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Doing liturgy without a priest in the house.

On your next European vacation, die in Vienna, Austria, and more than likely your graveside service will be conducted not by a priest but by a delegated layperson (as if you would care at that point). In the Austrian capital, about 30,000 Catholics die every year, and the archdiocese's 650 priests cannot handle that many funerals without some lay assistance. So local church officials there have trained a corps of lay graveside presiders to lift some of the burden.

That is just one of the changes we will see slowly creeping across the face of Catholic America over the next decade as a result of the clergy shortage. Come to think of it, if you die here at home anytime after the turn of the century, your American graveside service will more than likely be lay-led.

Before that decisive turn of events in your personal journey, a layperson may officiate at your daughter's wedding and another layperson baptize your first grandchild.

In the meantime, you will have attended several hundred "Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest." (Yeah, yeah, I can now see you cynics out there, sitting up at the thought: "In my parish, that would be a blessing!") But before you get too excited at the prospect, let's take a look at what's involved.

Late last year, the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal statement on Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. Its official title: Gathered in Steadfast Faith, which has a whiff about it of whistling past the graveyard. The text consists of an introduction, seven brief chapters and a conclusion, all adorned with a set of 43 footnotes.

One of the anomalies of this statement is its timing: It is now three years old! It received its final editorial form in November 1989, but the NCCB administrative committee asked that its publication be delayed until the completion of an accompanying ritual book was "immanent" (NCCB General Secretary Robert Lynch's explanatory note says that, but probably means "imminent").

The text labors mightily to have its Eucharist and eat it, too. In some parts, the tone is Pollyannish; in others, a bit Pecksniffian. Over all, the document attempts to put the best face on a liturgically bad situation.

For instance, the introduction begins by citing a historical parallel that resembles our contemporary situation -- as if knowing we are not the first to face such a crisis somehow lightens our predicament: "When the Catholic church was just beginning to take root in North America, it often happened that only on an occasional Sunday could the New communities expect to gather for the celebration of Mass. Priests found it necessary to divide their presence among a circuit of fledging parishes. As a result, Catholic families in these communities would stay at home on other Sundays for family devotions, private prayer, festive meals and the observance of the Sunday rest" (No. 1). (Sounds like Little Church on the Prairie.)

The text calls the modern equivalent of that missionary situation "a serious problem facing the church," but tries to look on the bright side. It somewhat optimistically sees some positive results: Here's a chance to reflect on the mission of all the baptized, come up with creative ways to redistribute what priests there are ("Father, as you bishop, I am about to creatively redistribute you") and evolve new approaches to nurture priestly vocations (No. 3).

But the introduction closed by tackling in a few short paragraphs the dilemma posed by noneucharistic Sundays for the constitutive nature of the church. It is, the statement acknowledges, a nowin situation: "When necessity demands that the Sunday liturgy take another form (other than the eucharistic celebration), it is to be structured in the best way possible while being made clear to all that it is not the Mass" (No. 8).

Then, in surreal fashion (given today's practice), the document affirms the "primacy of Sunday" as "the Christian festival" (No. 13), asserting that "no other day of the week can be substituted for it" (No. 15) -- and here I am, just back from a Saturday evening Mass that fulfilled my Sunday obligation.

The text's next two paragraphs (Nos. 16 and 17) make up an entire chapter entitled, "Sunday, the Pre-eminent Day for the Eucharist." But that title is not borne out in the text, which highlights the central importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian (rubbing our noses in it, eh?) and mentions Sunday only once -- and that in a quote from St. John Chrysostom (No. 17).

At this point, those responsible for the composition and editing of the document must have appreciated the thinness of their work. They launched into a third chapter, "Sunday Celebrations When a Priest Cannot be Present," which offers three reasons for gathering on Sunday as a worshiping community, even when a priest is absent (or not present, or whatever): preserving the sanctity of the Lord's day, retaining the habit of assembling on Sunday, preparing for the time when there will be a priest to lead the community in Sunday Eucharist (No. 20) -- the last of which begs the question.

Noting that the thought of these priestless Sunday celebrations will be "altogether new for most" (No. 22), especially in light of Vatican II's emphasis on the Eucharist as both essential and central to the lives of Roman Catholics, the document falls all over itself to justify and enhance celebrations without a priest (Nos. 23-28).

Two telling points in this series of justifications exhibit the depths to which we have fallen. The first is the explanation that lay leaders can lead these services because bishops have the power to appoint lay leaders to lead these services (No. 27) -- so there! And because we reserve the consecrated bread of the Eucharist, we have the possibility of Holy Communion outside the context of the Mass itself. Uh, what would you say to a parallel justification for sex outside marriage? (Just kidding.)

The best part of Gathered in Steadfast Faith comes in chapter 4, where it sets out (No. 32) a list of qualifications for lay leaders who will preside in the absence of priests.

