(Source: Voices of Faith)

The following text was written by ten religious women of the group “Religious Women for Human Dignity”, which was formed in Munich in autumn 2018.

It reflects how the challenges of the corona pandemic were creatively taken up and overcome by religious women. Their experiences are especially related to the understanding of the sacraments, of the Eucharist and of ministry, or rather the image of the priesthood.

As religious women, who are in a variety of internal and external relationships, they shed light on their community experiences and reflect on the question of an encounter with God applicable to everyday life, instead of a purely ritualized religious practice.

The demands expressed in this text are by no means new and for decades have been constantly introduced by many people into the theological and church official discourse. But due to the corona pandemic, brought to light again filled with new experiences that they are convinced many Christians could contribute similar experiences.

The original article in German has been translated to English. You can find the original article here.

Fullness in the imposed emptiness

“We had planned everything. We had made an effort to find a priest, because according to the rules of the Catholic Church this is the way it has to be. But then, quite unexpectedly and at very short notice, the cancellation came and we were faced with the situation that we now had to, should, may, can celebrate ourselves.”

This is how a nun describes the days just before Easter. Many believers and many communities of sisters share such special experiences of the Holy Week and Easter during the corona crisis of 2020, when all public services were canceled and in many women’s communities the celebration of the Eucharist with an external celebrant was forbidden at short notice.

In the corona crisis we had no choice and this is exactly what opened up real alternatives. With the break and loss of the familiar – sometimes even of the well-established – there was first emptiness and then room for discourse and a common search.

How can it work? What is important to us? What is central to our faith and the celebration of our faith? And the often limiting question: what is allowed?

As religious women we can be responsible for, organize and carry out our entire life ourselves – especially in spiritual matters – but we cannot celebrate the Eucharist. A prioress or superior is entitled to the spiritual direction of a community – but not to preside at the Eucharistic celebration.

Which image of the congregation, which image of the priest and which image of the woman are behind it?

This shows the imbalance of the Catholic Church and the extreme dependence of (religious) women on a consecrated man. For many of us it was clear: we do not simply sit in front of the television or a live stream.

As helpful and valuable as this may have been for some believers, especially for elderly people, singles or even fellow sisters in quarantine, the media-consumed celebration cannot replace the real celebration.

It was and remained for us a painful stab in the heart to watch the celebrant communicate without being able to participate ourselves. We also found it impossible to celebrate the Eucharist with the congregation without giving communion.

Central questions arise for the understanding of the Eucharist: is the Eucharist a common meal or an exclusive event reserved for the ordained priest?

The Second Vatican Council is very clear on this point: it is a matter of “all who through faith and Baptism have become children of God, to gather together and enjoy the Lord’s Supper” (SC 10). We ask ourselves: Is the correctly celebrated form more important than the content? To what extent is communion seriously considered central to the celebration of the Eucharist? Furthermore, are the rules and regulations not too narrow in their understanding of the sacraments?

Can not “everything become an effective sign of God’s presence” (Leonardo Boff) when it resonates in me – or in us?

Why must the validly celebrated Sacrament still depend on the decision, which has grown in the history of the Church, that only a man living celibate can be ordained priest? Why, in order to enable every congregation to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist with a community experience, can persons of both sexes from the congregation not finally be assigned to this ministry – naturally with appropriate training?

We experience that the ecclesiastical understanding of ministry is very much in danger of cementing an unfavorable balance of power – and this at the expense of the salvation of all people.

Do our sacramental forms really serve life, or does life not have to subordinate itself in between the forms?

Sometimes such masses were justified by the idea of ​​”representative worship”. How is the “representative” celebration to be understood?

We felt uneasy when bishops / priests very generously proclaimed that they were celebrating the Eucharist on behalf of the absent community. Yes, even this can be a spiritual comfort for some believers.

But theologically, representation and solidarity belong closely together. Jesus lived God’s solidarity with us human beings in the Incarnation and his death, and it was only this that justified the possibility of his representation.

For us it was at some points more comforting when bishops / priests, in solidarity with all the faithful, renounced the Eucharistic celebration, because a community cannot celebrate the Eucharist without a priest – vice versa!

In our communities we have nevertheless experienced in recent weeks meal celebrations which have blown up every narrow-mindedness to the Eucharistic celebration. We have shared bread and wine and many experiences show that Jesus Christ was experienced as present in them.

At the Lord’s Supper Jesus gave his friends the commission: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11: 24-25). This is about much more than just remembering. It is about realization.

For many of us this thought is central: Christians gather together, invited by Jesus Christ, and are allowed to experience that God is present. His presence is manifested in fellowship, in his Word, in many other events of the celebration and, in a special way, in bread and wine.

Isn’t this moment of “transformation” solely bound to the deep belief that Jesus truly in His wholeness as a spiritual event “can be broken down” in bread and wine? This “mystery” cannot be bound to an ordained man.

The living agape experiences cannot be compared to the consumption of consecrated hosts (“out of the tin”). This going to the tabernacle was repeatedly experienced as a break in the celebration. What is decisive is God’s unconditional and unavailable will of salvation for all those present. Thus we experienced ourselves again and again in the common celebration as guests and presentees – not as “makers”.

This is how one sister finally summarized the common celebration:

“I have never been allowed to look into so many radiant faces that were touched and filled with these days and our celebration. For me the spirit of the Risen One was very palpably active among us ‘working something wonderful in us and with us'”.

