Presiding at Eucharist — An Open Letter to the Dignity/Washington Community

A (Long) Open Letter to my friends at Dignity/Washington

Dear Friends,

This evening, a Dignity/Washington “Task Force considering the issue of Women Presiders at Mass will facilitate a 1-hour community dialogue … to express thoughts and opinions on this issue.”

Wine-and-BreadFor many years, D/W was my spiritual home, a place where I was privileged, along with other LGBT Catholics, “our family and friends,” to gather regularly for the celebration of Eucharist. As I am not able to be present for this community dialogue, I’d like to do the next best thing. I’d like to say from afar what I wish I could say in person. So, I am putting in writing my thoughts and ideas on this fundamentally significant issue. I say it’s “fundamentally significant” because, for us as Catholics, the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians. That phrase from the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, ch. II) reminds us that it is most clearly in the public celebration of Eucharist that we tell the world who we claim to be, and that we are united with all of our sisters and brothers throughout the world and even across the centuries who share this same apostolic faith. It continues to be a truism that any Catholic can go into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and join in the Eucharistic celebration — even if that celebration is in a different language and an entirely different culture — and still feel very much “at home.”

At the beginning of this dialogue, it’s essential to define some terms and then clarify what this discussion is really all about. Without those definitions, I contend that the conversation would be one of mere emotion and opinion, and as such, would be incomplete.

First, what does “presider” mean? In liturgical practice, a “presider” is any person who leads a community during a liturgical prayer. It is a term that has meaning precisely in the act of doing. Thus, in the Catholic context, it is a functional term only. There is no such thing as a presider outside of the act of presiding. The term should not be confused with terms referring to an office or position in the Church (such as “Pastor” or “Catechist”), nor with terms that denote one’s sacramental character. “Pastor,” for example, indicates someone who holds an official position as the leader of a local parish and “Catechist” is someone who has been designated to teach and guide those seeking full initiation into the Church (as in the RCIA process).  “Baptized” and “Confirmed” and “Ordained” indicate the sacramental character of a person who has received those respective Sacraments. By way of illustration, consider the Abbess of a community of nuns who leads her religious sisters daily in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Each time she does this, she is “presiding.” While engaged in the act of presiding at morning and evening prayer, it would be correct to say she is the Abbess and that she is functioning as the presider at those particular liturgical celebrations. Outside of those times, she would still be Abbess, which is the formal office which is hers as the leader of her community. Outside of those times of liturgical celebration, however, it would be somewhat meaningless to refer to her as “presider” because there is no “presiding” going on. Similarly, there have been many times when the D/W community has had prayer services of various types and a community member — male or female — has led that prayer. At such times, that person could properly be called “presider” because he or she was engaged in the act of presiding over the celebration. Once the act of presiding is over, one is no longer a presider.

Second, what does “Mass” mean? Mass is a term which Catholics use to refer to our primary liturgical celebration. The Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is at the heart of the Sacramental life of the Church. One of the hallmarks of the D/W community’s celebration of Eucharist is that it has, heretofore, always adhered to the Roman Catholic Church’s norms for what is called a “valid” celebration of the Eucharist. The apostolic Christian Churches of both the East and the West have, for two millennia, recognized the importance of “validity” in celebrating the Sacraments. For example, in order for the celebration of Baptism to be valid, water must be used, along with the invocation of the Trinity. If someone were baptized simply “In the name of Almighty God,” that baptism would not be considered valid Christian Baptism, because the Holy Trinity was not invoked. For some sacraments, one essential element for validity is the “minister of the sacrament.”  Catholic and Orthodox Traditions have always identified a validly ordained priest as the minister of the Eucharist. Thus, as a way of expressing its own commitment to our Catholic identity, Dignity/Washington has always celebrated Eucharist with a presider whom the Catholic Church recognizes as a validly ordained priest. (I used this phrase very deliberately, because I suspect that those who would like to see a change in D/W’s current practice would state that there are women who have been ordained as priest. It is not my purpose — nor do I think it should be D/W’s purpose — to enter the contentious discussions about the validity/invalidity of any such ordinations.) It is this fact — that D/W has always celebrated Eucharsist with a presider whom the Catholic Church recognizes as a validly ordained priest — which has allowed many leaders of the D/W community to answer in the affirmative when a visitor or potential new member has inquired, “Is this really Catholic? Is that a ‘real’ priest?” Those leaders could honestly answer, “Yes, it is really Catholic, and yes, that’s a real priest.”

