we—as women— could do anything.
Catholics don’t teach girls that they can do anything. If a girl who grew up in a Catholic church and is learning to love her church is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and she replies, “I want to be pope,” the answer is, “No. And yet here I was, standing in a garden on R Street, and witnessing a Catholic priestess blessing me.
“We live in a finite, imperfect world in which every person and every situation is an inseparable mixture of good and bad, right and wrong,” said Pastor Riether in her sermon during the mass. “Although our minds want to automatically categorize people, situations and things as right or wrong, good or bad, life just isn’t that simple… [Life] is a process of learning how to live with and cope with the harsh realities of this world while upholding and living the teachings of Jesus as fully as possible.”
Reither is part of the Eastern Region of Roman Catholic Womenpriest, an umbrella organization for the group of ten Catholic women priests called the Living Water Inclusive Catholic Community, the group from which WHIMM typically invites women priests. The Maryland-based Living Water website states that in 2008 it began offering masses at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis and the Stony Run Friends Meeting House in Baltimore. One of Living Water’s leaders is Andrea M. Johnson, a woman ordained deacon in 2005, priest in 2007, and bishop since 2009.
Although WHIMM’s Masses are primarily celebrated in private homes, they also offer “Mass on Mass” for a larger gathering in an outdoor park at Massachusetts Avenue and Fulton Street NW. This open, public Mass is offered just steps from the Vatican Embassy, where attendees then walk to a short prayer service.
“The goal is not just to whine or tear down what is broken,” says Jane Malhotra, founder of WHIMM, “but also to build something better.” “Behold, I am making something new!” the group quotes Isaiah 43:19 on its website .
Malhotra was inspired by her aunt, Anne E. Patrick, and her book, On Being Unfinished, in which she explains her belief in creative responsibility: “a willingness to think deeply and originally…to take reasonable risks to further good…” In In the same spirit, Malhotra created WHIMM, a space for Catholics who “wish to renew the Church by experiencing a new model of ordained ministry.”
Malhotra’s creative responsibility is not unlike prophetic obedience (another term coined by Malhotra’s aunt), followed by the priestesses of Maryland’s Living Water Community: “Toward the higher calling of conscience, the greater good, inclusive and divine justice and dignity contrary to all of God’s creation, even if it means breaking the rules of an institution.”
In December 2018, a group of Washington-area Catholics attended the first WHIMM Mass led by a priestess at a home in Bethesda. In October 2019, in addition to ten in-house exhibitions this year, the first public exhibition (“Mass on Mass”) was offered. Through 2020, WHIMM Masses were celebrated in Arlington and Bethesda and continued remotely online during the pandemic.
At first WHIMM started with about 15 Catholics. Then masses in private homes began to gather about 30 Catholics. Eventually, about 70 Catholics (“despite the rain”) assembled at the public mass on Fulton Street. Now, with an email list in the hundreds, a news team filmed the Georgetown service, capturing attendees who WHIMM says exemplify a “growing community of Catholics striving to live in unity with all of God’s radical… to live the vision that Jesus is calling us to. ”
So what does a WHIMM trade fair look like? Who was there? And what, if anything, was unique about Georgetown?
At first I felt like I was going to a picnic (which perhaps isn’t too far removed from the Last Supper in its casual nature). A cardboard sign was taped to a tree to direct us to the garden. A merry table was set with moms for donut hour, complete with hot coffee and gluten-free pumpkin spice muffins from Trader Joe’s. The most notable culinary offering was actually the communion wine, a bottle of red with the face of Snoop Dogg on it, which the label describes as perfect for “rule breakers” and which the winemaker calls “inherently challenging” and “bold in character”.
Everyone was very nice. The chairs were organized. The altar was evidently covered. The program was issued. The readings, the psalm, the sermon and the Eucharist went like clockwork. But there were some new features on this watch. There was no “Lord,” only “God” and “The Creator” (which was sometimes a feminine pronoun). The “Our Father” paid tribute to both parents, beginning with “Our Father/Mother in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”
Nor was there any indignity. About the time we were about to receive Communion, instead of calling ourselves “unworthy,” we prayed for a reminder that we are worthy with Jesus and that we will be healed by His words. Although revised, the liturgy made perfect sense. It was as refreshing as it was heart opening in a totally enlightened yet authentically Catholic way.
I could tell you it was very Georgetown for the Cartier watches, pearl necklaces, Celtic cross pendants, tiny rings, diamond earrings, Nantucket reds and talk of summer travel. (Of course, the expected Tevas were there, too). But that’s not what made it Georgetown. I thought back to how a 53-year-old John Carroll started building his school before he even officially owned the land. And it reminded me that it was a hands-on, self-reliant, proactive, and hard-working American spirit that built a new country and that originally defined the community that lived in Georgetown.
Perhaps when I was presented with a torn piece of a gluten-free English muffin (rather than a cross-stamped waffle) and heard “the body of Christ” and said “amen,” I had a hard time believing it really was the body of Christ. Perhaps I was confused that there was no man in a robe to initiate transubstantiation. But do I need a man to tell me I’m a part of the body of Christ? no In fact, I had no doubt that—in the group gathered around me—we were all a new (if somewhat unfamiliar) part of the body of Christ. And to my right, the elderly Catholic woman pinched every crumb in her palm and ate every bite so as not to let any part of Jesus fall to the floor.