What should the style of our Eucharistic celebrations be? What is the appropriate role of the priest? Of the lay Christian?
In a way, there is no simple answer to these questions – no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the Lord’s Supper. But we should be very clear on one point – it IS the Lord’s supper, not ours! Eucharist is a gift of the Spirit to the people of God that pre-dates the ordained priesthood: long before there were ordained, professional clerics, those who loved the Lord and found hope in his message gathered in small groups, in private homes, and broke bread as they remembered Him.
Two thousand years of history have transpired since those early communities gathered – in Jerusalem, in Corinth, in Galatia. The celebration of the Eucharist has been, long ago, clericalized, and lay Catholics trained, from generation to generation, to sit quietly and watch. After the Council, just getting Catholics to sing hymns and shake hands was a chore. Change occurs incrementally, and the art of celebrating the Eucharist (and leading a Eucharistic community) is to allow people feel comfortable with what they know, even as we help them discover new ways of being a Eucharistic community.
This means that the nature of the community will, to some extent, tell us what is appropriate. For a large gathering of Catholics, what they know best is a priest-proclaimed Eucharistic prayer, in which they join at the acclamation and the concluding Amen. They have been taught that, without an ordained priest to lead the celebration, to proclaim the words of ‘consecration,’ no Eucharist is ‘real,’ and that belief, rooted in centuries of tradition, will not be easily overcome.
In that kind of setting, involving the congregation is as much of the celebration as possible (through hymns, acclamations, as readers, etc.) without jarring the expectation of the priest led Eucharistic prayer is probably the best practice. And the presider should be as un-clerical as is humanly possible when such a role is thrust upon him. This would also hold true, I’d think, in newly formed groups whose members are used to the institutional structures of Eucharist. A ‘home mass’ for communities such as these should probably be a more intimate version of what they would experience were they to go to a local parish.
In a smaller, more intimate gathering, though, the nature of what is appropriate, I think, shifts with the nature of the praying community. When members of the community understand their role and dignity as gifted members of Christ’s body – and equal before the Lord, and when they understand the nature of the Eucharistic prayer itself – not as the rote recitation of words approved by the Vatican, but as a prayer remembering the saving life, death and resurrection of the Lord – then I have no problem with the Eucharistic prayer being shared by the entire group in whatever way the group decides works for it. This is a giant step away from the clerical control of the Eucharist.
In spiritually mature communities, I see no reason why an ordained priest is needed at all. As in the earliest Christian communities, ministry will emerge as gifts of the Spirit to the group itself. The call arises from the community itself, and there is no reason why the person so gifted need be an institutionally ordained male priest. We are all baptized priest, prophet and king with the Lord; He is the one true priest, mediating the love of the Father to us through the Spirit, we need no other. But the theological expertise of the institutionally ordained is a valuable asset in these communities, and will help them remain faithful to the best of the tradition within broadly diverse parameters. In this model, the ordained priest becomes more like a rabbi.
I believe that this later model is the direction in which the entire church is heading, impelled by the Spirit – but change is difficult for people, and they must be lead incrementally, in baby steps, back to the future.