Sunday July 11, 2010
This morning after breakfast Heather and I drive into Portland. We attend Mass at St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church. We have heard about the dramatic redesign of this church’s liturgical space and want to experience worship in this setting.
A long narrow traditional nave with entrance at the West end and sanctuary at the east has been radically altered without changing the external structure of the building. The pews now face each other across a centre aisle, like the monks at the Abbey. The altar has moved out of the sanctuary that is now occupied by pews and a singing group facing west. The altar has been relocated a third of the way down the centre aisle and the lectern is at the West end facing the altar.
To preach the priest walks up and down the centre aisle, turning some times towards one side of the church and at others in the opposite direction.
The emphasis is clearly on community. The Mass is an action in which all participants share fully. It feels like a family gathering coming together to share comfortably in a familiar ritual. The singing is strong and the passing of the peace boisterous. The sense of welcome is palpable.
For the community of St. Andrew’s this worship space clearly works. It fits the character of their community. They are open, friendly, warm, and welcoming. The place in which they worship reflects and reinforces their identity.
Heather and I go forward at the distribution of the bread and wine. When Heather arrives at the front of the line and stands before the priest he immediately begins to give her the bread. Confronted by her bowed head, he appears momentarily flustered. It seems it has never occurred to him that anyone would come forward and fail to receive the bread.
The leaflet distributed as we entered St. Andrews states that “We welcome and include persons of every color, language, ethnicity, origin, ability, sexual orientation, gender status, and life situation.” Clearly the goal at St. Andrew’s is to be as broadly inclusive as possible. Their welcome appears to extend to the Communion table.
And yet, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.’ It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church.”
The US House of Catholic Bishops has published a statement that appears in many Catholic parishes which states “We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions that separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21).” The statement concludes, “Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Communion.”
It is hard not to wonder how a community like St. Andrew’s reconciles its radical hospitality with its church’s exclusive understanding of the nature of Eucharist. Are they just flying under the radar of the official church hierarchy? Or does the hierarchy simply turn a blind eye to the failure to adhere to its own corporate policy?
The monks at the Abbey may not agree with the narrow policy of the hierarchy of their church in relationship to the practice of accepting non-Romans at Mass, but they follow their Church’s stated teachings. Monks are trained in the spiritual practice of obedience.
I wonder how much the depth of spirituality I sense at Our Lady of Guadalupe is connected to the brothers’ willingness to submit, even to rules with which they may not be in total agreement. Why is it that my spiritual life is most deeply nurtured by the well-springs of spirituality I discover in the Roman Catholic Church?
The monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe belong to a wider church. That wider church has decided that the Eucharist is an earthly embodiment of sacred unity. Where that unity does not exist, the Roman Church affirms that full participation by separated brothers and sisters is a contradiction of the very reality the Eucharist exists to embody.
Do I have the right, to impose my individual conviction upon this community by contradicting their officially held belief?
The relationship between individual conscience and communal obedience is deeply complex and troubling. As an Anglican, I am used to affirming the claim of personal guidance by God’s Spirit over the claims of any institutional embodiment of that Spirit. Does this leave me free to manufacture the faith as I see fit? If I rely only upon my personal conviction will I not eventually be forced into a faith community that is as small as my personal conscience?
Is there any point at which my allegiance to my individual sense of God’s guidance may define me as having withdrawn beyond the parameters of what could legitimately be called “Christian”?
How do I know I have truly surrendered my will when, every time I feel my personal will is challenged I either withdraw from the community in which I feel uncomfortable or simply act upon my own convictions?
When I stand at the Communion Table, I choose to die to my personal will. I choose to embrace the form and structure of God’s will as it has been passed on to me in the Christian tradition I practice. I do not conform to Roman Catholic practice, perhaps I should accept the cross of exclusion from full participation at their table.