Clericalised lockdown liturgies leave baptised out in the cold

COVID-19’s impact on liturgical praxis has left us reeling!

Significant liturgical decisions have left the liturgical ministry by all the baptised out in the cold and refocused the Mass as a clerical experience.

John N. Collins addresses the issues of priest and presbyter and as a factor in clericalised worship decision in ‘“Is it just the priest”?

The Catholic scripture scholar calls for more creative and evangelical way of conceiving ministry in the Church” in scripture scholar calls for more creative and evangelical way of conceiving ministry in the Church’ in La Croix (May 6, 2020).

The clergy’s ability to celebrate the Easter sacraments without the active, physical participation of the baptised assembly may be the turning point in a conversation concerning the relationship between clerical ministry and lay ministry in Catholic liturgy.

If it is the turning point, then liturgy has done her work.

She has taken us from the shell of the liturgical question to its Christological kernel or centre. How, now, do we understand and express our common baptismal discipleship through worship, ministry and mission?

The fact of clergy performing public liturgy on their own is problematic enough but more critical is to ask: why would they?

The simplistic answer is clericalism. But the more significant answer lies in the unresolved tension between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood that all member of the Church share through baptism.

Unresolved tension

This unresolved tension is seen in two examples.

The first example is a preparatory group in the United States that has devised three models for post-COVID Masses with congregations. All three are essentially clerical experiences.

In the first model, communion is not given to the faithful at all.

In the second model, pre-consecrated hosts from the tabernacle are distributed to them after Mass.

And in the third model, communion is distributed to the faithful immediately following the Ecce Angus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God).

The second example is the suggestion that the common priesthood enables the laity to gather in their homes and celebrate the Mass with bread and wine as a more authentic expression of koinonia (service-ministry).

“If the prayer for spiritual communion is the best on offer, wouldn’t it be better to do a DIY (do-it-yourself) Mass here at home? It would be more real,” wrote one of my parishioners.

“Why is a priest more permitted or sacralised to celebrate a sacrament (excluding marriage) and me a layperson is not sacralised enough to do it, even in extraordinary times?” the person continued.

When liturgical questions of ministry and authority are seriously presented our response must consider the ministry of Christ, the priest, as well as our theologies of sacramentality, sacramental mediation, communion, leadership and sanctification.

Ultimately this crisis is leading us to look more closely at baptism as the source of ministry, mission and priesthood.

Conflicting and forgotten priesthoods

Chapter Two of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, is titled De Populo Dei (on the People of God).

This title was chosen specifically to show that our primary, universal discipleship is undifferentiated by the terms cleric and laity, for which the name for the latter – laos Theou – is unambiguous.

But “People of God” is also used to distinguish believers who are not ordained from those who are, suggesting that the non-ordained belong to the group of the laos-baptised and are different from the group of the ordained-baptised.

This further suggests that the Church is made up of two different groups equal in some things, but not in all. Clergy and laity share a common source, but some have a more significant share of it.

The result is that “People of God” is not a reliable descriptor of the common discipleship shared by all the baptised.

The same is true of the term Christifidelis; that is, the faithful or Christian faithful.

When John Paul II used the term christifideles laici to reconcile the division, he only showed how deep the problem goes and widened the gap to the christifideles clerici.

Priesthood of all believers

The term “priesthood of all believers” has been used to name the universal baptismal discipleship of believers. Priesthood applied to all the baptised raises many questions concerning the identity of the baptised as priest and the identity of the cleric as priest.

Surely, laity and clergy cannot both be priests?

If priesthood arises out of the sacrament of Christian initiation (baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist), how is ordination a step up and out of this initiation into a new clerical state?

If Christian initiation is initiation into Christ and a participation in his tria munera as priest, prophet and king, what exactly does initiation confer? Is it an incomplete sharing that is only completed through ordination?

Initiatory participation in Christ’s tri munera has brought the nature, purpose and theology of priesthood for both lay and ordained ministry into question.

If all “incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the People of God” and have “become sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office”, then all share in Christ’s tria munera (CCC204).

But what does this mean for liturgical practice?

If Christian initiation is an initiation into the Church, and it calls each believer to exercise the tria munera of Jesus (teacher, sanctifier and leader) primarily within the Church, some ask why all believers cannot simply celebrate the Eucharist when an ordained priest is not present?

If the answer is that the tria munera is shared in different ways, then one must ask how Christ shares it differently with laypeople and clerics, since he is neither cleric nor lay?

It would seem that the categories we assign do not apply to Christ, or our Christology.

The liturgical problem

The problem for liturgical praxis is the lack of a functional Christology that enables us to understand how Jesus – the primordial sacrament and source of all ministry, mission and sanctification – is most fully expressed in liturgy.

Because the sacramentality of the Church exists within the sacramentality of Jesus. The Christocentric ground of all liturgical mission, ministry and sanctification is its relatedness to the existence and sharing of the tria munera of Jesus amongst the baptised within the Church.

The sacramental connection between the tria munera of Christ and the exercise of it by Christian disciples is pivotal.

At the heart of the matter is this: if initiation confers a share in Christ’s priestly office then the ministries that flow from this are sacramental. They are a direct effect of the sacraments of initiation themselves – which seems to be the basis for suggesting that the baptised (lay) celebrate the Mass.

If we say that all Christians share sacramentally in the tria munera of Christ can we also say that laity and clerics inhabit or experience them in fundamentally distinct ways? If this is true, then either what is shared is different, or how it is shared is different.

So, do laity receive an apostolate to do things and clergy a ministry to sanctify? If this is true, then the distinction in the tria munera is a distinction intended by Christ.

Thus, the heart of the problem is not the teaching that baptism brings a universal discipleship shared by all. The heart of the problem is how Christ shares the tria munera with all the baptised in one way and in a substantially different way with the ordained.

If Christ’s sacramental sharing in baptism to all believers is “universal” and his sharing sacramentally in Holy Orders to an ordained person is “hierarchical”, then the problem lies in our Christology.

This is the basis of the problem we are seeing many COVID-19 liturgical responses. It is clear in the theologies of the “priest-alone” and the “DIY Mass”.

Both are inadequate because they forget that liturgy is the exercise of the priestly office of Christ and his priesthood is the paradigm against which “priesthood” in the Church is measured.

In the liturgy, Christ’s priesthood is the means of the sanctification of men and women, expressed in symbol and sign in public worship performed by the mystical body of Christ, its head and members, not just by some of them.

Many of the lockdown liturgical responses show us either clinging to the hierarchical forms of worship or laicising worship at home with family.

Overall, this particular lockdown has shown that while the place of the laity has been re-established theologically in many – but not all – churches, the theology of the ordained has not kept pace.

Additional reading

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