Many of my favorite signs at Saturday’s Women’s March had arrows pointing outwards in all directions proclaiming, “I’m with her!” (My only wish was that at least one arrow would have said, “And him!” since I went with my 13 year old grandson and had many men and boys surrounding both of us, too.) A variation on the sign had all the arrows facing inward to a face of the Statue of Liberty saying, “I’m with her!”
When I saw the latter, I wish I had had a sign with a symbolic face of all the women who feel called to be, or who already are, Catholic priests with all arrows pointing both in and out and declaring jubilantly, “I’m with her and her and her and her and…”.
Then I thought what would it mean if the priests and bishops and even pope ever said, “I’m with her”…with us? It’s not that we need their approval or sanction; many women priests have been called by, and provide priestly ministry faithfully to, their own communities. It’s just that the struggle could be so much less wearying on our hearts, minds, and bodies if we could all stand in solidarity as we did at the Women’s March, if, despite our different agendas, we could just cheer each other on as – if you will – sacred creations.
A local television station recently aired a documentary on the life and work of jazz artist, Mary Lou Williams. She grew up impoverished, one of eleven children. With perfect pitch, an amazing voice, and early love of music, she taught herself piano at age 6 and began helping support her ten brothers and sisters by playing at parties. This music mastery led to a deep understanding and appreciation of swing, bebop, and blues. She became a background pianist for various groups; she even composed and arranged music for leading musicians of the 30’s and 40’s, including Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Benny Goodman. But she was not often in the spotlight, just very close to it. Then in 1952, she went to Europe; in 1954 she walked out of a performance and then out of performing altogether.
She had found, according to her biographers, the jazz music scene and her spiritual quest incompatible. Eventually that quest led her to Catholicism to which she converted in 1956.
Now comes the interesting part of the story. In 1957 she returned to music but this time with a friend and mentor on her side, Father Peter O’Brien, a Catholic priest. With him as her champion, she found new ways to offer music to the world: in jazz clubs but also on college campuses, through her own record label, on television and at her own sponsored Jazz Festival in Pittsburgh. She began composing sacred music including a mass, Music for Peace, which was performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou’s Mass in 1971. She also embraced the social justice mission of Catholicism. She started the Bel Canto Foundation to help musician addicts; she established thrift stores in Harlem and dedicated their profits, along with 10% of her own earnings, to musicians in need throughout the rest of her career.
The February 24, 1964 issue of Time magazine quotes her: “’I am praying through my fingers when I play,’ she says, ‘I get that good “soul sound”, and I try to touch people’s spirits.'” Our very own church, in fact, a priest in our very own church, helped bring that out, helped make the shine within her turn its rays on the world.
I don’t know about you, but my arrows are pointing in and out: I’m absolutely with her; I’m absolutely with you…and maybe someday, if they just stop barricading and start celebrating women…with them.