When Catholic schoolgirls shined in Church

-Tom Mahon

Back in the days of the old, rigorous, pre-Vatican Council Catholic Church there was one day of the year — and only one — when girls in Catholic grade schools got to be the centers of attention.

Boys could shine every day — and twice on Sunday — as altar boys, but girls were to be unheard and largely unseen.

The exception was one day in May when girls were active participants in the liturgy, lining up and processing to the statue of Mary the Holy Mother to dedicate their lives to her.

All those beautiful young girls — grandmothers now or even great-grandmothers — lined up from first to eighth grade in their white blouses, blue jumpers, and sensible brown shoes. And each of them holding in her hands a clutch of lilacs or lilies of the valley; the stems wrapped in damp tissue, and the tissue wrapped in tin foil.

And they would proceed towards Mary’s altar, to the left of the main altar, just as their older sisters and mothers and grandmothers had done. And just as they expected their kid sisters and daughters and granddaughters to do.

To the boys’ eyes it was the lineup of stacked Ann or stuck-up Susie, but in fact it was this year’s celebration of the river of life, the cascade of fertility, that in one way or another has been venerated in every society for eons.

And in ovaries the size of a peanut each girl carried her lifetime’s compliment of eggs, and each of those contained the genetic coding to produce ten thousand generations over time.

The intercessory actions of Mary — that she can make an appeal on our behalf to her son, Jesus, and he will honor it - is part of what the Church calls the Mystery of Faith.

And I understand, at a very superficial level, the veneration of the literary figure of Mary dawn from the gospels and fashioned to fulfill the prophecies of ancient times: innocence born of innocence; the humiliation of carrying a child out of wedlock; escaping with the toddler at midnight to avoid the slaughtering soldiers; and holding still in her heart the awful prophecy of the seer at the circumcision: “Woman, your son’s destiny will break your heart.”

Such stories carried such weight as to inspire over time the construction of Chartres and 200 other cathedrals in Northern Europe named in honor of Notre Dame (Our Lady). And in modern times, some say she was even seen by three children in the Portuguese countryside, and reports of that incident — real or imagined — would in sixty years inspire a priest and a plumber to face down the Soviet Union. And win.

All that I understand, though much less than I did when I was younger. What I don’t understand, and never will, is how the Church can insist that these young girls, charged to “be fruitful and multiply,” can also be asked to dedicate their lives to a perpetual virgin.

How was that supported to work?

© 2017, Tom Mahon

Photos copyright by the respective copyright holders.