|Troops in Iraq receive Holy Communion at Christmas Mass|
Such situations are often the occasion where Protestant
Christians find themselves welcome to receive Holy Communon
I don’t normally read The National Catholic Reporter for the same reason I don’t read The Wanderer, The National Catholic Register, or most diocesan newspapers. They are not newspapers. They’re polemical pamphlets promoting a particular point of view—liberal or conservative—to which they will sacrifice not only objectivity but even factual truth. That being said, I did recently pick up a copy of the NCR and found it, for the most part, as partisan as I had long thought it. (I can’t say always because there was a time in the late sixties and early seventies I enjoyed it quite a bit and thought it reliable. That may have been before I learned to think critically, or perhaps if I searched the archives, the paper itself had more to offer.) I found two articles that gave me something to think about. One was by Jamie Manson and discussed “how to lose Catholics and alienate people.” The other referred to a conference at Marquette University Law School where Archbishop Diarmud Martin (Dublin, Ireland), Bishop Blase Cupich (Spokane, Washington) and several priests spoke about how a “culture of clericalism” has fostered the sex abuse crisis and hindered the ability of the Church to effectively recover and repair the damage—both to victims and itself—that the numerous instances of clerical sexual abuse have caused.
The two topics—alienation of the faithful and the sex-abuse crisis—overlap but are two distinct issues. There can be no doubt that one of the major factors in many people being disillusioned and disheartened with their Catholic faith is not only the numerous instances of sexual abuse by clergy, religious, and lay ministers in the Church but even more by the dreadful ways in which abuse cases have been handled over the years—and in some cases continue to be handled. (The same edition of the NCR said that there are 55 dioceses in the United States that are not complying with the protocols the bishops set for themselves in 2002—The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.) At the same time, there are many more reasons why increasing numbers of Catholics are becoming discouraged—and alienated—in the practice of their faith. Estimates claim that there are more the twenty-five million Americans who identify themselves as “former Catholics” (as distinguished from non-practicing Catholics), making ex-Catholics the second largest religious denomination in the Country, second only to Catholics (practicing and non-practicing, estimated to be 75 million). It would be interesting to reflect somewhat on these two articles.
Ms. Manson attributes alienation from the Church over the question of exclusion from Holy Communion. There are many who are not permitted Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. Indeed, more are forbidden the Eucharist than are welcome to it when you consider that, at least under ordinary circumstances, only those who have formal membership in the Catholic Church are welcome to receive Holy Communion. (There are some limited circumstances when Protestants and other Christians can receive; these circumstances are largely unknown and, at least in the United States, almost always stingily applied when known). In addition to being Catholic, one who wishes to come to the Eucharist must be “in the State of Grace,” that is they must not be conscious of having committed a grave sin and not (yet) having received sacramental absolution. Catholics living together without benefit of clergy, those in a marriage not “blessed” by the Church, those in same-sex unions or the unmarried practicing sex—heterosexual or homosexual—are all prohibited from receiving the Eucharist. Abortion is another block to receiving the Eucharist—indeed it not only bars one from the Eucharist but imposes excommunication on them. Some would also say that voting for a politician or a political agenda that supports legalized abortion or would establish the legality of same-sex marriage would also excluded one from Holy Communion. Sins outside the genus of sex don’t seem to incur this prohibition, at least in the popular understanding or from most pulpits. It seems that in the eyes of many Catholics a sin can’t be mortal unless it is sexual. We certainly don’t talk of excluding from Holy Communion politicians or members of the judiciary who deviate on the conservative side from Church teaching.
Our Catholic faith has a long tradition of requiring a scrupulous examination of conscience and sacramental confession before the reception of Holy Communion. (Technically confession is only required before Holy Communion when the prospective communicant is guilty of “grave” or “mortal” sin.) For the most part that seems to go by the wayside these days. There are those who, reckoning themselves to be in good conscience, ignore Church laws and come to Communion blissfully unaware (or unacknowledging) of their moral failures . And there are those—actually the majority—who simply come to mass rarely, if at all, to avoid the situation where they are left sitting in the pews while everyone around them goes to communion. It is uncomfortable to sit back while everyone else goes forward. I know. When I am at Mass with my Methodist sister-in-law—who patiently accepts the fact that she is unwelcome at the Lord’s Table simply because she is a Methodist—I sit with her in the pews. There is more than one way to be in Communion with Christ; sharing the loneliness of those members of his Body who must stand back is one of the alternative ways.
Not coming to Holy Communion has not always been as uncomfortable a plight as it has become these more recent years. Fifty years ago fewer Catholics went to communion. Those who planned to receive went to early mass; those attending later mass rarely went to communion. With each later hour, the number of communicants drastically fell. The sinner and the Methodist need not have felt so alone. This was because the communion fast made it difficult to wait until ten or eleven o’clock, much less noon mass. Perhaps we need to add non-Eucharistic worship-Morning Prayer, for example—to our Sunday Services to accommodate those who want to be part of the Community of the Faithful and worship God but who find not being able to come to communion too difficult to bear. This is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Morning Prayer was long a part of the Sunday (and even daily) liturgies in Catholic churches. Moreover, in the Eastern tradition—both Catholic and Orthodox—those who attend “Orthos” (Matins) or Vespers fulfill their canonical obligation for Sunday Worship.
Keeping people away from church, or making them uncomfortable once they are there, is no way to bring them back to God and to rectify their lives. Nor is it consistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus in the Gospel. Maybe it is time to look back into our tradition and find a way to make all welcome—if not at the table, at least in the household.
The clericalism topic—maybe next time.