May 11, 2010


(thanks to Terence Weldon at Queering the Church for the link to this article at dot.commonweal. Very interesting comments follow the article at the site. )


Models of the Future Church

Posted by Lisa Fullam

Back in 2004, the archdiocese of Boston announced the closure in one fell swoop of more than 18% of its parishes . In the midst of all the shock, sadness, anger and dismay, some parishes decided to refuse the order to close, and began to maintain round-the-clock vigils in the churches to keep them open. Saturday’s Boston Globe included a piece from a member of one such church. Money quote:

While the universal Catholic Church seems on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own moral crisis, the weekly gathering of this close-knit congregation generates a palpable spirituality that is rare and unique.

The St. James phenomenon (replicated across sister parishes in Massachusetts that also chose vigil over closure) is changing church culture by pioneering a post-institutional brand of grass-roots Catholicism.

I’m intrigued by this. We all know of situations of priestless parishes still under the auspices of various dioceses: a priest may zoom through to dispense the sacraments, but day-to-day pastoral care is carried out by non-ordained people. One troublesome point in these parishes is the separation of the practice of ministry from the celebration of the sacraments, in which the latter are rare special events run by strangers, not a regular part of the worship life of the community. A second concern is the lack of uniform standards for people running such churches–one parish might be run by a gifted lay minister with an M.Div., but the next might be run by a person without a shred of theological or pastoral training. 

But these “Heavens, no, we won’t go” parishes are a different kettle of fish. Instead of divorcing ministry from sacraments, these communities have formed a new model of church with generally egalitarian leadership, continuing to celebrate Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life,” and developing a vibrant sense of community. The divorce here is of the community from the hierarchy of the Church. (I still worry about the theological training of the leadership. But there are lots of qualified people thereabouts–if theologically-literate leadership is important to the community, they can find people with both vocation and education to lead and/or teach.) 

We’re at a time of increasingly diverse “versions” of Catholic parish life, including the two I mention here. With or without the cooperation of Church leaders, the Church is changing. 

To which I'd like to add this quoted discussion from NCR which I posted last September:

It was Schillebeeckx who contended in his 1980 book Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ that the church had gone awry by connecting the faithful’s right to Eucharist to some “magical power” of the hierarchy to ordain, thereby disconnecting it from the community of Christians. He noted that the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century had declared any ordination of a priest or deacon illegal, as well as null and void, unless the person being ordained had been chosen by a particular community to be its leader.

Because the church has basically ignored that clear directive of the early church throughout the second millennium, Schillebeeckx recommended “new possibilities” for reconnecting the Eucharist to its community roots, even if such actions contradict current church law. In “Church and Ministry,” the newly released document, the Dominicans put forward such “new possibilities” as this: “Men and women can be chosen to preside at the Eucharist by the church community; that is, ‘from below,’ and can then ask a local bishop to ordain these people ‘from above.’ ”

If, however, “a bishop should refuse a confirmation or ordination” of such persons “on the basis of arguments not involving the essence of the Eucharist, such as a requirement that deacons or priests be celibate, parishes may move forward without the bishops’ participation, remaining confident “that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine." 

taken from National Catholic Reporter interview, December 14, 2007

This quote has always had a powerful effect on me, as a daring solution to so many ills besetting the Catholic community in this time, the sexual scandals being at the top of the list. It would require extraordinary daring to implement, however, and culturally would be next to impossible to receive widespread acceptance (to judge by the comments and reactions at dot.commonweal. to the above article.) However, in those communities deprived of the services of a priest for as long as a year (1 yearly visit for confession and baptisms in some remote mountain villages in South America), the 'lay catechist' should surely be entitled to lead the community in the celebration of the Eucharist. But I've also proposed elsewhere that communities of disaffected gay Catholics, who feel bound in conscience to remain outside the formal worship of the Church, should then gather together and celebrate the Supper of the Lord.