Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization was written to prepare for a gathering held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015.
Those who have experienced the strangeness of the academic job interview (especially at smaller schools) understand that it involves a series of high stress meetings with every faculty member in the department. These faculty ask you questions about your research plans, your teaching philosophy, and your planned lifetime commitment to the institution that you’re applying to. At one of these interviews, we began not with the usual chit-chat about teaching and research plans. Rather, this professor began immediately with “There are six sacraments for women. And seven for men. What do you think about that?”
In some ways, the question was to be expected. Every time that I have talked to someone on an airplane about my profession as a Catholic theologian, the question of women’s ordination surfaces. Yet, the inquiry at this interview was not really a question at all. It was a statement. One in which the presumption was that those refused ordination because of their sex are denied access to the full sacramental life of the Church. And that, indeed, the denial of this sacrament to everyone is a matter of clerical power. A job interviewee, I was not free to redefine the terms.
Of course, there is such a thing as an abuse of power by clerics, what one rightly calls clericalism. Because of the sacrament of ordination, some deacons, priests, and bishops see themselves as lone rangers in rescuing the Church (especially us precarious lay people) from the perils of secularism. They see the rite of ordination as bestowing not simply the sacred power of representing Christ and the Church in the Eucharistic offering. They also believe that ordination has made them the premier expert in carrying out administration and financial work, legal matters, preaching, catechesis, theology, every aspect of living Christian life in the world, and anything else that can happen in a parish or diocese. Of course, this kind of clericalism is not reserved solely for those ordained whether they are women or men (I’m 100% certain that Roman Catholicism is not the only group that suffers from clericalism). Receiving a master’s degree is often an invitation to a kind of “academic” clericalism, which elevates one above “those in the pews.” And those with doctorates are supremely good at being clerical, often far more expert at it than the clerics themselves.
This kind of reduction of the relationship between “lay” and “ordained” to the matter of power and prestige has a deleterious effect upon the worship of the Church. Priests can grow to see themselves as at the center of the Church’s life, creating a clerical culture in which we worship “Father So and So” or Bishop “X” and not Christ crucified. Yet, a similar approach to power can operate among those of us in the pews, who want to democratize liturgical action. “We should be able to do more in the liturgy, be able to participate in everything, because it’s our liturgy–we are the Church.” A theological statement may be true but can be said in the wrong way, becoming an expression of ideology not gift. We, all of us, are the Church. And this means that our identity is a gift from the crucified love of Christ, not setting “us” up against “them.”
Yet, how do we avoid this polarization of lay and ordained, played out frequently in the liturgical wars of the last twenty years? Can we move beyond power politics in our relationships, toward a relationship of mutual love and respect? In other words, can we be a Church, the family of God, Christ’s mystical body?
Healing Has Already Started…Some Time Ago
Several weeks ago, I gathered for a baptism at the Log Chapel on Notre Dame’s campus. In that assembly, we had present four Holy Cross priests and a brother (one priest ordained the day before, who was serving as godfather and another who was presiding), two theologians with doctorates, five lay ministers and teachers with master’s degrees, and an accountant or two. A rarefied group, there was nonetheless no sense of prestige or ambition in the group that day. Fr. Aaron administered the sacrament of baptism because he was ordained to do so. But, he had a deep admiration and respect for those of us in that assembly, who live out the baptismal priesthood through caring for toddlers and educating in classrooms and loving our spouses.
In reality, for many lay women and men, this is our experience of the priesthood. On numerous occasions, I have been asked to address groups of priests in dioceses on preaching and liturgical practice. Rarely has there been enmity expressed because I was a lay person telling ordained men how to do their job. At the same time, I have deep admiration for those men, who live out their ordained priesthood through transforming their lives into Eucharistic gifts. Fr. Pete McCormick, C.S.C. has taught me more how to care for my son than many parents insofar as I have watched him drop with joy all recreational plans to listen to a student in need. He misses football game after football game in order to preside at the wedding of a former student. He is a disciple, and there is something about his priesthood that makes him this in a way that inspires me on a daily basis.
My own deep admiration for the “set apart” quality of the priesthood is not unique among those my age. It is also not uncommon to encounter a generation of priests in the Diocese of Knoxville (my home diocese) or in the Congregation of Holy Cross, who see collaboration with lay Catholics to be not requirement but gift. There is a common mission that we are undertaking, one that we perform in our own particular way.
This Mission is the Eucharistization of the World
I often make it a practice to read interviews with seminarians who are currently in formation. Often, when asked to reflect on what they long for most, they note it is making available the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ each day for the assembly of the faithful. When reading these texts, I often think to myself, “Yes, that is the most important thing that you do.” But, I hope that you recognize what this means for both of us, lay and ordained.
In his work, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, Louis Bouyer writes:
Everything that [the layperson’s] activity encounters in this world–all human beings with whom it associates him, in any way; everything he does, on the personal, familial, professional, social, political, and cultural planes; and everything he becomes–must be made an occasion of giving thanks to God in the faith. This ‘eucharist’ of the faith becomes real only by being exercised in charity toward our brothers [and sisters] on all occasions, in all these paths. In this way the Christian extends in the world, in the life of every day, the royal priesthood whose fundamental exercise is his participation in the Eucharist, but which takes on its fullest meaning and reality only if his participation brings him consecration of his whole existence, preparing…for the consecration of the universe” (455).
