This past March, I had the unique privilege of servings as the spiritual director for FutureChurch's 2018 pilgrimage to Rome, "Finding Crispina" (inspried by the title of education director, Christine Schenk's award-winning book on women's authority and leadership in early Christianity). And as we made this journey, I found myself almost constantly reflecting on the Communion of Saints.
I first started to really get the Communion of Saints when I was engaged in parish ministry that involved frequent trips to El Salvador. On one trip we were praying a litany of the saints and the response was "¡Presente!" That one word changed everything for me. The saints weren't just "praying for us" -- as we so often recite or sing in English -- they were there along side us, praying with us. What an humbling yet empowering, inspiring, and comforting expression of solidarity, community, and communion!
And as I journed through this pilgrimage, this understanding of the Communion of Saints was reinforced and deepened for me. I found myself completely overwhelmed by not only the witness, but the sacred presence, of early Christian women and men as we wondered through the Catacombs of Priscilla and the Catacombs of Priscilla and the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter.
It helped that we were able to see -- in person (but not photograph, sadly) -- some of the most famous and important frescoes of these catacombs: the Fractio Panis, which depicts women partaking in the breaking of the bread; and the Veiled Woman, which many scholars, including Sr. Chris, believe depicts a woman being inducted/ordained into some kind of ministry, standing in an orans (prayer) position, and seated on a chair (a symbol of her authority).
Along with these frescoes were the oil lamps, tools, decorations, and momentos left behind by early Roman Christians. These artifacts and remnants were all reminders of the real people who were really there, walking these same catacombs, remembering these same women and men, celebrating the Resurrected Christ.
It wasn't long before I started to reflect on the group of saints with whom I was making this incredible journey. They are married couples, single people, vowed religious, pastoral ministers, journalists, scholars, writers, and young people -- all discerning and living a faithful response to God's call in their lives. And each of them brought something that no one else could bring to this journey and this small Christian community.
It was especially meaningful for me to know that I was in the presence of all these saints -- past and present -- as we celebrated a bread breaking service in memory of Prisca and her husband Aquila. We sang, shared in the proclamation of Scripture, gave thanks for the ways in which God was active in our lives, and broke bread together. Participants gave thanks for one another, these early Christian women we are learning about, the opportunity to learn about them, the women who have shared the faith throughout history, and the insightful conversations, and fruitful times of prayer we were having together.
The day before some of the group continued onto Naples and others returned to their homes, we journeyed to Ostia, a completely excavated and relatively well-preserved early Roman community on the shores of the Mediterranean. During our visit there, we took time out to offer a prayer, which began with a Litany of Anonymous Women -- those women we know are a part of our salvation history, but whose names were written out of the historical record and long forgotten.
When it came time for me to offer a brief reflection, without thinking much about it, I just started: "her name is Sue..." And I told my fellow pilgrims about Sue Fisher, a now-retired campus minister at my alma mater, and how she was a foremother in faith to me. I told them that my parents had raised me Catholic, but that Sue had kept me Catholic at a pivotal time in my faith journey. I told them how I had entrusted her with a dream I had for a retreat for LGBTQ students at Canisius College and how she made that dream come true. And I asked them to remember her name so that she wouldn't become another "anonynmous woman."
We closed our prayer with another litany -- a litany of our own foremothers in faith -- and as each pilgrim named her or his foremothers in faith, through tears of gratitude, we repeated her name and asked her to "Be here with us." And we committed to telling the stories of these women, to naming them, to refusing to let yet another generation of Christian women fade into anonymity.
Today, and every day since, remembering all these saints who made this pilgrimage with me, I pray "be with me." I continue to be so thankful to have been in their presence and to have their witness of faith, wisdom, courage, and perseverence as bread for my own journey of faith.