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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

To serve and celebrate

Andre Lascaris
Four Dominican theologians have caused a furore in the Dutch Church with their new booklet, arguing that the Church in future will have to allow ‘inspired members of the community' to celebrate the Eucharist. Here, one of the authors explains their beliefs about who should preside

The Catholic Church is a eucharistic Church with the celebration of Mass at its very heart. However, the number of priests in the Netherlands is declining and in many cities and regions it has become increasingly difficult to find a church where the Eucharist is celebrated on a Sunday.

It is against this background that the 2005 Provincial Chapter of the Dutch Dominicans decided to try to clarify the relationship between Church and ministry. This was done in the form of a booklet, Kerk en Ambt ("Church and Ministry"), sent to all parishes at the end of August, which sought to shed light on various aspects of this relationship, including the ministry of those who preside at liturgical functions. Not least it proposed that in the absence of ordained priests, laypersons - men and women - should be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. The booklet is not intended to be a dogmatic declaration, but rather an attempt in clear and simple language to renew a discussion on the subject. It does not claim to say anything new: it is based on statements of the Second Vatican Council and on publications of professional theologians and pastoral experts.

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands numbers 1,557 parishes, with 1,112 priests, many of them elderly, 286 deacons and 774 male and female pastoral workers. Officially, there are more than 5 million Catholics (out of a total population of 16 million, of whom 1 million are Muslims). Less than 10 per cent of the Catholics are regular churchgoers. Most young people do not relate to any Church. It is expected that, by 2020, some three-quarters of the population will not belong to any Church.

Church authority follows an unambiguous policy, especially with regard to the Eucharist. In the absence of an ordained priest a celebration of the Eucharist is out of the question. However, this position does not appear to be shared by a part - probably a large part - of the priests, pastoral workers and volunteers active in the field. Many parishes and groups of the faithful are confronted with the simple fact that, now or in the near future, an ordained priest will no longer be available and that there is no hope of a remedy for this situation. The bishops try to meet this growing shortage either by importing priests from abroad, or by joining parishes into a region in which one priest has to be of service to several parishes.

In this way the hierarchy opts for maintaining the clerical form of the priesthood over and against the right of church communities to the Eucharist. Although in theory the Eucharist is said to be the centre of the Church's liturgy, celebrating it is, in fact, made dependent on the person presiding at it, which in consequence makes ordination the most important sacrament.

Pope Pius X (1905-1914) was hardly a progressive leader of the Church but he promoted the active participation of laymen in the celebration of the Eucharist. He stands at the beginning of the liturgical movement; the Second Vatican Council would not have taken place if Pius X had not pleaded for the renewal of the eucharistic practice.
In many parishes the celebration of the Eucharist is often replaced by a so-called Word and Communion Service: after the ordinary Service of the Word some prayers are said and Communion takes place with hosts, consecrated in a celebration of the Eucharist elsewhere. In the Netherlands the number of celebrations of the Eucharist on a Sunday fell between 2002 and 2004 from 2,200 to 1,900; the number of Word and Communion Services increased from 550 to 630. Many people do not notice the difference between such a Communion service and the celebration of the Eucharist. They call both celebrations "Mass".

What is happening today at grassroots level in the Netherlands is in accordance with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The Council stated that the people themselves and their salvation are the goals of the Church. It took the view that the hierarchy is at the service of the people of God and is therefore, strictly speaking, of secondary importance. This marked a departure from the "vertical theology" that still dominates the minds of the present conservative majority of bishops. This theology depends very much on the philosophy of Neoplatonism, in which everything comes from above like the water of a cataract and is handed over from one level of authority to the next inferior one. It sees the priesthood as part of a pyramid. The top of this pyramid reaches into heaven and therefore participates in divine life to the maximum extent. From this peak supernatural life flows down, through priestly mediation, to the lowest regions of the Church and finally reaches the base of the pyramid - that is, the laity. In this model a priest is admitted into the special domain of the holy and supernatural, which takes him beyond the domain of the natural and profane.

In the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, a different model of the Church came into better view: less strictly hierarchical, more organic and directed towards the community as a whole. This view is in line with the Pauline image of the Church as Christ's body. This change also made room for a different view of the function of leadership in this community. A minister receives a place or "order" in the body of the Church.

Recent letters from the Vatican, including Pope Benedict XVI's post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, published last February, almost deny that the Eucharist is a meal. By contrast, our booklet says that the Eucharist is rich in meaning. In the common sharing of bread and wine, in doing what Jesus did, He is present in our midst. The bread that is broken refers explicitly to Jesus' life and death, the wine points to his life force, to his strength of mind and spirit, to his blood; in the Bible "blood" means life force. Jesus' surrender of himself in his life and death may be called a "sacrifice". This sacrifice is made present in the Eucharist in the shape of a common meal, and the faithful join Jesus' act of sacrifice and surrender themselves. The leadership in a community is indeed a "service" in this view.

The booklet urges the parishes to take the freedom which is theologically justified to elect their own leader or team of leaders to celebrate the Eucharist. According to the text, "Those who preside in local celebrations should be inspired members of the community in question. Whether they be men or women, homo- or heterosexual, married or unmarried is irrelevant. Of interest is whether or not their faith attitude is stimulating and inspiring."
The parish community should then ask the bishop to confirm its choice of leader after due consultation by the laying-on of hands. This was the ordinary practice in the early Church. If a bishop should refuse such a confirmation or "ordination" on the basis of arguments not involving the essence of the Eucharist, such as obligatory celibacy, parishes may be confident that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine. It is to be hoped that bishops may in the future live up to their commitment to serve and confirm the leaders of local communities in their office.

The Dutch bishops have given a furious reaction to the booklet. Even before reading it in full, they declared that it contains elements "in conflict with the faith of the Roman Catholic Church". They think it improper for one group of faithful to address another without their prior consent.

Following pressure from the bishops, the Dutch Dominican Provincial, Fr Ben Vocking, has called off a conference the Council of the Dutch Dominican Province was planning to discuss the booklet's proposals. But the matter will not end there. Already there are signs that other Catholic groups in the Netherlands want to look closely at what provisions can be put in place to celebrate the Eucharist if no ordained priests are available. The Dominicans have also invited the bishops to set up workshops jointly with them. As yet the bishops have not responded but I hope they will agree. The matter is too important and urgent to brush aside.

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