Lay presidency at the Eucharist:  Why not?

The clergy numbers crisis should encourage us to seek alternatives.

by George Ripon

With the benefit of Fr Eric Hodgens’ article (Staunching the clergy haemorrhage, in which he clearly placed before us the shortage of priests, OLC 99) and the subsequent correspondence in response I felt the urge to continue the debate.  At times it feels like bashing one's head against a stone wall but that is all the more reason to persevere for the future of our Church. 

The numbers are not new of course.  I can recall about five years ago hearing them at our Sunday Mass. The message was (my inference) in the years ahead there are going to be fewer and fewer of us (clergy) to look after you lot (full stop): completely negative with no indication of any solutions.  To his great credit Fr Hodgens has one, which I see as prophetic.

The latest numbers (stats) are there in black and white.  Crunch time was the mid seventies with the dramatic decrease in vocation numbers, and continuing. As with other aspects of change it is good to go back to the beginning - and through prayer and discernment consider how priestly ministry could be expressed 2000 years on.

At the Passover meal Jesus sat down with his disciples.  He blessed the bread and wine saying, "these are My Body and Blood" and passed them round for consumption.  And then, "as often as you do this, you do it in memory of Me".  While we do it in His Memory the effects are here and now.  God comes to us in a most intimate way, using physical food as a sign of spiritual nourishment. 

At this time only an ordained priest can preside at the Eucharistic celebration. Clearly the present process is coming to an end.  It is not attracting young men - or even older men - in anything like the numbers needed even to maintain the present system. So we look to alternatives. 

The main one at present is to allow priests who left and married to return to ministry.  A survey here would be helpful.  My own feeling is that having made the decision to leave and now, with new careers, wives and children, very few, if any would want to put the clock back.  In how many of our parishes would the weekly collection be able to pay a proper wage to a married priest?  Other practical considerations would involve "work time" as against "family time".  Many parish meetings are still at night.  Days off and organised holidays would be essential.

The thorny question of women priests is off the agenda (whose agenda?).  But supposing?  Here again there are practicalities: How could a married woman balance bringing up children with a full-time priestly vocation?  Where would a husband slot in?  Looking ahead, maybe the answer will be a team; husband and wife, both ordained and sharing ministry.  I suspect not, in my lifetime, but again, why not?  It is clear that we, the laity - the People of God - need to be involved in positive discussions about the future of our Church.  It’s the debate that "we have to have".

Another possibility dealt with in a book review by Fr John Hill (To import, or not OLC 101) is that of importing priests from overseas.  In general terms, the ideal candidate is, at present, a male, born here and who has been through the Catholic school system with, of course, the desire to serve.  Hearing confessions, counselling and dealing with sensitive personal issues needs a response based on local experience.  So I do not favour a solution based on importing clergy.

Consistent with our present discussion, we look to a change in ministry.  Although the most important, the Eucharist is only one of many duties carried out by today's priest.  By delegating things like financial management, building maintenance and many weekly chores to the laity, the priest would have more time for spiritual matters. 

For the present, let's reflect on the Eucharist and back to Jesus at the Last Supper.  I am amused when the Last Supper is referred to as the "First Ordinations", often by priests.  There was no triumphalism, just Jesus and the 12 at a serious moment in time.  No degrees in philosophy or theology; just fishermen, a tax collector and other humble occupations. 

These were the ones chosen by Jesus to carry on the "breaking of the bread".  For its early development we look to the Acts of the Apostles.  In the midst of the enthusiasm that followed Pentecost, there are passing references to the "breaking of the bread".   In Acts 2: 42, the faithful "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers" (RSV).  Later at verse 46, "day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes".  So while the temple was available to them the Eucharist took place in the home, presumably led by a family member.  For early theology we look to Paul in 1 Cor. 11:23.

So the concept of lay presidency as suggested by Fr Hodgens and others is in line with the early tradition.  But it is not a question of any "Tom, Dick or Harry" selection and training would be needed with the blessing and approval of church authority.  It would be a weekend role by individuals otherwise in the workforce.  It would be Eucharist only, with no preaching, no counselling and of course, no confession. 

It is sad in a way that this matter arises by default; on the other hand, God works in mysterious ways and maybe what the Spirit is saying is..."back to basics, and learn from the early Church".  One thing is certain, if we still had the vocation numbers from the 50’s and 60’s we would not be talking about married clergy, either male or female.  Maybe God knows best?

next week: The Church has the power to change

George Ripon (riponpg@bigpond.com) lives in Hughesdale, Victoria


 
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