Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote a book with a curious title, Love in the Time of Cholera. Perhaps we might describe our time in the church today in an equally curious way as Eucharist in the time of Insufficient Ministers.

We face a curious dilemma within the Roman Catholic Church today. We are a eucharistic church running out of ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist.

The Roman Catholic Church has the celebration of the Eucharist at its heart. To be a Roman Catholic is to participate in the Eucharist. In its ecclesiology, the Eucharist is the cement which holds everything else together.

Today that cement is in danger of coming undone because more and more we are in a situation where we no longer have enough ordained ministers to celebrate the Eucharist.

We have responded by either closing parishes and communities (abandoning them altogether or asking them to amalgamate into huger mega-parishes) or by continuing these communities as “priestless parishes.” Is this ideal?

What are our options? Where can we go, given the dilemma of being a eucharistic church without sufficient ministers ordained to celebrate the Eucharist?

When I look at what is actually happening, I see four different approaches:

  • The patching option… Proponents of this option see the problem as temporary, a bad time which is eventually to pass. In their view, vocations will increase again and in the interim we must patch and make do… we can import clergy, delay the retirement of existing clergy, stretch the workload of existing clergy, and combine parishes so that fewer priests are needed until things again go back to how they once were.
  • The radical revisionist option… People operating out of this model see no solution in patching. For them, the problem is indicative of an ecclesiology which can no longer be upheld.

In this view, and it has shades of radicality, the root of the issue is the fact that the ordained ministry is hierarchical, male and celibate. Until a new model of church is followed, one which is less hierarchical, masculine, and celibate in its structures for ministry, the present dilemma can only worsen.

The answer, for them, is not that of patching, nor that of staying within the structures and trying to change them from within, but it is that of stepping outside the structures and of becoming church in a different way.

Simply put, in this view, one does not wait for the day when the pope might ordain women and married people. Rather one joins a group that already celebrates the word, the sacraments, and the Eucharist according to its own structures of ministry and leadership… irrespective of Rome’s approval.

  • The Word-over-Eucharist option… This option believes that church can be sufficiently created and maintained around the Word. This is the “Protestantization-of-Roman-Catholicism” option. One makes the word the heart of church. In such a view, a shortage of ordained ministers to celebrate the Eucharist is not so serious since community forms around the Word and non-ordained persons can lead services of the Word.
  • The Stretch-it-to-the-Canonical-Maximum option… In this view, the solution is not that of patching, nor that of stepping outside of the present canonical structures or abandoning the Eucharist as the centre of community. What it purports is that, difficult as this might be both practically and emotionally, one stays inside the canonical structures and continues to do everything possible (to the canonical maximum!) to have Eucharist as the centre of church gathering. But unlike the patching option which believes that this is a temporary situation which will soon be resolved by a new supply of celibate male vocations, it believes that this crisis is leading us, more through our feet than through our heads, to a new way of conceiving ministry.

It calls for both challenge to and fidelity to the present structures. It has no five-year plan and no clear plan. It challenges, waits and trusts.

In a time of Eucharist without sufficient ministers it holds two deep values, the belief that Eucharist is the centre of community and the belief that stepping outside of the canonical structures is not the way to go. In tension it waits for God to lead us to a new day.

It is my belief that this latter option is the best one.