There is little doubt that, even after it has passed and we return to what we have long known as normal life, the current Coronavirus crisis will have significant impact on the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, and probably on other traditions as well. A legitimate question is what are we going to do with all this. Will we give serious thought to new and different things, or will we focus on getting back to “the way things have always been”?
One area that probably will be affected is celebration of Eucharist. To their credit many priests are live-streaming masses for online use. What also is happening, though, is folks are getting together in small groups to celebrate their own Eucharist. Some families living together in one household are doing this in their own houses. Other folks, respecting the call to shelter in place and avoid gatherings, and making use of online programs to establish their own communities together online for Eucharist. Both of these offer different modes of gathering in prayer. A fear is that they will be told that, since there is not a priest involved, they do not have the “real Jesus”, a phrase once used by a bishop to criticize a parish group who refused to accept the closing of their parish and had formed their own Christian Community.
The clericalism in the church would seem to be a major obstacle in any constructive attempts to look at what is going on. I firmly believe the Spirit is very much involved in our reaction to what is going on “teaching us to observe everything Jesus taught us”. He did not teach us to build large churches, wear fancy clothes, or favor celibate male superiority. When he said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them”, he did not say anything about faculties, gender, buildings, etc. Growth is happening, folks are actively making their own choices, and and who is to say that the “real Jesus” is not with them.
It seems that we are living on the cusp of the old and the new — the old is very obviously with us, and the new is with us too, perhaps less obviously. The new is happening in small groups everywhere as folks are beginning to experience that so much of the old that has served us so well for centuries no longer works so well. What we are headed for is not something that we can fully describe from our vantage point today. It could very well be something we cannot recognize.
Among the things that are going on is the sense the Jesus is among us and in each of us, whether or not a person wears a stole, is LGBTQ, follows a clearly delineated set of actions. Small groups, such as Intentional Eucharistic Communities, are taking responsibilities for their own celebration of Jesus among them, and not just putting the responsibilities on one person. There seems to be a process of discernment happening. We are coming to realize that, as important as rituals and rites are, they are not the only way to gather and celebrate Christ’s presence among us. There is no Harry Potter factor where words have to be recited and gestures executed exactly or nothing happens. We are at a time of “already but not yet”.
Folks are learning not to be passive in their life in the church, to take responsibility for their own growth and life. Often they are seen as threats to the status quo. The crisis is forcing us to come together in smaller communities to celebrate and grow. It is reinforcing our need for, and our responsibiities to, each other. We are learning during this virus not only to protect ourselves from others but to protect others from ourselves. We are forced to put others first. And so the Gospel happens.
It seems to me that, if we really believe in the Holy Spirit, then we have to be open to and trust her as she leads us forward to ask the basic question, “what does it mean for us to be followers of Jesus in our own time now and in the setting of what is going on now?” Everything has to be on the table. We have to truly be open, not telling the Spirit what we are willing to learn and what we are not willing to learn. None of this can be for our own convenience.
For many of us, Eucharists celebrated on retreats often have had a powerful impact, and for some it is still an important part of our lives as adults. In my own experience, Eucharists I celebrated in combat in Vietnam still are a powerful part of my life, and probably are a factor in my uncomfortableness in celebrating large and “complicated” liturgies. In combat settings I did not follow all the liturgical prescriptions. Celebrations in bright colored vestments were not too good in rice paddies. Masses were brief and to the point, at times interrupted by unfriendly neighbors, and involving casualties. Memories like this do not go away. Some return time and again as unpleasant and intrusive dreams.
The point is Eucharist happens in the setting of our lives as they really are, and as we live them, not as we wish they were or some person or group tells us they ought to be. Eucharist can be adapted to circumstances. Sometimes our circumstances are conducive to prayer, other times they are not. And yet, Eucharist happens as intentionally we gather together reflecting our circumstances, whatever they are.
In all probability the desire to return to the status quo will be more effective than the desire to move ahead. The hope is that the folks who have experienced small group liturgies will keep moving in their direction.
In the current Coronavirus crisis God is with us, often in and through each other. And when this crisis passes, God still will be with us in and through each other. Hopefully we will not return to business as usual, in large and often anonymous groups in large churches. Perhaps many of us will have come to experience the power and caring of Eucharist in small groups, and will move wherever this takes us. The important factor is being fully open to the Spirit in every way. Grace is real.
Just sayin . . .