The other day a friend of mine said, ”Jesus has to fix his church, because if he doesn’t people will just leave”. Maybe that is what all of us are here for — to fix the church. Legend says that a long time ago Jesus told St Francis to “rebuild my church”. Who can say that Jesus isn’t telling folks in our day to do the same?
The Coronavirus is having serious worldwide effects. One of the areas so affected is religion, especially the Roman Catholic version of Christianity. Throughout the world masses are cancelled and churches closed. We are reminded that the church is not buildings and plants, the church is people — us. It is our church, and we do our best to be open to the Spirit and Christ. Jesus told us “I will be with you always”, and, “I will send the Spirit to teach you to observe everything I have commanded you”. Especially these days we believe this is what is happening now, and we beg the courage to go where the Spirit is leading us, and do what the Spirit is guiding us to do.
The current crisis clearly shows us the devastating impact that clericalism has had on the church. Pope Francis points out that clericalism is perhaps the biggest problem we face. In the current crisis we see both clericalism and a remedy to it. We also see the power and impact of the “religious police” who who see themselves as the only “authorized” interpreters of the word and will of God, and eagerly set upon any who deviate in the slightest from their accepted norms and terminology. They are very active in their attacks on, and protests against, Pope Francis and his attempts to lead the church to be more open to the Spirit.
In a number of nursing homes and hospitals there are restrictions as to visitors and who can get in to help the patients and residents. In some of these places pastoral ministers who are not ordained are celebrating their own versions of the Sacraments of Anointing and Reconciliation. Many of these pastoral ministers are women. Who is to say that these ministrations “do not work”? Especially in the matter of women providing these ministrations, some would say that God is limited by gender. These pastoral ministers truly are serving God in their patients and residents, who don’t really care about the minister’s gender. We need to encourage and empower them as they do God’s work among us.
Recently the Vatican decreed that General Absolution can be offered under some circumstances. In the matter of a hospital or nursing home, it suggests that the ministers who can’t have direct access to patients and residents use “amplification of the voice, so that the absolution may be heard”. Why can it not be that someone on the staff who is already known to the patients and residents be able to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the face to face? Does it really have to be done by an anonymous voice of a public address system? Pastoral Ministers who are providing such ministry have to be encouraged. They very well may be a significant part of the church as we grow.
With the closure of churches and the cancellations of masses many priests are live-streaming masses on tv. Why could it not be that the heads of households and families be able to celebrate the Eucharist together, whether they are male or female, married or not married, gay or straight? This is the way the church started out 2000 years ago. When Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there with them”, he didn’t say anything about gender, faculties or permission, places, vestments. All that sort of thing came later with the rise of clericalism.
We are called to live the gospel in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. We don’t need civil law and circumstances to change so it is easier for us. These days we live in very difficult and challenging circumstances. Yet we believe the Spirit is among us, perhaps urging us to be creative and we believe that grace is real. We are also coming to realize that what is in the way is the way. Throughout history the church has adapted to circumstances. The gospel message remains the same, but how it is lived changes. The basic question, what does it mean for me/us to be a disciple of Jesus in my/our circumstances, is being asked today in the current crisis. The focus is on how we serve God in each other, and not how do we preserve the rights and privileges of celibate males.
Throughout the world women are stepping up where we celibate males cannot provide “sacramental ministrations”, and they are doing a terrific job. Some wonderful women, feeling the call to serve as priests themselves, have become ordained and, again, are doing a wonderful job, and the whole church benefits from their ministry. During my time as an active duty army chaplain, I came to see that women chaplains provided and insight and energy to pastoral ministry that we celibate males will never have. The same can be said of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. They, too, can provide pastoral insight that we celibate males will never have. The same can be said about the married priests I served with. Then, too, there are ordained priests who also felt called to be married and raise a family. We benefit from their ministry The obstacle to any development or growth in this area is clericalism, as we celibate males protect our turf and institutional system.
In the matter of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, why does it have to be that when a person is gravely ill a priest unknown to the patient and their family has to come in to celebrate the sacrament. Why cannot a person who has been caring for patients be able to anoint and celebrate Reconciliation? God is not limited by gender — we are, and we can change that.
We have to be careful, though, that we do not create another clerical caste. It might be that Christ is calling each of us and all of us to “repair my church”. When we emerge from the current crisis, we might look back on how all of us, using our own ways in our own areas, provided ministry, and realize that these do not have to be limited to the time of crisis, but are valid too in ordinary times. Perhaps with Pope Francis we will come to know our equality of service and our focus on people rather than systems, as important as they may be.
At a pastors’ conference in 1983 the presenter said, “traditionally we have believed that the church has Christ’s mission; perhaps we should be saying Christ’s mission has a church; what Christ’s mission will have in the future could very well be something that we would not recognize from where we are now”. Perhaps the current situation is a step in that direction. It is clear the Spirit is not done speaking.
As we move on our goal has be be openness to the Spirit in all things, not just our own convenience, and the protection of clericalism. Everything has to be on the table. Grace is real.
Just sayin . . .