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Footnotes that determine history


Every Catholic sitting in a pew, as well as those who have not visited a pew for years, has been affected by headlines about clergy sex abuse. While this church scandal has been heralded by Time and Newsweek, our future may be more influenced by a much more obscure publication, The General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

This liturgical document is the American bishops’ adaptation of the most recent instructions from Rome on how we are to worship at Mass. Compared to the newsworthiness of a sex scandal, it may seem a relative footnote. But its potential for our experience of church is enormously significant. With the church, as in life, seemingly unrelated events rarely are unrelated. Underlying currents have a way of stemming from common sources.

For those Catholics who are not current on liturgical documents, this new general instruction defines the rubrics for eucharistic liturgy, the “etiquette,” if you will, of our coming together at the family table. As such, these instructions may seem rather insignificant. But liturgy, by its nature, is highly symbolic of our deepest values and always significant.

Passages from the General Instruction that are the most controversial include: (29) The homily may be given by the priest celebrant, by a concelebrating priest, or even by a deacon, “but never by a layperson”; (82) in order to avoid a disruption to the rite, the priest may exchange a sign of peace only with others in the sanctuary (162); extraordinary ministers of holy Communion come to the altar only after the priest has received Communion and always receive from the priest the vessel that contains the Blessed Sacrament that they will distribute. The distribution of consecrated hosts and wine to sacred vessels is reserved to the priest or deacon.

There is even the directive to extraordinary ministers of holy Communion that “the blessing of children or infants should not be encouraged while distributing Communion.”

The most observable changes would be at Communion time. The priest will no longer be free to leave the altar and exchange the sign of peace with his people. Instead he will be kept busy at the altar performing those duties at which ministers of Communion previously assisted and are now prohibited. While this denies a form of participation to both the layperson and to the priest, there is no doubt but that many clergy particularly feel the pain of separation in this new directive. Said one priest after hearing the new norms explained at a diocesan meeting, “It’s like Black Friday. This is the darkest day of my priesthood.”

One of the most observable changes of Vatican II was the removal of the Communion rail that separated the priest from the people. With one stroke of the pen it has now been reinstalled. No longer made of plaster or wood, it is now a psychological barrier that confines the priest to the sanctuary the way an invisible fence keeps a collie in the yard.

At the very time when our priests most need the affirmation and support of their people, when they need to be allowed to be human, that is what is being denied. It was cutting priests off from human contact that caused the headline crisis in the first place. Now that separation is being liturgically ritualized.

Vatican II inspired and encouraged the laity to live out the fullness of their baptismal call. Various roles as liturgical ministers came out of that invitation. Now it would appear the emphasis is not to be on the role of and nature of the baptismal call but, rather, on the unique nature of the ordained priesthood. There may be some priests and others who welcome this being “set apart,” who see the Eucharist as less profaned when touched only minimally by nonordained hands. Stressing the “otherness” of priesthood and setting it apart from the rest of human experience may be seen by some as a way of shoring up the crisis of vocations, but it hearkens back to a dangerous mentality.

As for the Liturgy of the Word, relatively few Catholic parishes have had the experience of qualified lay preaching over these last few years. But for those who have, that experience has opened up new and exciting possibilities. For the most part, these persons have been extended the privilege of preaching by virtue of their ability and giftedness. They are usually well versed in scripture, which is why they were invited to the ambo in the first place. If anything, they have raised the caliber of preaching in the Catholic church. The argument is not even being made that sermons by a priest are intrinsically better, more inspiring or doctrinally correct. What is there about the nature of priesthood that defines the charism of preaching? One cannot help but suspect that this, too, is about the emphasis on priesthood as a higher calling.

Unfortunately for the church, if reflection upon the Word of God remains solely the province of celibate males, much of human experience is not being brought to bear upon scripture’s meaning. At a time when we most need to hear that the word of God is relevant and powerful in our lives, the means of delivering that message is being narrowed.

We have only to look at the complementarity of masculine and feminine thinking to see the possibilities for expanding our understanding. Theologian Edwina Gateley reminds us that in Luke’s gospel Jesus gives us two side-by-side stories to describe what the kingdom of God is like. In one, God is like a woman who sweeps her house in search of a coin. In another, God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in search of the one that is lost. These two examples, given by Jesus, have existed alongside one another for all these centuries, but how many times have you seen a stained glass window, holy card or Church of the Good Housewife? Are there, perhaps, images and stories in scripture that have not even been developed because only men have done the developing? If so, then at the very time that the church needs all the wisdom it can muster -- and which God has amply provided, why must we limp along using only half a brain, half our experience?

In our parish we enjoy an ecumenical, sister-parish relationship with a neighboring Presbyterian church. A woman who is doing her internship there while preparing for ordination came to me recently to ask about these “changes” she’d been hearing about. When I explained it to her, she exclaimed, “It’s like having part of your body cut off!”

“Yes,” I said. “For Fr. Jim, it’s his right hand. For me, it’s my tongue.”

“How sad,” she replied. “The whole church is maimed by this.”

As for the phrase, “the blessing of children or infants should not be encouraged while distributing Communion,” the explanation is given that they “are blessed with the full assembly at the end of Mass.” That logic does little for the toddler-in-tow at Communion time, or for that toddler’s parents. It should be noted that the language of the document is so passively stated, “should not be encouraged,” that this would be a very low-level directive and only the strictest constructionist would see in this reason to deny children a blessing. Most likely, current practice will not be affected by this particular phrase. However, the mere fact that it was included in the document is troubling. What could be less like the intention of Christ who censured the apostles and said, “Let the little children come unto me”?

The kind of thinking that could author such a restriction, as well as the others, seems inherently flawed and out of touch with reality. This is often what so dismays the Catholic faithful. One of my sisters recently left the church. It was a very painful, difficult, reluctant decision on her part. As she explained it to me, “I could put up with all the things I take issue with -- the role of women, birth control, etc. as long as my experience of church at our parish was life-giving and positive. But when that was no longer the case, how can I stay?”

The American Catholic church has had to put up with a lot lately. As long as their experience of church at the parish level is positive, the faithful, like my sister, are amazingly resilient and forgiving. But these new directives may severely impact such an experience. They may, indeed, be the footnotes that determine history more than do the headlines.

Kathleen M. Kichline is director of liturgy at St. Thomas More Parish in Lynwood, Wash.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002