It is my perspective that this practice has been the hallmark of D/W community. Were it not, I know that I and many others would never have called D/W our spiritual home, because it would have felt illegitimate to call our celebrations of Eucharist “Catholic.” While there is no doubt that many Catholics — myself included — believe that women should be admitted to ordination within the Roman Catholic Church, the sad fact is that this is currently not our Church’s practice. I wish it different — but it’s not.

It’s About Sacrament (and not sex or gender)

Catholicism takes Sacraments seriously.  They are the glue which binds us together. They mark not only significant moments in our individual lives, but also have, at their very core, the Mystery of Faith which brings us into the Christian family and which nourish, strengthen, and restore us throughout our lives. Because Sacraments are so central to the life of the Universal Church, no individual community — no parish, no diocese, no religious order — has the liberty to change by their own authority the fundamental character of how the Sacraments are celebrated. To do so would, in a significant way, “break communion” with the rest of our brothers and sisters around the world with whom we are united each time we gather “in word and in sacrament” to hear the Word of God and to be nourished by the Real Presence of Christ in Eucharist.

And so, I believe that the question posed by the D/W Task Force is fundamentally not about women, no matter how strongly we feel about the inclusion of women and their many gifts in the ranks of the Church’s ordained ministers.  The question IS about whether or not the D/W community wishes to continue to celebrate Eucharist with presiders whom the Catholic Church recognizes as validly ordained priests.  The question IS about whether the D/W community wishes, in all honesty, to be a Catholic community and not just a “Catholic-like” community.

Pope Francis and Hope for the Future

pope-francis-gay-quoteMost of us have been overwhelmingly surprised and pleased by the ways in which Pope Francis has made positive overtures to the LGBT community in the months since his election as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of St. Peter. For the first time in decades, LGBT Catholics have legitimate reason to hope that the years ahead might be very, very, very different than what was imagined only a few months ago.

Until now, the D/W community can correctly state that what has separated us from the wider Church was not of our own choosing.  If D/W strays from its practice of celebrating Eucharist with presiders whom the Catholic Church recognizes as validly ordained priests, that would no longer be true. The D/W community could no longer state that any distance between us and the wider Church was not of our creation. Rather, we ourselves would have taken steps to further separate ourselves from the institutional Church. A decision to move in this direction is a decision one would anticipate if D/W wished to become its own independent denomination rather than a community that proudly proclaims its status as an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church. Given the hope that fills the Church now under the leadership of Pope Francis, now is not the time to move further away from the Church we love and the Church we call home.

It is my prayer that Dignity/Washington will continue to be a place where LGBT Catholics not only are welcomed — for we are welcome in many gay-affirming Christian Churches — but that it will also continue to be a place where, through the community’s wonderfully rich, beautiful, and inspiring Eucharistic liturgies, LGBT Catholics, our family and friends, feel very, very, very much “at home”!

In God’s Peace!

