On 23 August, during Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, a lector was assaulted. She had concluded the reading from Isaiah 22 and was making her way back to her seat when another woman approached her and threw two quick punches at her face. As the assailant then walked away, the lector resumed walking to her seat. Archbishop Nelson Pérez later issued a statement indicating that the lector had received medical attention and was not seriously injured. Police in Philadelphia say that they have identified the assailant; for the moment, at least, charges have been deferred.
Does the assailant have mental health issues? Drug problems? Both? Neither? Have overwhelmed social service systems been unable to assist her? Has she refused help that was offered to her? Is she a person who just had a moment of (misdirected) rage? As I write these words, we do not know.
[Since I began writing this post, it has emerged that the assailant does indeed have mental health issues. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the district attorney and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have determined that no charges will be filed.]
Whatever the case may be, I cannot help seeing in this incident a liturgical snapshot of the polarization, unrest, and violence simmering in the United States—and in all too many places, more than simmering. At the same time, I see a person who was struck twice without provocation and who absorbed the blows without a hint of retaliation. For present purposes, I will leave to moral theologians questions about when and what kind of self-defense is morally permissible. I simply want to note the witness provided by this lector, a witness that demonstrates that striking back is not necessarily the only option.
Violence of this kind is always abhorrent. I do not want to claim that it is “especially” abhorrent given the liturgical circumstances. Violence is no less violent when it takes place in a bedroom, a kitchen, a workplace, or a town park. I do wonder, though, about the impact of this incident on worshipers who, a few minutes later, heard “this is my body, which will be given up for you.” I wonder how worshipers experienced the subsequent (contactless) exchange of peace.
Whether women should be admitted to ordained priesthood is a question for another time. However, I think it is safe to say that this woman who just read from Isaiah proclaimed the gospel as she returned to her seat. What does her example mean for how we proclaim the gospel in our conduct at liturgy—and outside of liturgy?