Free the Eucharist from the curse of clericalism


The Eucharist is strangling the Catholic church. Most anthropologists assure us that rituals are essential to human life and self-discovery. Good rituals can be informative and formative. Bad rituals can be inhibiting and harmful.

I believe in the Eucharist as the source and summit of our life of Catholic faith. As a diocesan priest for more than 30 years, I have reflected long and hard about the power and purpose of our central sacred ritual.

One conclusion that I have come to is that many of the rubrics and traditions that have been built into it over the centuries are reinforcing the curse of clericalism that is bedeviling our church worldwide.

While not claiming to be an expert liturgist, theologian or church historian, let me identify some of the glaring flaws that I see in the way the holy sacrifice of the Mass is generally celebrated.

To begin with, we start and end with a procession. Why?

Rituals don't have to have a practical purpose but they should at least have some symbolic meaning. For my money, all that these processions seem to do is draw attention to the superiority and implied regal status of the ordained priest. Why can't the celebrant just walk in before Mass and take his place, like everybody else? Someone announcing the opening hymn could simply indicate that it is time to rise and begin the sacred ritual.

Priests being seated on thrones, or at least elaborate chairs, clearly separates them from those they are meant to serve, the members of the royal priesthood. Can you imagine Jesus at the Last Supper reclining on a separate elaborate cushion? Of course not. Special thrones symbolize an elitist and exclusive attitude.

Jesus' throne on earth was the cross. Priests' sitting on thrones today is a sign of presumption.

Then there is the other obvious symbol that contradicts Gospel values: extravagant vestments. I believe that the celebrant needs to be identified and distinguished within the liturgical setting, being present sacramentally in the person of Christ. However, surely a simple stole over the shoulders is sufficient. If a symbol does not speak naturally and clearly to people, then what is the point of it?

Vestments have become another creeping clerical tradition that separates the priest from his people. The wider the gap, the greater the distinction between priest and people, the more fertile the ground for producing clericalism.

I am a cradle Catholic, with no intention of becoming Protestant, but I am convinced that less can often say more. Among the various Christian traditions, we can learn so much from one another if we can be open to each other's traditions and seek appropriate middle ground on so many practices.

A more difficult adjustment has to do with the seating arrangements of the congregation. The most symbolic way for a community to gather to celebrate Mass is not in a building shaped like a cross, but rather to gather in a circle.

Having turned the priest around to face the flock, which was clearly a good move, the altar in many churches has become somewhat of a barrier between the priest and the community, especially if one adds huge brass candlesticks.

With smaller numbers of people, a circle is not so much of a practical problem, but with big numbers, it will require concentric circles. This would be far better than rows of pews stretching back farther and farther away from the altar. Pews are the enemy of community; they keep the laity docile and contained, corralled.

But where, you may ask, would the priest sit? Well, in the circle with everyone else, of course. What a great symbol of being one with his people. What about introducing a round table/altar, which speaks clearly of equality and hospitality?

With smaller numbers, one other minor innovation is to have the bread and wine passed around the group at the start of the preparation of the gifts. This is a lovely, simple way for people to more fully identify with the offering through touch.

And what about the bread (hosts)? As has been pointed out so often by others, we need to let go of the strict precise requirements and consecrate real-looking bread that people can connect to their homes and everyday lives. While we need to maintain links with the historical Jesus and the Last Supper, surely the greater link needs to be with the daily food in people's lives.

Recently on a trip to East Timor, I stayed with priests who live on rice as their staple diet, like everyone else in that struggling country. They rarely eat bread. The symbolic disconnect with the eucharistic wafer left me wondering.

There are various opportunities for women to take a more leading role in the Eucharist, if we can but shake off the shackles of rigid outdated rules. Why not have a woman lead the penitential rite, read the Gospel, share in the fraction rite or give a formal blessing?

I can promise you that the roof will not fall in. Clericalism thrives on inequality.

I hope and pray that priests and bishops around the world can wisely renew the Eucharist in creative and life-giving ways — without having to resign their parishes, a step I felt compelled by the Spirit to take a few years ago. I finally took this initiative as a belated response to what I had seen occurring over decades: people drifting and being driven out of an institution that had embedded sexist, homophobic and elitist beliefs and attitudes in its official teachings.

Subsequently, the Vatican excommunicated me for unknown reasons. This archaic discipline was imposed on me just a few months after Pope Francis' election, which is rather disconcerting.

My suspicion is that the hidden reason was my decision to follow my conscience rather than the church rules and continue to celebrate illicit Eucharists, in the form and style that I have suggested above. I helped establish a community of loyal, dissenting Catholics who felt disenfranchised or disillusioned by the institutional church.

Excommunication has afforded me the freedom to experiment with simpler, more inclusive forms of sacred ritual that have clearer and more relevant words and actions. It has allowed me the freedom to reject the new English translation of the liturgy, which is causing so many of my brother priests so much angst.

We have even developed a more inclusive form of the Sign of the Cross, using both hands, and the words: "In the name of the Loving Creator, the Compassionate Jesus and the Healing Spirit." Inclusive language can also do much to transform outdated attitudes and mindsets. Thankfully, many priests strive to make this important adjustment.

Add to this inclusive images of God, especially Mother and Sophia, and the Eucharist can become the force for unity, equality and compassion that Jesus meant it to be when he washed feet.

We are all indebted to so many church innovators around the world, including the Priests for Equality movement in the U.S., which created The Inclusive Bible.

Of course, there are valid reasons and explanations for all the official liturgical rules and rubrics, but so many of them pale into obscurity and irrelevance, in comparison to the harmful values that underpin them. They perpetuate biased and unbalanced attitudes that bedevil the church in the modern world.

May more bishops, priests and communities heed the call of Pope Francis, as he said addressing young people in June, to be "courageous and creative."

[Greg Reynolds was ordained in 1979 in the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, and resigned as a parish priest in 2011 to found the ministry Inclusive Catholics. He was involuntarily laicized and excommunicated in 2013.]

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