Tim

Homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Dignity/Washington

June 10, 2012

Today we celebrate a feast that has been a part of the Church’s liturgical calendar since the thirteenth century.  In English we call it the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, but it’s also commonly known by the abbreviated version of its Latin name, Corpus Christi.  Although I’ve never actually participated in it, one of the special ways in which this feast can be celebrated is to have a public Corpus Christi Procession.  While the liturgical norms provide great detail on how to conduct such a procession, it essentially is quite simple.  After Mass, the gathered community is lead through the streets of their city or town by the celebrant of the Mass.  He carries the Eucharist, which in turn is held under a canopy of some sort – a sign of respect for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

I couldn’t help but think of that image yesterday as a group of us – over 40 members of this community – joined with many hundreds of others in marching in yesterday’s Capital Pride Parade.  Thanks to the artistic skills of Larry Ranly, we had our own version of such a Corpus Christi canopy.  Constructed in the shape of a chapel, our lightweight canopy was draped in the colors of the rainbow, and it was carried by six of us as we walked the parade route behind a banner indicating that we were the Dignity/Washington contingent.

Even as I thought of that image in relationship to today’s Feast, I couldn’t also help but think of what this feast – the feast of Corpus Christi – means for me personally.  For the past quarter of a century, it has been a very special day. Although it’s been quite a few years since I was in active parish ministry, it was on this weekend twenty-five years ago that I was ordained a priest. And so it was on this feast day that I had the great joy of presiding at the Eucharist as a priest for the very first time.

In the diocese where I was ordained, the tradition is that a newly ordained priest would often invite someone else – perhaps a close friend, maybe a classmate from another diocese, or someone who had been influential in one’s years of seminary study – to give the homily.  And so it was that I asked my good friend Gerry – ordained several years ahead of me and who, sadly, has since passed away – to give the homily at my first Mass. In that homily, Gerry talked about the room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem that has been venerated as the site the “Upper Room” since the 4th century.  In that room, there is a carving at the top of a stone pillar.  It’s a carving of a mother pelican feeding here young with her own flesh and blood – a symbol of Jesus who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us, who gave us the gift his very self on the cross, a gift which we remember and receive again and again every time we share in Eucharist.

It you either marched in or were present for yesterday’s Parade, you know what a wonderful spirit was there – a spirit of celebration blessed by the beautify of a warm June day, but also marked by a sense of a changed or changing landscape for the LGBT community in the U.S.  When we look at past Gay Pride events – events which have become the “High Holy Days” for the gay community around the globe – one cannot fail to recognize how different things are for us in 2012 than they were say, in 1987 when I was ordained … and maybe even before some of you were even born!  So much has changed, in fact, that I’ve heard a number of people say over the past year or so that the struggle for gay rights and for the full inclusion of LGBT people in civil society here in the US is just a matter of time.  I think perhaps the general consensus is that, although there are goals yet to achieve, it really is just a matter of time before the barriers toward such full inclusion in civil society are greatly diminished or eliminated.  Indeed, I think there is strong evidence to support this perspective.

If that is true – and I hope and pray it is – I think it presents to us as LGBT Catholics an important time for reflection.  At the heart of this is the fact that what can be said about civil society, the broader culture, and even many other branches of the Christian family tree … those things unfortunately cannot yet be said about our Catholic community. While there are many positive indications about where we as LGBT Catholics are today when compared with two decades ago … it is not quite so clear that the tide has turned, or that full inclusion of LGBT Catholics into the life of the Church at all levels is in any way imminent.  If it is indeed, just a matter of time for such inclusion to come about, I daresay we’re probably talking in terms of decades and even longer, rather than months and years.

So if that is true, then what does this mean for us as a community of LGBT Catholics? Where do we want to be in 5, 10, or 25 years in terms of our relationship with the broader Catholic community … and how do we get there? What does this mean for how we will move forward in ensuring that popes and bishops and other leaders of our Church – as well as those of our lay brothers and sisters who still accept what the media call the church’s “official teaching” regarding human sexuality and the rejection of God’s image and likeness reflected in people like you and me – what does this mean for how we ensure that they understand that we, too, are members of the one Body of Christ?  How do we share with our fellow Catholics at all levels of the church’s structure the truths of our own lives? How do we help them to understand that the there is indeed room under that Corpus Christi canopy for ALL members of Christ’s Body? How do we do all this and still remain faithful to our call to live our Christian faith in the context and tradition of Catholicism?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but if we are to take seriously the fact that through our Baptism we have been made part of that One Body of Christ, then I think we at least need to think about this unique moment in time, recognizing who we are, where we are, and being thoughtful about where we are heading. While I don’t know all the answers, I have no doubt that sacrifice will be involved. Just as that mother pelican gave her life for her young, and as Jesus gave up his very self so that we might have access to the fullness of life,  we too must be prepared to give up and let go of what is non-essential, so that our voices may be unified and the core truth of our message will be not only heard, bur received.

