Real hope for reform at the Amazonian synod

Excerpt from La Croix, Sept. 2019

The mandate to make disciples imposes a missionary duty on the Christian community in general and on every Christian according to his or her capacity and opportunities.

This requires available talent to be organized and managed flexibly in response to the situation encountered, with the primary objective of serving the mandates.

The second mandate imposes a duty and a right. “Do This in commemoration of me” was spoken at the Passover meal to Christ’s disciples, both male and female, and not just to the apostles.

This is confirmed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by Christian communities long before bishops or priests appeared and even before elders and overseers had been appointed (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:22,23).

Only with the introduction of ordained ministers were the laity excluded from celebrating. The professionals would have brought style and consistency to the liturgy and their homilies would have complemented what the people were already learning from one another in the Christian community.

In time, however, the communities became dependent on the professionals and unfortunately, there was nobody to remind them that Christ’s instruction was basic and endured irrespective of clergy availability.

We believe that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of spiritual life and the bond that links individual church communities into one universal church. Yet, Rome has regulated, and tolerated, the lack of the Eucharist in missionary dioceses for generations, if not centuries.

Dedicated missionaries have shared the good news and converted pagans, only to leave them with inadequate access to the spiritual riches of a sacramental Christianity.

Missionary bishops, who are theoretically responsible for the provision of the sacraments, are forbidden from doing anything constructive about this contradiction.

In 1980, an Augustinian missionary, Father Raymond Hickey, wrote a book that called attention to the failure to provide Mass for missionary congregations.

He suggested ordaining the mission catechists who normally teach their communities and who preside at Sunday prayers. He might have quoted St. John Chrysostom, who said that administration of the sacraments could be entrusted to the relatively uneducated but the proclamation of the word had to be restricted to “wise and educated clergy”.

Fr. Hickey estimated that there were 54,000 trained catechists already educated enough to teach and lead in Africa alone. His proposal would have brought regular Sunday Mass to several million Catholics.

Despite the obvious benefits for its mission “the holiest and most important work of the Church”, the section of the curia responsible for worship and the sacraments turned a deaf ear. Was this not a dereliction of duty? For the bureaucracy it was a bridge too far, requiring too many changes without any immediate gain.

Although it posed no doctrinal issues, it would have called for derogation of several established Church traditions, including celibacy, lengthy seminary formation, studies in Thomist philosophy and theology, uniformity in liturgy and familiarity with Latin.

The care of souls in mission congregations did not merit such exceptional treatment. Mirabile dictu, the papacy could find ways to compromise on exactly the same issues a few decades later when it wanted to facilitate Anglican congregations and their ministers who were considering ‘crossing the Tiber’ but were diffident about changing their traditions.

If traditions and regulations, including Canon Law, can be adapted to further the mission of the Church to Anglicans, why not to indigenous Amazonians?

The Church recognizes that Christians have a right to the sacraments.

If the Synod were to carry the logic of the Instrumentum Laboris forward they could recommend to the pope that any community of Christians that normally lacks an ordained priest should be encouraged to fulfill Christ’s instruction by celebrating as a group.

They should not be barred from doing what Christ commanded. They should say or sing the prayers together in what could be called a Community Mass.

Several suitable volunteers could be selected to take turns doing bible readings, giving homilies, distributing Holy Communion, presiding and managing temporal affairs. Membership of this select group need not be permanent but they could be called ‘elders.’

In this way the rotational tradition of authority in relevant cultures would be respected and the introduction of clericalism avoided. Moreover, women and married people would be given a real ministry without having to resolve the vexed questions of celibacy and of the limits on the authority of the Church to ordain.

Would such a Eucharist be valid? Of course, it would. It is closer to the two examples of Jesus than the modern Mass.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus is there. His church is there in microcosm. By the same token, when the micro-church lacks an ordained minister for the sacrament of the sick, for baptism or reconciliation, it should do what the church does and trust in Jesus to effect what is symbolized.

The Instrumentum Laboris, seems to envisage something in this general direction for the indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

Its benefits could spread to the whole world. Harnessing the faithful is one way to circumvent the problem of vocations. It could release new energy and initiate a new era of mission for the Church.

Dr John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and serial social entrepreneur. In 1968, he and his wife, Kay, founded the international relief and development organization Concern Worldwide, which now employs about 3,800 indigenous people on development work in 28 of the world’s poorest countries.

Part I of the series can be read here.

Part II of the series can be read here.

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