Appreciate with me the delicious irony that out bishops want to replace priests with laypersons who exhibit the following characteristics: "a living appreciation for scripture; a deep reverence for the Eucharist; an active prayer life; a spirit of cooperation with the laity and clergy of the particular community; an acceptance by the members of the community; an active involvement in the pastoral life of the community; and both a strong desire and ability to foster participation by laypeople as members of the worshiping assembly and in other liturgical roles." My question is: If in the green wood, why not also in the dry?

One would think that such an apodictic listing would call for some stringent national standards. But that is not to be. The text goes on to state that each diocese will have to establish its own procedures for the selection of candidates for these leadership roles (No. 31), determine a specific term for the length of the appointment (No. 29), design a program of training and formation (No. 35) and decide on the context and timing of the commissioning ceremony (Nos. 36-37).

In spite of all this vetting, training and commissioning, the lay leader is to remain a mouthpiece: "The pastor may provide a text," says the document (No. 55F), "for the leader to read" at homily time. And, to rub salt in the wound, a footnote (No. 38) suggests that "in some circumstances, it may be desirable for the pastor to send a recorded message or homily to the community."

Although No. 55C says the bishop may allow "properly trained" laypersons to explain the scriptures in their own words, that point is moot since the American bishops in 1991 defeated (or rather failed to pass) a motion authorizing lay preaching in the United States.

The federal-state dichotomy of our political structure is mirrored in our church's national conference-diocese relationship. One of the problems we face here in the United States is that our liturgical structure is so, well, American. We rail against bureaucracies and the effect of red tape but when you sit down and peel the layers off the onion, there are very few bona fide bureaucracies in this country.

A few years ago, a public commentator called for "the de-bureaucratization of liturgical life" here in the United States. What was this man inhaling, I thought. Local bishops foster the liturgical life of their dioceses through diocesan commissions (which meet monthly at most and usually comprise a dozen members) and diocesan liturgy offices, many of them staffed by a part-time priest director who has to rely on a secretarial pool. Some bureaucracy.

Those local commissions and offices are organized on the national level in the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. The federation meets once a year. Its board of directors (about two dozen delegates from those diocesan liturgy offices mentioned above) meets twice a year, and the daily administration of the group is overseen by one full-time priest on loan from his diocese who works out of an office in the basement of the Theological College, opposite the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Some bureaucracy.

Within the NCCB, there is a standing committee on the liturgy comprising a dozen episcopal members who meet several times a year with advisers (for the most part, diocesan liturgists, again see above). That committee, the BCL, relies on a secretariat for day-to-day administration. That secretariat comprises three full-time persons. Some bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy and its cognates, especially bureaucratic, are pejoratives. The root of the words is the Latin burra, which means "sheep shearings" (that's shearings, not droppings). In the old days, those shearings were woven into the cloth that covered the desk tops of those who administered empires. Bureaucracies and desks were linked right from the beginning. But as the above finger count indicates, the "liturgical bureaucracy" of the United States is probably conducted across fewer than 400 desks, cloth-covered or not.

What the bishops depend on for the elaboration and execution of liturgical policy is a loose-linked but somewhat restricted group of individuals that stays constant in numbers through the years because positions remain static, even though their holders move on and are replaced by those groomed to succeed.

What Gathered in Steadfast Faith seems to hope is that those parts of this liturgical "bureaucracy" that have proven creative in the past by pioneering liturgical programs of one type or another, eventually adopted in other parts of the country, will perform that service once again.

The document concludes (Nos. 59-61) by thanking all who assisted in the preparation of Gathered in Steadfast Faith. It notes that the task group established to oversee the creation of the text "quickly learned of the complexity of the problem on both the theological and pastoral levels" and "discovered that proposed solutions did not really deal with the root problem, that is, the lack of a sufficient number of priests or, at least in some areas, the inequitable distribution of priests" (No. 60).

Members of the task group wisely did not append their names to the document (although some have spoken out publicly -- and critically -- since its publication).

In the final analysis (as so many observers, critics, commentators, pundits and archangels have pointed out), it's really all about power, isn't it?

And the final struggle, for all our theology of orders (bishops, priests and deacons are ordained; you're not), will come down to confrontations, first between bishops and individual lay leaders, then between bishops and lay-led communities. Shades of 19th-century trusteeism!

Before 25 years have ticked off the clock (mark my words -- and, if you have a highlighter in hand, you may conveniently do so now), the bishops will be back at the drawing board. Gathered in Steadfast Faith will have degenerated into Scattered in Widespread Mistrust.

Bill Freburger is editor of Celebration.
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Title Annotation:'Gathered in Steadfast Faith' report
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 11, 1992
Previous Article:Secret of liturgy is trust the symbols.
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