Celebrating an Expanding Theology of Christ Presence in Eucharistic Liturgies in Times of Pandemic

During this time of pandemic, women priests and inclusive Catholic communities are walking toward the future as we celebrate Eucharistic liturgies on Zoom. We are co-creators of an expanding, evolving theology of the Christ Presence within us, and within community in our Eucharistic liturgies.

Our ordained presiders at Mary Mother of Jesus Inclusive Catholic Community, my faith community, invite those who gather each week with us on Zoom to have bread and wine/juice in front of them. We invite everyone to pray the words of consecration and to receive Communion. After participants have received Communion at their own tables, they share their experiences of thanksgiving. I often hear and feel the Christ Presence speaking though them, offering words of comfort, strength and blessing.

Small faith communities reflect a profound shift in perception toward the Eucharist. In their gatherings they acknowledge a cosmic citizenship as people of God and model the equal ministry of women and men. They believe, as Paul did, that in the body of Christ there is no Jew, Greek, slave, citizen, male or female. (Gal.3:20). All are welcome at the eucharistic celebrations, not only families, but single parents and children, the divorced and remarried, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, and all those who find themselves on the fringes of the institutional church for whatever reasons.

Contemporary theologians and spiritual leaders today offer a rich variety of insights into the Eucharist as a celebration of the divine presence rooted in the Jesus movement that reflects inclusivity, community, equality and justice. The following authors provide a sample of an evolving theology of Eucharist for the 21st century.

Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, presents the Christian sacrament of Eucharist or “communion as an experience of embodiment and relationship. More than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent, the Eucharist is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God, and to be present in an embodied way. “Jesus didn’t want his community to have a social ethic; he wanted it to be a social ethic. Their very way of eating and organizing themselves was to be an affront to the system of dominance and power. They were to live in a new symbolic universe, especially symbolized by what we now call open table fellowship… the Eucharistic meal was from the very beginning a gathering of both women and men, which shows how Christians understood equality.” (Eucharist Meditation, July 2018)

In her book, Extravagant Affections, Dr. Susan Ross describes celebrating Eucharist with a group of women in the 1970’s as a powerful experience that felt like the early Christians who gathered secretly to reflect on Jesus’s teachings and to bless bread and wine in a time of persecution. Dr. Ross’s words about her group’s celebration of Eucharist, echo the comments that women priests often get in response to our liturgies on Zoom “When I later told a fellow student, who was a priest what we did, he commented that whatever it was that we did, there was no “real” presence because of the absence of a priest. Yet this group of women of which I was a part felt that this ritual was profoundly eucharistic: we had shared together, felt among us the presence of Christ, acted in continuity with thousands of years of the same actions.” (Susan Ross, “Women, Worship and the Sacraments,” in Extravagant Affections, p.221.)

Author Sheila Durkin Dierks identified 100 gatherings in the United States of women who meet regularly to celebrate Eucharist in each other’s homes without an ordained presider. She shares the stories of women doing Eucharist and addresses the questions such a new phenomenon raises in her book Women Eucharist (Woven Word Press, 1998).

In his book The Future Of Eucharist, theologian Bernard Cooke observes that a new understanding of the resurrection in the Vatican II church has broadened the church’s understanding of “real presence” and helped people to appreciate Christ’s loving presence in the believing community. According to Cooke, while individuals may have specific functions within the gathered assembly, the entire community performs the eucharistic action (p. 32). If this is so, then those gathered are the celebrant of Eucharist. It is the community that “does” the Eucharist, not the presider alone. (p. 32)

Jesus disapproved of the sacrificial system and confronted the religious leaders, the priests. In the Gospels, the priests are the most active plotters to kill Jesus. There is no scripture basis for the Catholic Church’s claim that the apostles became priests at Last Supper and that Peter was the first Pope. Jesus did not ordain anyone. The early Christian movement functioned without priests. Garry Wills writes: “Nowhere is it indicated that there was an official presider at the Christian meal (agape) much less that consecrating the bread and wine was a task delegated to persons of a certain rank. When the term priesthood finally occurs in the Pseudo Petrine letters it refers to the whole Christian community. In 1 Peter 2:5 and 1 Peter 2:9, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder” among the other elders” (Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant, pp 69-70).

