Grail Movement

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GRAIL MOVEMENT . The Grail movement was begun in the Netherlands in 1921 by a Dutch Jesuit priest, Jacques van Ginneken, and a group of students at the Catholic University of Nijmegen who were among the first Dutch Catholic women to earn university degrees. They were inspired by van Ginneken's vision that Western civilization was in crisis and in need of major changes, arguing that women had never had a fair chance to develop their capacities to the full, in either the church or society, and that women had great gifts with the potential to change the world and move it in a Godward direction. Van Ginneken envisioned a movement of young women, under female leadership, willing to give themselves totally to spreading the kingdom of God, not as nuns in the cloister but as laywomen in the midst of the modern world.

International Developments

By 1936 the Grail movement had spread to Great Britain, Germany, and Australia, although the movement was suppressed in Germany by Adolf Hitler's government in 1939. In April 1940, on the eve of the German invasion, two Dutch Grail leaders sailed for the United States to establish the Grail in the Chicago archdiocese. Serious disagreements with diocesan authorities led them to relocate to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Archbishop John T. McNicholas welcomed the group of autonomous laywomen determined to define their own work. They purchased a farm in Loveland, Ohio, where they established a training center named Grailville and offered programs of alternative education, preparing women for leadership in the lay apostolate. Grailville quickly became the hub of a national movement, with eleven other centers spanning the country from coast to coast.

The Grail in the United States pioneered in many fields, promoting full, active participation of the laity in the liturgy, fostering vigorous contemporary expressions of a Christian spirit in the arts, and disseminating its ideal of a new Christendom through publications, exhibits, and art and book stores. In the 1950s the Grail trained teams of young American women and sent them to developing countries. Other Grail teams organized projects for racial and economic justice in the inner cities of Detroit, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati, and in rural Louisiana. In the 1960s the Grail was in the forefront of ecumenical dialogue and opened its membership to women of other Christian traditions. It also played a significant part in the modern catechetical movement, emphasizing personalist, psychological, and artistic approaches in the teaching of religion.

From 1940 to 1965 the Grail continued to expand internationally. Teams from the lay mission school at Ubbergen in Holland were sent to Brazil, Surinam, and Java in the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s teams from Holland and the United States went to South Africa, Basutoland, Uganda, Nigeria, and Japan.

PostVatican II

The many liberation movements of the 1960s brought vast religious, social, and cultural changes. The Grail responded with a rethinking of both its structures and its key concepts. Structurally, as a result of an international process of consultation carried on from 1964 to 1967, the organization changed from a highly centralized and hierarchical pyramid, having at its apex a core group committed to celibacy, to a more collegial institution. The new structure enabled all membersmarried, single, or celibateto share as peers in policy and decision making and to be eligible for any functional role. Grail work was reorganized into three task forces; working nationally and internationally, each focused on a broad goal that included living the faith, the empowerment of women, and liberation.

The early concerns with racial and economic justice that had led Grail members into the inner cities and overseas service were deepened by a feminist liberation theology that emphasized the interconnections between racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and environmental degradation. The goal of the struggle for justice was broadened to include justice for the earth and a global ecological vision of a sustainable society. The original psychology of complementarity that stressed the fostering of womanly qualities as the way to empowerment gave way, after a long process of study, to the development of a strong feminist consciousness among Grail members. The feminist approach included a thorough analysis of sexism in church and society, and an affirmation of women as moral and religious agents, fully capable of engaging in theology and of setting ethical norms. Moreover, the 1940s goal of striving to build a new Christendom in the midst of a secular world gave way to an acceptance of religious pluralism. In the words of the 1988 International General Assembly, "We are a faith community of women. We are learning that we are nourished by different wellsprings." A 1999 Grail pamphlet adds, "We support one another in our search for God. We work towards transforming our world into a place of justice, peace, and love."

The Grail has empowered thousands of women who have participated in its activities, enabling them to move beyond what was expected of women by church and society. Since 1969 the movement has contributed significantly through its conferences, programs, and publications to the development of feminist theology and spirituality in the United States and Europe, a contribution recognized by many theologians, Protestant as well as Catholic. Mary Jo Weaver, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, commented:

Their commitment to women has resulted in some stunning and influential programs [that] brought women together from all over the country to discover and articulate the need for a more inclusive theology and liturgical language broke new ground for women and supported an emerging feminist theology that begins, not with God, but with a theological reflection on women's experience. The Grail is small as contrasted with NCCW (National Council of Catholic Women) but it is significantly more influential as a forum for Catholic feminist thought. (1993, pp. 126127)

Nelle Morton, a professor of theology at Drew University, wrote: "These two conferences [Alverno 1971, Grailville 1972] became a watershed for women of religion to critique boldly the traditional male-oriented theology as partial (not including woman experience) and examine our own experiences for sources of theological reflection" (1985, p. 12). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a professor of scripture at Harvard Divinity School, evaluated the 1972 Grailville Conference by saying: "This workshop proved to be one of the birthplaces of feminist theology, a movement that since has profoundly changed both theology and church" (1998, pp. 12).

By 1998 the Grail had become established in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in North America; Feminist Theology, article on Christian Feminist Theology.


Brown, Alden. The Grail Movement and American Catholicism, 19401975. Notre Dame, Ind., 1989.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. Sharing Her Word: Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Context. Boston, 1998.

Kalven, Janet. Women Breaking Boundaries: A Grail Journey, 19401995. Albany, N.Y., 1999.

Kennedy, Sally. Faith and Feminism: Catholic Women's Struggle for Self-Expression. Manly, Australia. 1985.

Morton, Nelle. The Journey Is Home. Boston, 1985.

Ronan, Marian, Linda Clark, and Eleanor Walker. Image-Breaking/Image-Building: A Handbook for Creative Worship with Women of Christian Tradition. New York, 1981.

Weaver, Mary Jo. New Catholic Women: A Contemporary Challenge to Traditional Religious Authority. San Francisco, 1985; reprint, Bloomington, Ind., 1995.

Weaver, Mary Jo, and Debra Campbell, eds. "Grailville: Women in Community, 19441994." U.S. Catholic Historian 11, no. 4 (1993).

Janet Kalven (2005)