Today is Holy Thursday. The Chrism Mass will take place at cathedrals all over the world. The sacramental oils will be blessed and distributed. It is also the day when priests renew their commitment to their ministry. For this reason the sanctuary will be filled with concelebrating priests present with their bishop. The lay faithful present will pray for priests and express their support for their ministries. All of this is very good.
There is also something else happening at Catholic Chrism Masses all over the world. The priests in the sanctuary will all be men. In the pews, among the lay faithful, will be women who have heard a call to priesthood and who will come on Holy Thursday to renew their commitment to answering it. I know some of these women. They live with a life-limiting condition in that God has called them to ordained ministry but the Church has not recognised their call and does not send them into ordained roles. Many of them have given a lifetime of commitment to Christian service without ever feeling that their real purpose has been fulfilled. They did not ask for their call. Many of them resisted it. Most consider themselves to be traditional Catholics who do not wish to rock the boat. For them, this is the defining factor of their discipleship and of their invitation to ‘life to the full.’
This morning, praying for these women as I always do on Holy Thursday, the following text came to me from 1 Corinthians (11: 20-21).
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
Here Paul famously questions the authenticity of the Corinthian community’s celebration of the Eucharist because of their refusal to share what they have equally. In this way their celebration becomes the opposite of what is intended. Today I see a parallel between this challenge and the gathering at the Chrism Mass. If the gathered ordained men use their power to refuse to admit women to their number does it reduce the authenticity of their own priesthood? Does it compromise our identity as the Church of Christ?
At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening the verses which follow this text (1 Cor 11:23-26), written in the context of the Corinthian non-Eucharist, will be proclaimed as a summary of the Church’s understanding of Eucharist. Then we will hear the reading of John’s account of the final meal of Jesus – not of bread and wine but of the washing of the disciples’ feet.
An honest reflection on these texts can give us a refreshed understanding of Eucharist which can only be authentically celebrated in communities of inclusion and service. This understanding of the Eucharist can also extend to our understanding of the priest who presides at it. Where the priesthood excludes women is it really the priesthood at all?