In the context of the reflections around the Eucharistic celebration, also belongs the question of the celebration on weekdays and Sundays and feast days. In very many rules of the Order the celebration of Holy Mass on as many days as possible is laid down.

How do we deal with the fact that during this forced “Eucharist free” time some of us did not even miss the daily celebration (which we were used to for decades!)?

As a memorial of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Eucharistic celebration has its place on Sunday, the “first day of the week” – as a source and culmination, not as a daily commitment. On this point there is an urgent need for action in the constitution and approval of religious rules.

For many of us, the time of contemplation, silent adoration, simple existence in the presence of God, the common silence or listening and sharing the Word of God became nourishing and sustaining. Many of us experienced the Liturgy of the Hours as structuring the day, which is part of our “daily bread” anyway and to which we paid special attention.

We experienced: the “lack” led to a real gain in spiritual depth and to a very great sensitivity for precious little things: gestures of interpersonal attention that became signs of Christ’s presence.

In this way, the experiences of that time have dissolved the narrow focus on the Eucharistic celebration and have made clear the organic link between Liturgy and Diakonia.

In the context of liturgical reflection, finally, there are still questions about the renewal of the liturgical language.

Sisters entrusted with the preparation of liturgical celebrations began to reformulate texts “so that I could pray them honestly myself. In carrying out the liturgy, it was very impressive for me that I could pray myself and give meaning to the prayers that I attributed them. Suddenly I was no longer in the role of the listener, who can only contribute with standardized answers. That felt very good to me and was a very different experience.”

This raises the burning question: how can genuine “full, conscious and active participation” (SC 14) be encouraged?

Some orations are formulated in such a way that many of us can hardly bear these texts. How can people who have not been introduced to the liturgy (history) over many years like us be able to do so?

Thus we consider a “translation work” of liturgical texts into today’s linguistic reality to be absolutely necessary, because the “by divine institution unchangeable part” of liturgy (SC 21) cannot refer to the formulation of prayer texts.

In this context the question must be asked how an encounter with God applicable to everyday life can be facilitated better. The previous, often institutionalized practice of religion usually separates the sacred from the everyday. As an indispensable stimulus we refer to mysticism as a path of experience (in the style of Martin Buber’s “I and You”) and to numerous Christian mystics, to whose inspiration seeking people are receptive.

Here the question arises: where is room in our church and liturgical life for silence, for personal, individual encounters with God?

Many experiences of the past months can be closely connected with the Emmaus event. Sisters went for walks in the attitude of Madeleine Delbrel:

“Go out without preconceived ideas, without expecting tiredness, without a plan from God; without knowing about him, without enthusiasm, without a library – thus approach the encounter with him. Set off without a map – and know that God is to be found on the way, and not only at the destination. Do not try to find him according to original recipes, but let him find you in the poverty of a banal life.”

Our questions to the “meaning” of corona are by no means answered.

Of course we were sometimes sad and uncertain about the situation. We suffer with all the people who are ill and with all those who are severely affected by the social and financial consequences of the pandemic.

We are concerned about the terrible effects that the pandemic is already having and is highly likely to continue to have in the poor countries of our world. We are particularly concerned about the sharp increase in (sexual) violence against women. We tried to use our possibilities to alleviate need and otherwise, as Madeleine Delbrel describes it, to travel without preconceived ideas, without a plan from God, without a library and not to suppress uncertainty.

Being on the way together, listening, inquiring, interpreting – Christ encounter in our midst. This ministry of martyria was naturally performed by women. We wish that more attention be paid to this ecclesiastically neglected but important area.

There were conflicts in our communities too; reconciliation was more important than ever. We have experienced that questions after the Eucharist have caused tensions. Not everyone thinks and feels the same. We want to continue to live in respect with those who think and feel differently. But we need to ask our questions and seriously seek liveable and convincing answers.

As religious women we live communion – communion in faith, as sisters who have not sought themselves, but have found themselves in the love of God.

In spite of all the conflicts, we have experienced community anew in these weeks as a central part of our lives: in being dependent on one another, as a source of security and support, as a space of lived and given reconciliation, and as a place of a great diversity of charisms, which could finally unfold even more, because gifts were given space.

There is no turning back for us, behind the experiences of these corona weeks 2020 – an incredible abundance in the imposed emptiness.

Norbert Lohfink wrote: “To be a priest means to be a witness to the miracle”. In this sense we “Religious Women for Human Dignity” live a priestly existence and witness the miracles that God has done.

We hope that our experiences will contribute to the search for new paths and to the courageous pursuit of them.

– “Religious for Human Dignity”

  • Sister Karolina Schweihofer, MC, Munich, Spokeswoman
  • Sr. Antonia Hippeli, OSB, Tutzing,
  • Sr Ulla Mariam Hoffmann OSB, Tutzing
  • Sr. Mechthild Hommel OSB, Bernried
  • Sr. Ruth Schönenberger OSB, Tutzing
  • Sr. Susanne Schneider MC, Munich,
  • Sr. Hildegard Schreier MC, General Manager, Munich
  • Sr. Veronika Sube OSB, Tutzing
  • Sr. Sara Thiel, Sisters of the Divine Savior, Munich
  • Sr Hilmtrud Wendorff CJ, Nuremberg

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.