As you’ve heard before and I’m sure will hear again … this year marks a very special anniversary.  It’s the 50th year since the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962. If you’re not familiar with that Council’s 16 Constitutions, Declarations and Decrees, maybe you should pick up a copy and add it to your summer beach reading list!  There is in those documents great richness for today that goes beyond what is sometimes minimizes the Council’s work by referring to the “spirit of Vatican II, ” as the documents themselves paint a picture of a Church very different than what some current leaders would have us see.  In the Dogmatic Constition on the Church, Lumen Gentium (#12), the Council Fathers wrote:

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

I don’t know how you could be more clear in declaring that every member of the Body of Christ has a role to play and a voice to speak in discerning matters of faith.  As we claim our rightful place within the Body of Christ – as we become more fully what we receive in Eucharist – our task as faithful members of Christ’s one Body – is to discern rightly and to live out that discernment in faith and in hope and in dignity.

Happy Pride!

What do Straight Catholic Priests think about the new Anglican Ordinariate?

By now everyone is probably aware that the doors of the Roman Catholic Church have been opened widely to those disaffected members and the Anglican Communion who seek communion with Rome. Such disaffection usually has to do with the ordination or women and more open attitudes toward gays and lesbians in some branches of Anglicanism. Whether as individuals or even as entire parishes and communities, Rome has put in place processes and structures by which Anglicans (Episcopalians in the US) can enter the Catholic Church, often keeping in place many of the traditions and practices they bring from their Anglican heritage.

On its face, this would seem like a gracious thing to do. It was back in 1980 when Pope John Paul II granted a special “Pastoral Provision” allowing clergy from the Anglican Communion to become Catholic and continue to exercise their priestly ministry.  The difference with this new provision was (and remains) that if married, such clergy would obviously remain married — thus creating a married Catholic priesthood. At the time, I was surprised that there wasn’t more of an outcry from Catholic priests who had made the difficult choice between marriage and priesthood.  After all, the Church has always thought of both as vocations, both sacramental, and not mutually exclusive.  Though complex, the rationale of mandatory celibacy in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church has largely been rooted in matters of order and church discipline. Yes, there have been countless attempts to spiritualize this requirement, but mandatory celibacy for non-monastic clergy in the Roman Rite has sometimes been called a discipline in search of a theology.

More recently, this open door policy has been expanded not just to individuals, but to entire Anglican parishes.  Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009) established the norms and procedures for this en masse “swimming the Tiber” to take place.

And so we come to the most recent meeting of the US Bishops held in Baltimore Nov. 14-16, 2011.  There, it was announced that the Anglican Ordinariate, as it is known, would be implemented in the US on January 1, 2012.  Washington’s Cardinal Donad Wuerl heads up the US bishops’ efforts to welcome former Anglican groups, while Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, TX takes over as the “Ecclesiastical Delegate” for the 1980 Pastoral Provision process.

So, my question is this:  What do men who were raised Catholic and who feel called both to priesthood and marriage have to say about all this? We certainly know that priests were not consulted before either of these provisions were announced, but one would expect that some priest or group of priests would at least raise to the bishops questions about the fundamental fairness of this very unequal treatment.  I can find nothing from a “policy perspective” on the website for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, nor can I even find a website for a recently announced new Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.  So, what do straight Catholic priests think of all this? Anyone??