Susan Bigelow Reynolds’ People Get Ready: Ritual, Solidarity, and Lived Ecclesiology in Catholic Roxbury bridges theology, religious studies, and history by combining rich historical research and descriptive ethnographic storytelling with constructive work in ecclesiology. Inspired in part by Robert Orsi’s work on lived religion, the book’s work on lived theology attends seriously to space and place—specifically, by approaching the practices, histories, and people of the Catholic parish of St. Mary of the Angels in Boston as living ecclesiological sources with theological agency. In taking seriously the theological insights of this parish, the book brings descriptive and normative aims together. It does so by focusing on ritual, which itself works in both descriptive and normative registers. Ultimately, Reynolds shows how rituals at St. Mary’s cultivated relationship and solidarity across difference and argues for a renewed attention to the notion of ecclesial solidarity raised by the Second Vatican Council—particularly the ways that solidarity can be lived out on local, parish levels.
Reynolds describes St. Mary’s as a diverse parish with English- and Spanish-language Masses whose membership has been shaped by a variety of geographic and spiritual migrations, and whose parish life has been marked by a deep commitment to solidarity with the surrounding community of Egleston Square. People Get Ready brings parish-level archival research, oral histories, and participant observation into conversation with Vatican II documents and post-Vatican II Catholic theology to trace the history of lay empowerment at the parish. Some chapters examine specific rituals at St. Mary’s, while others draw more broadly from the parish’s theological insights and show how they intervene in studies of ritual and ecclesiology. For example, chapter 5 provides a nuanced theoretical account of ritual and its ability to cultivate solidarity, and chapter 1 offers a compelling critique of communion ecclesiology and its tendency towards “ecclesial colorblindness” (60).
In response and in contrast to the theories of Émile Durkheim and Victor Turner that emphasize ritual’s set-apartness from everyday life, Reynolds approaches rituals as enmeshed within a larger ecology of practices: the complex contexts, histories, circumstances, and traditions from which they arise and are shaped. She employs an expansive understanding of “ritual,” turning to communal practices that occur during and beyond the liturgy. Reynolds also argues against understanding ritual as static or univocal, demonstrating that rather than demanding or creating consensus, practices at St. Mary’s change over time and cultivate solidarity by making space for encounter and relationship across difference.
For example, the discussion in chapter 3 of the bilingual reading of the parish mission statement during each Parish Pastoral Council meeting illustrates how parishioners assert a shared communal identity and vision, build friendship across difference, and maintain solidarity in times of crisis. As she explains, while parishioners might disagree about the statement’s meaning for the church’s future, the ritual of its reading offers them a common language (even if expressed in both English and Spanish), a kind of creed “from which to begin” (114). In chapter 4, Reynolds discusses the parish’s annual participation in a multilingual Way of the Cross in Egleston Square, which is done in collaboration with the local community and serves as a public liturgical protest against violence and suffering. Reynolds emphasizes the ritual’s capacity to hold different meanings for different participants as they renegotiate it from within, observing that “ritual is often the site of contestation, compromise, and a superabundance of diverse and often disparate experiences” (147). At the same time, the incorporation of embodied actions, concrete local places, and familiar Christian symbols allows the ritual to serve as a common language and create space for encounter, relationship, and ultimately solidarity across difference.
Although the book focuses primarily on the positive role of ritual, it also notes its limits, particularly in light of inequalities related to race, gender, sexuality, and language. Reynolds’ critique of the communion paradigm within ecclesiology—the tendency of post-Vatican II theological reflection to idealize the Eucharist’s unitive power and ability to transcend worldly divisions—contends that it inflates the sacraments’ function as social equalizers and thus hinders the Church from taking accountability for structural injustices. Reynolds argues that rituals should not be seen as immune to the social forces and power dynamics that shape their broader ecologies of practice, even when they seek to transgress or subvert such forces. At one point, Reynolds notes that despite St. Mary’s efforts to be welcoming, inclusive, and just, the English language is often overrepresented (for instance, bilingual liturgies tend to use an equal amount of Spanish and English despite the larger population of Spanish-speaking parishioners), and that there are frequently disagreements between and within the parish’s two linguistic groups. Participation in a shared ritual might open up space for relationship, but it does not do so in ways that cover over differences or resolve the feelings of discomfort that often accompany encounters across difference.
Despite raising these concerns, some questions regarding the limitations of ritual and of dialogical approaches to solidarity might have received greater exploration in the book. Case in point, if ritual’s primary strength lies in its ability to serve as a common language for encounters across difference, yet ritual also “privileges some stories over others [and] heals certain wounds while ignoring other ones” (147–148), do marginalized members of the community contend disproportionately with experiences of frustration, or feel called upon to exercise more patience and generosity than other members in order to remain within a shared parish? To what extent might the slow and enduring processes of building solidarity foster division within a community, as well as relationship? This book does not fully contend with these questions; however, its engagement with ritual surfaces important and perennial tensions around belonging, inclusion, and justice, and its ecclesiological interventions offer a needed contribution to liturgical studies.
Overall, the ethnographically infused theology and research of People Get Ready contribute much to liturgical studies, Catholic theology, history, and ethics. Reynolds’ monograph provides a valuable rethinking of ecclesiology and religious studies methodology through its exploration of concrete local experiences and contextual ecologies of practice, and it invites a renewed and nuanced attention to the role of ritual in building solidarity.
Susan Bigelow Reynolds is assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where her research focuses on public ritual, culture, and questions of marginality and suffering in ecclesial communities.
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