Friday, October 14, 2005

Just What Is a "Faith Community" Anyway?

A reader writes me and asks:
Dear Father Johansen,

Please straighten me out on a few newly adopted phrases I hear lately, first what is the difference between a Church, and a Faith Community?

Our beloved Pastor died this year, and we now refer to the Priest celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass as the "Presider" rather than the Celebrant ....."Our Presider today will be Fr. (first name).

I reply:

You're right in sensing that something's a little hinky about these changes in terminology.

People or institutions change the terms they use in order to try to affect the way people think about things.

The phrase "Faith Community" is meant to place the emphasis on the "horizontal", subjective relationships between parishioners, rather than the "vertical" relationship between the people and God. It is part of the tendency in "progressive" catholicism to see the church as "the actualized community celebrating itself". Using a phrase like "Faith Community" also helps to de-emphasize the fact that we are part of a larger entity, the Church, which is, of course, spread throughout space and time. It helps to disconnect the faithful from their sense of membership in and accountability to the larger Church. Such a term helps people to think of their faith as a merely subjective local, privatistic matter. It helps aging hippies forget about that mean old official "Church" (made up of the Pope, the Vatican, etc.) which so obstinately refuses to enact their adolescent fantasies.

The word "church" has a fairly well-defined meaning, which the Church herself has expressed in her Tradition. The phrase "Faith Community" is a nebulous gassy emission, which is designed to evoke certain emotional responses, but means almost anything the user wants.

That the use of the term "Faith Community" is accompanied by the abandonment of the term "celebrant" and replacement by the term "presider" is not surprising. Strictly speaking, the term is inaccurate, and may betray faulty theology. A chairman or chairwoman of a committee or legislature "presides" over a meeting, that is, ensures the smooth running over business that is largely transacted by others. While not exactly a passive spectator, one who "presides" is generally not the chief actor in the business at hand.

In a liturgical setting, a bishop or other prelate may "preside" at a Mass celebrated by another priest, at which he himself is not a celebrant. In such an instance, the bishop or prelate exercises a largely ceremonial function, and is not the primary liturgical actor.

So to call the priest who celebrates Mass the "presider" is at least erroneous. The word "celebrate" comes from the Latin celebro, which means "to solemnize, to keep a festival", "to honor, praise". The priest gives fitting honor and praise to God by solemnizing the New Festival of Christ, the Mass. The priest is the chief actor in the Mass - it is he, who, acting in persona Christi, makes the sacramental action happen. He is not merely a chairperson who sees to the smooth running of the liturgical proceedings.

So you can see what the term "presider" is intended to bring about: It reduces the priest's role to that of a sort of glorified "master of ceremonies". It conceals his role as the one who actually brings about the sacramental reality of the Eucharist by his action. The use of the term "presider" has its origins in the horizontalizing, levelling tendency of "progressive" catholicism. It is the product of an exaggerated "eucharist as communal meal" theology, which sees the eucharistic action as happening primarily in the "gathered community" rather than in the sacramental action of the priest. It is a desacralizing tendency, and is completely at odds with a truly Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the Eucharist, as expressed in our authentic Tradition.