This is the last of a four-part series before the Synod of Bishops’ Oct. 6-27 special assembly on the Pan-Amazonian region that will discuss the theme “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”
In seeking new pathways, the Instrumentum Laboris gives Mission and Eucharist their rightful priority as the fundamental mandates.
By envisaging discussion on many other questions heretofore deemed untouchable, it recognizes that they are secondary issues and open to modification to better serve the mandates.
It proposes pointers for new paths and poses questions:
- a Church that participates in the community and in which the community participates, even to the point of allowing the faithful to share in juridical, sacramental and administrative powers currently reserved to the ordained.
- A Church that welcomes diversity.
- A local church reconfigured to belong in the culture in all its dimensions: ministries, liturgy, sacramental rites, theology and social services.
- Ministers who are not alienated from the culture by status, ethnicity or by extended formation and training in another culture.
- Women’s place in ministry and specifically in sacramental pastoral care and authentic evangelization.
- Local churches that work closely with ecumenical partners who are also sharing the good news.
- Is celibacy essential for the sacrament of orders?
- Is Tridentine seminary training essential for ordination?
- Is an ordained minister essential for the celebration of the Eucharist?
It is notable that at least six of the above have a bearing on the duties, responsibilities, privileges and prerogatives of clergy.
This Synod has probably the last chance to face up to the meaning of empty seminaries and dwindling congregations, and to plan responsibly for the fulfil.ment of the mandates when parish clergy as we know them are gone.
It is entirely appropriate that arrangements for a ceremony both sacred and social like the Lord’s Supper should be regulated by responsible authority. But, responsibility for the lighthouse demands careful planning to keep it alight, even in the worst conditions.
Accepting that the Mass has taken many forms historically and that there are four or five approved forms even now, it may be opportune to recommend a worldwide revival of the communal celebration which served the faithful until the third century or longer.
Call it the ‘Community Mass’ and allow the Eucharistic prayers to be chanted together by the priestly people, the Mystical Body of Christ which is present whenever two or three are gathered.
It is not essential that someone should act ‘in persona Christi’. Whenever an ordained person capable of acting ‘in the person of Christ’ as specified in Canon Law is available, then he can celebrate using the standard form of whichever rite he belongs to.
The changes in the 1983 Code of Canon Law required to facilitate the Community Mass are minimal. Canon 900 can be interpreted even now as allowing it, although this was scarcely the intention of those who drafted it! In the approved English translation. It currently reads:
The only minister who, in the person of Christ, can bring into being the sacrament of the Eucharist is a validly ordained priest.
A casual reading here suggests the Jesus should have whispered “terms and conditions apply” when he commanded and empowered his followers to “Do This”. In an alternative interpretation, the law as written has no bearing on non-ministers, or on ministers who are not purporting to act ‘in the person of Christ’.
Nor does it apply to groups that meet and celebrate without the benefit of any minister, taking Christ at his word. (They do this discreetly, to avoid provocation). If the Community Mass were to be approved generally, Canon 900 (and the penalties in Part II, Section III of the Code) would need clarification.
Canon 907, however, would have to be repealed or amended. It currently reads:
In the celebration of the Eucharist, deacons and lay persons are not permitted to say the prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, nor to perform the actions which are proper to the priest.
The intention of this Canon is obviously to emphasize the distinction between the celebrant and the congregation.
If the congregation itself is the celebrant, this Canon becomes redundant or irrelevant. Its repeal would be essential for the revival of the Community Mass, for which there is ample precedent in the New Testament and the early church.
Some participants may recoil in horror at the idea of celebrating Mass without an ordained minister. In any legal framework, however, if it becomes impossible to keep both the law and the subordinate regulations, a proper sense of proportion demands that the law be kept, and the regulation ignored.
If the Synod is to solve the problems of the Church in Amazonia,and elsewhere, it will need to think ecologically. It will need the courage to rise above the ‘infallibilities’ and ‘irreformable’ traditions that have paralyzed papal response to the same problems up to now.
This Synod offers a rare opportunity for the Church to re-order its priorities and give Christ’s two mandates the unconditional precedence that they warrant.
Pope Francis’ reminder that “there is no place for selfishness in the Church” will be well tested if a Synod composed almost exclusively of ordained professional priests is to give back to the faithful the capacities and responsibilities implicit in St Paul’s description of the “priestly people”.
For individuals, it will involve giving away some of the status, power and influence associated with ordination; for the bureaucracy, giving up some of its treasured power and control. Worship, as we learn from Abraham, is a readiness to put everything on the altar, holding back nothing.
To whatever extent this can be achieved, the clergy would be ’emptying themselves’ to use St Paul’s expression. It would be powerful witness to believer and unbeliever alike. It would also strike a blow at the very roots of clericalism.
And the grace of this Synod could spread far beyond Amazonia, helping to resolve or side-step several chronic problems: Eucharistic famine wherever it occurs, cover-up of abuse, cronyism, and the current teaching about ordaining women.
Such new structures would contribute to Catholic life in other parts of the world, even in well-developed communities with a democratic culture where, instead of selling off churches, we could try letting the now well-educated faithful take responsibility and continue the use of the churches for worship, and as a focal center for the Christian community and its essential social and charitable outreach.
Providentially, we have an example to follow.
The St William Parish in Louisville, Kentucky has developed this way under lay leadership since 2002 with notable success as a lively Catholic community, with only a ‘drop-in’ priest for Sunday Mass, baptisms and confession.
This has allowed the faithful to grow in responsibility, ministering to one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit without being pushy or encroaching on anybody’s turf.
Their website reveals a creative and edifying range of outreach and charitable activities. No doubt, the bishop or one of his coadjutors comes by from time to time to pray, preach and encourage and to correct mistakes, failings or abuses, as befits a successor to the apostles.
Providentially, St William’s Parish seems to have mapped out some promising new pathways for the Synod to consider.
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 personnel 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.
Part III of the series can be read here.