Donal Dorr [Started 2 March ‘21]
I am an eight-five-year-old missionary priest living in Dublin as a member of a community of nine semi-retired elderly colleagues. We gather every morning to celebrate our community Eucharist, led in turn by the different members of our group. Our Mass together is the spiritual high-point of each day. We share on the scripture readings of the day, various members of the group contribute Prayers of the Faithful, and then we move on to the Eucharistic Prayer including the sections allocated to the concelebrants. When it comes to the time of the Communion everybody is able to receive under both species by dipping the Host in the chalice. The whole ceremony is for us an important experience of nourishing Communion with God, with each other, with the wider Christian and human community, and with all of creation. It provides us with a solid Christian grounding for our more light-hearted conversations and teasing of each other during the rest of the day.
I often contrast our situation with that of other Christian communities—religious Sisters or Brothers and people in parishes who used to be regular Mass-goers. During this time of pandemic many of them tune in to a live video of a Mass celebrated by a priest in an empty church building. In this situation they cannot see who else is tuned in and the priest is the only person who plays an active role. There is no opportunity for them to share with each other on the scriptural readings. They cannot receive the consecrated bread and wine. So there is very little of the usual symbolism of ‘communion’ which should be central in a Eucharistic celebration. They are effectively deprived of partaking in the central symbol which was used by Jesus at the Last Supper to express and nourish his disciples’ sense of communion with Him, with each other, with their past history and with all of creation. It is only the more creative of them who are able and willing to design their own ‘non-Eucharistic’ religious services to supplement or replace their very attenuated experience of taking part in a Eucharistic celebration.
In the previous sentence I have put the word ‘non-Eucharistic’ in inverted commas. This is because the pandemic situation challenges me to ask myself what is Eucharistic and what is ‘non-Eucharistic’. I am forced to go further and ask awkward questions about the appropriateness of the Church laws which govern the celebration of Eucharist and our present understanding of the nature of priesthood. I find myself forced to ask that dangerous question: ‘what would Jesus want us to do in this situation?’
I don’t think that our Church authorities are entitled to dismiss this question by saying that ‘we will soon get back to normal’. It is this very situation which invites us to look hard at what has emerged in our Church over the centuries as ‘normal’. This seems to me to be an appropriate time for our theologians and Church leadership to reappraise our whole theology of priesthood and of the Eucharist. Furthermore, my experience of working as a missionary priest in a remote part of Africa makes me very aware that for thousands, perhaps millions, of Catholics in many parts of the world the ‘normal’ situation is that they are deprived for most of the time of the opportunity to take part in a fully Eucharistic celebration.
Some Church leaders have told people who cannot ‘receive Communion’ that they should make an act of ‘spiritual communion’. But theologians have pointed out how misleading it is to make this kind of contrast between the ‘real’ communion and some kind of second-class ‘spiritual communion’. What then would be a more authentic response to the present situation where so many people cannot be physically present for the celebration of the Eucharist? Perhaps we need a quite radical re-think of the present canonical rules and of the theology which underpin them. I leave it to sacramental theologians, in dialogue with scripture scholars and with Christians ‘on the ground’ who are hungry for the Eucharist, to explore the possibilities.
But in the meantime, I suggest an approach which I think would not have the disadvantages of the kind of attenuated Mass-attendance which so many Catholics have to be satisfied with at present—and which might be a more authentic attempt to take seriously the words of Jesus to his followers: ‘Do this in memory of me’.
Why not set up a process where members of the congregation would take part in a Zoom event where there is maximum participation by the participants. This would be done first of all by enabling all the participants to see each other in the beginning in ‘gallery view’. Then some members of this virtual congregation would read the first reading and the psalm. The priest would then encourage some of the congregation to share their reflections on the scripture readings and to make spontaneous Prayers of the Faithful. Furthermore, some of the participants might choose to have a little bread and wine in front of them and to consume them at the same time as the priest consumes the Host and drinks from the chalice. They would do this to ensure that the priest is not left alone as he eats and drinks ‘in memory of Jesus’.
If the priest, in consultation with the parish council, chooses to celebrate the Eucharist in this latter way, theologians and liturgists may wonder whether the priest’s intention could ‘reach out’ to consecrate the bread and wine consumed by members of the congregation. This is not a question to which I would venture here to offer an answer. And I am not even sure whether it is a question that needs to be answered—or perhaps even to be asked. Maybe it is sufficient that the celebration offers deep spiritual nourishment to the priest and the members of the congregation as they strive together to celebrate the Eucharist ‘in memory of Jesus’.
I wrote the above piece two weeks ago, and left it aside for several days just to see if I needed to make any changes. But I left it substantially intact and was on the point of sending it off when I saw Soline Humbert’s very interesting piece of 5 March on this ACP website (reprinted from SEARCH a theological journal of the Church of Ireland). I have great admiration of Soline as a person, and as a theologian and liturgist; and above all for her courage over so many years, in BASIC and more recently in We Are Church Ireland. My piece will seem very tame compared with what she has written.
I like to find whatever space I can within the existing legal structures of our Catholic Church, while pleading and pushing for changes which I think are called for. So, in my piece I am suggesting an approach which offers an opening for what I think is a more creative and participative approach to Eucharist than just tuning in to a Mass celebrated by a priest on his own in an empty church—but one which does not involve infringing the current Catholic liturgical rules.