Celebrating the Eucharist without a Priest?
The Catholic Church is short of priests. Already lay people are called upon
by Peter Trummer
from Publik-Forum, nr. 15 (8 August 2003), pp.
translated from the German by John Wijngaards
Every Christian community has the duty and the right to celebrate the Eucharist. But the right to celebrate it completely is reserved exclusively to priests in the Catholic Church.
Reality is different: across the world, more than half of Catholic services are looked after by non-priests. Statistically, it is true, the Church has one priest for every 2500 faithful, but these faithful are often widely dispersed, so that they see a priest face to face only once a year. How can the eucharistic celebration on Sundays then still be understood as the center of Christian life?
Also here in Germany and Austria the problem becomes more critical. By 2010 only half the present number of priests will be left. Parishes are lumped together in parish groups with the result that one priest celebrates more Eucharists or that the communities he cannot reach have to be satisfied with a service of the Word.
Both of these options are problematic. As is well known, until 1983 the prevailing law of the Church forbade the saying of more Masses on one day, except at Christmas, Easter, All Souls and Maunday Thursday - threatening dismissal from the ministry if it was undertaken without permission of the bishop. The frequent celebration of Mass by a priest on the same day was considered a mistake, if not an abuse. And this fundamental problem remains, even if pastoral reasons have forced the Church to relax the rule in recent years.
Also communities suffer negative consequences from the priest's constant repetition stress. To a great extent they must, or may, prepare the form of the services themselves. But also this cannot happen by itself, it requires concrete guidance and leadership (which are synonymous in the New Testament). But this lay responsibility is only temporary as it dissolves immediately as soon as the priest appears. This in spite of the fact that the priest's being visibly overasked often ends in a lack of congruity with the participants.
Origin of priestly monopoly
It was the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that formulated the principle of the exclusive reservation of the Mass to priestly competence. But this doctrine - like so many others - was formulated under the assumptions of the time, and it is not clear that through it all the best solutions for the future had been exhausted. For the Middle Ages, a commission from top to bottom seemed the only correct way to secure the legitimization of the ministries, and the Church simply applied this model to the structure of the Church and the priestly ministry. At the time it was unthinkable, just as still during the last Council (1962-65) to imagine a laity equally competent in theology as priests were in the past. This is of great importance, not only from a church-political point of view, but also for the establishing of theological truth. For in the Catholic Church the Christian treasure of faith was formulated only from the point of view and the position of clerics, so that that formulation did not only try to express the divine mysteries as well as they could, but at the same time tried to define their own unassailable status, with all the paradoxes which we experience today.
But since the 1970s the situation has been dramatically changed. Lay people, and on a lower level women, were allowed, because of the growing lack of clergy, to invade gradually all the ecclesiastical and theological positions, except for holy orders. This is spite of many restrictions. Through this the shared perception of faith has been changed essentially, at least in the German-speaking countries. The old hierarchical structural patterns do not catch on any more. If anything they can only be maintained by official pressure as some kind of Potempkin illusory villages, and that at the cost of distorting the biblical sources.
The divine power, which by Church Law is now reserved to priests alone, was really according to its original meaning an act of freedom and authenticity in word and deed for all. It is not without reason that it is mentioned as typical for Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7,29). To ascribe the limitation of this power to priests, to male and celibate ministers, makes no sense, on the simple ground that the present priestly ministry did not yet exist in Jesus' time, as agreed by the consensus of scriptural scholarship.
Forms of the Real Presence
Moreover, requiring an exclusively priestly competence for the celebration of the Eucharist suffers from other logical and theological contradictions, especially regarding the essential difference between the service of the Word and the Eucharist. For also the eucharistic text, which is now reserved to ordained ministers, is nothing else than a form of prayer. That is why it is called 'eucharistic prayer'. In its centre we find a reading of Scripture, the socalled institutional narrative. Both these elements, prayer and reading the Word can now, as is well known, be entrusted to the guidance and leadership of lay people, as is happening more and more.
These two elements should not be underestimated if one considers the question of Jesus' presence. For when Christians are united in a common prayer intention (something that cannot be taken for granted), then nothing less than Jesus' own presence is promised to them (Matthew 18,19-20). And Jesus' presence cannot be a partial one. It always is the full presence, therefore nothing else than the "Real Presence". The same is true of a respectful reading of the Scripture and an open interpretation of the Word, which justifies the acclamation: "This is the Word of God!"
Therefore it is not so much the divina potestas, the divine (priestly) power but Christians eating together and drinking together in Christ's name which brings about a special form of closeness to Christ and to each other, next to the reading of Scripture and prayer. And no service can, in the long run, do without this form of closeness of Christ.
In this meal of the Lord, Jesus is host and table companion, not just food and drink, for he announces a new drinking together (e.g. in Matthew 26,29). That means, his true presence may be seen and believed most clearly when, through the common liturgical action, an essential change and a 'transsubstantiation' takes place. This happens, for instance, when a gathering of perhaps devout but competing and fearful individuals turns into something like the mystical-symbolical entity, the Body of Christ. The medieval thought patterns tried to tie down 'transsubstantiation' to the eucharistic species in a physically exclusive way. Our present defective theology of the priesthood and the state of emergency in Church praxis are some of its consequences.
People should act 'from below'
But there are many ways in which the ancient mysteries can suddenly develop an unimagined flow of energy. They only need to be approached by all from the grassroots up without fear and trenbling, without waiting for a formal permission from above. For instance, it cannot be a healthy practice that communities at the conclusion of a service of the Word are palmed off with preconsecrated hosts. It would make more sense to transfer such agape meals squarely into the space of the church building and to turn the practice into an equivalent form of the Eucharist. To avoid clashes with canon law and in respect to prevailing tradition, the institution narrative could then be omitted. In line with the ancient Church a commonly prayed Our Father suffices to make it a Eucharist, which is why until the last Council the Our Father was only spoken by the priest, 'to be on the safe side'. This in contrast to the whole Orthodox East where always all participants collaborated in the "common task", which is what liturgy literally means.
For such celebrations of eucharistic 'breakings of the bread' presided over by lay people, it is of course preferable to have a formal commission (ordination) by the Church . But this imposition of hands can no longer be theologically understood as power over objects. The Jewish-biblical laying on of hands originally authorized a person to legitimately hand on the doctrine of the faith. And even this notion must not be made to carry the defective construction Rome would like to see in it, for it proves its orthodoxy especially by the creative application of Jesus' original intentions.
The legitimacy of a Eucharist may therefore no longer be, or exclusively be, deduced from the traditional priestly monopoly. It may manifest itself if the all-boundaries-transcending table community of Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners, is realised today. And, by the way, the mutual exclusion of one's members from the Eucharist by Christian Churches is hardly according to the mind of the founder. Rather Christ had in mind unity without When or But or whatever.
An afterthought! Surprisingly, the initial forms of ministry as we find them in the New Testament still had no liturgical function. Rather, liturgy was the task of the persons who invited Christians to the communion of the meal in their private homes. They pronounced the eucharistic words, the thanksgiving over the gifts. Something to hang on to!
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