The reason why I get along so well with so many priests is because we’re aware of our respective roles in this eucharistization of the world. The priest’s ministry, including his liturgical ministry, is oriented toward offering me the resources to transfigure the world through his preaching and bestowing of the sacraments. Yet, the activity that I perform in the sanctification of the mundane is not some lesser Eucharistic activity, a kind of “spiritual” offering (which is nice and pleasant but not really Eucharistic). It is really the “making eucharist” of the world, part of God’s salvific plan for reality. My “eucharist” is not more important than the offering made possible by the ordained priesthood. But, it is not less important. It is a mutual sharing of gift, of role, of vocation.
Perhaps, it is this theology of the lay priesthood (and the gift of the ordained priesthood to this lay life), which still remains far too unknown following the Second Vatican Council. The option in the Church isn’t between professional cleric (who cares about faith) and lay person, whose only responsibility is to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. Rather, it is two forms of priesthood, mutually co-adhering. Two forms of priesthood that make possible a world of self-giving love.
Clericalization in the Liturgy is Both “Liberal” and “Traditional”
It does seem important to emphasize that there remains approaches to liturgy that are clerical (in the bad sense of that term). And such liturgical styles are not simply reserved for so-called traditionalists. The priest may change the texts of the liturgy, making clear that he is the ultimate creator of the text. The priest may insert editorial comments into each liturgical action, refusing to give those of us gathered an occasion to offer the depths of our hearts to the triune God. The liturgical actions of the priest (or the way that he speaks certain words) may draw attention not to Christ but to himself. His preaching on Sunday mornings can become an occasion for him to engage in public forms of therapy or preaching on the social or cultural issues that he is most concerned about. He may only seek to cultivate liturgical ministry among men, who may one day be ordained to the priesthood.
Yet, it is equally the case that a similar form of clericalism can exist among those who do treat rubrics or the beauty of the liturgy itself as an idol. An ordained minister who wants to direct every moment of activity rather than forming lay women and men who have unconscious competence relative to their own activity in the liturgy. A priest or bishop who sees the liturgy as the place to express his personal vision of the Christian life. Parishes shows signs of such clericalism when they change their entire liturgical style based upon the arrival of every new pastor. As Bishop Peter Elliots, a good liturgical celebrant “…draws his collaborators into his own ars celebrandi by requiring high standards based on training to develop skills and to correct errors. He should expect dedication and never settle for less. Nevertheless he does not play the ‘sacristy priest,’ because he delegates liturgical training and formation to those he has already formed in the wider ars celebrandi” (“Ars Celebrandi in the Sacred Liturgy” in Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, 79).
In a course that I have taught this year on liturgy, theology, and aesthetics, many of my students attended a Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, one in which the priest prayed the Eucharistic Prayer facing the same direction as the people (ad orientem). In their description of this rite, they commented upon how “un-clerical” it was for the priest and lay person to face the same direction in their prayer. That our prayer is a common one, performed together. And it is a prayer that neither of us own but receive as gift from the Church. Perhaps, there is more wisdom (than simply some return to an archaic practice), something deeply formative about an ad orientem posture in Eucharistic praying, one that is not simply about the ordained excluding the lay from prayer.
Christ is the Powerful One
The last suggestion, implicit all along, is that the problem with many approaches to liturgical prayer (and why people see it as polarizing) is that everything is immediately reduced to the question of power. Why does Rome have all the power? Why does the priest have all the power? Why do “we” not have more power?
While power may work well as a sociological category in assessing how institutions function, the reduction of all liturgical activity in the Church to power is a de-sacramentalizing one. The Church exists not because of its own power but because the Church gathers around the only one who has power to begin with, the powerless one, Jesus Christ. The one who did not claim “power” over the Father but emptied himself. The one who learned the power of obedience, even unto death. The one who was raised up from the dead through the power of God.
To analyze lay and clerical liturgical action according to “power” is, in some ways, to simply perpetuate the polarization that can be present in the Church today. Both lay and ordained are to exercise power but a power that comes first and foremost from the crucified God, Jesus Christ. This point is emphasized by Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium:
The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”. Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”. Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life (EG 104)
This series on liturgical polarization began with a claim that polarization, the creation of an “us” vs. “them” in liturgical worship is a problem for ecclesial unity. This statement remains true. But, it must be emphasized at the conclusion of the series that liturgical polarization in parish life is not the normative reality. That most of our parishes are places where human beings participate in Christ’s own life from birth to death. And while parish structure is changing, while attendance (at some parishes, those not in the South) may be dropping, the unity of the Church is performed week-after-week in these buildings.
I learned the possibility of divine love in my local parish. It was a parish that sang hymns, which I didn’t always want sung. It was a parish in which there were real arguments over liturgical space. It was a parish in which I’ve seen political conservatives and liberals argue over the demands of the Gospels. But, it was a parish in which we dined at the Supper of the Lamb. A parish in which God’s glory was made manifest among us. A parish in which wounds were healed through the sign of peace, through learning to recognize the presence of the Word made flesh dwelling in our midst. That we gathered around a truth that we ourselves did not create, a truth that is traditioned by the Church itself. A truth spoken in love.
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.