Historical scholarship supports this conclusion and goes even farther. Dr. Gary Macy, author of The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, states that in the early church women were ordained into various roles but in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a new definition of ordination was applied which excluded them. Dr. Macy concludes that in the understanding of late antiquity, regardless of who spoke the words of consecration – man or woman, ordained or community – the Christ presence became a reality in the midst of the assembly. Contrary to the mindset of many contemporary Catholics who think that the way the Church is now was the way it was from the beginning, Dr. Macy observes that the theology of the early Middle Ages was very broad in application. It was far less rigid than has usually been imagined and more open to different liturgical practices than we have realized. In other words, people were not declared heretics or thrown into prison for not following the norms (National Catholic Reporter , January 9, 1998, p.5).

The Dutch Dominicans in their groundbreaking work, “The Church and the Ministry” addressed the pastoral dilemma Catholics encounter:
“With some emphasis we urge our faith communities, the parishes, to realize what is at stake in the present emergency situation of the shortage of ordained celibate priests and to be allowed to take the extent of freedom which is theologically justified to choose their own leader or team of leaders from their own midst. …If a bishop should refuse such a confirmation or `ordination’ on the basis of arguments not involving the essence of the Eucharist, such as obligatory celibacy, parishes may be confident that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine. In this line they would in fact hope for a liturgy in which the words of institution could be pronounced both by those who preside in the Eucharist and by the community. Pronouncing these words is not thought to be the sole prerogative of the priest; were this the case, how could one avoid a form of power and of rite that is almost magical? The words constitute a conscious declaration of faith by the whole community, which lends its voice to the person presiding in the celebration.” http://natcath.org/mainpage/specialdocuments/The_Church_and_the_Ministry.pdf

Today, many Catholics are pilgrims in exile, walking a desert path as the Holy One leads them out of legalistic modes of worship and into the worship of spirit and truth that does not revere power, but respects individuals as sacred, and connects to the blessedness of all created beings. They gather at a common table where everyone is welcome. As they struggle toward genuine expression of an ancient faith, they bring with them, the deep joy of self-knowledge and an understanding of an evolving universe as the Body of Christ.

Women in mutual partnership with men and women-led house churches and alternative communities are empowering all to live a discipleship of equals. There are a myriad of innovative communities today like Roman Catholic Women Priests, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, and Women-Church feminist based communities. They are an emerging church where women are moving from the margins to the center. While some women and men also participate in traditional parishes, intentional communities mark a shift which is already taking place as people claim the sacraments as their own, outside of institutional boundaries. Some apply a “both/and” theology and say that the Body of Christ is on the table, at the table and around the table (Eucharistic Prayers for Inclusive Communities, Vol 1, Introduction-Bridget Mary Meehan p. vi-vii, Woven Word Press, 2008).

This is not a question of “playing Mass,” observes Susan Ross, “but of challenging the powers that tried to keep the sacred bottle up in expensive… clerical jars. My own sense is that the criterion for authentic Eucharist ought not so much to be location or whether there is an “official” presider but rather to what extent the Eucharist “effects what it signifies- that is unity, community, a sense of radical inclusion… a living out of the real presence of Christ in the midst of human life…The sacraments are increasingly in the hands of the community, not solely in those of the priest and, thus the institutional church” (Susan Ross, Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology, 226, 213).

Carol Christ points out that groups that experiment with liturgy are not recognized by Protestant denominations or by the Roman Catholic church as legitimate sites of worship. She notes: “Though women continue to be ordained as ministers and bishops in Protestant churches, they must affirm classic doctrines and dogmas as part of their ordination process and are not generally given leeway to disagree with them.” (“Judaism or Christianity: Which Tradition Is More Open to Feminist Change?” by Carol P. Christ, https://feminismandreligion.com/2020/08/10/judaism-or-christianity-which-tradition-is-more-open-to-feminist-change-by-carol-p-christ/)

In an article entitled “Sacraments as Energy: A Search for A New Paradigm -a feminist-friendly approach to sacraments,” Susan Roll proposes a new paradigm for sacraments as forms of energy. The static model of reality which explained sacraments in Aristotelian categories of matter and form has given way to dynamic models of matter and energy “A sacramentality of energy can be articulated from three different angles: first, in terms of the action of the Holy Spirit; second, from scientific advances in quantum thinking, and the third from new spirituality. This paradigm applies to both Baptism and Eucharist.”

A community encamps, wherever it happens to rest for this moment in time, around the Christ Presence that infuses our communion as One Body. Like a pillar of fire guiding the people of the covenant on the way of love and justice, our lives are holy, blessed and broken in the mystery of God’s transforming love in service of others, especially those in need. Use of digital platforms like Zoom enable us to communicate and to build community as we experience Real Presence in new ways connecting and energizing us across thousands of miles in a time of pandemic. (Bridget Mary Meehan and Mary Beben, Walking the Prophetic Journey, Introduction)

*Bridget Mary Meehan, ARCWP