podcast episode 2: the meaning of communion

Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 3.06.30 PMreceiving_communionOne of the hot-button issues of our time is: Should Holy Communion be given to political candidates who publicly favor abortion? Many Catholic Americans have a tendency to frame this question in a merely legal or disciplinary way. Very few seem to ask the sacramental and theological question: What does receiving the Eucharist express? Once I frame the question in this way, I can hardly say that the Bible is silent on the matter. Saint Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 11. And I think the tradition is clear that receiving Communion expresses a communion with Christ and with his Bodya union of heart and mind on essential matters.

When a Catholic serving in public office clearly opposes the Church’s teaching, he makes himself incapable of receiving the Eucharist for what it isa life-giving union with Christ’s body, a giving and a receiving that one participates in without reserve. For such a Catholic, receiving the Eucharist could be considered a kind of spiritual contraception. He engages in the act without intending to express the very meaning of the act. In effect, he uses Christ’s Body rather than receiving that Body for all that it is.

It’s common knowledge that those who reject the Church’s teaching authority often do so as a result of the Church’s teaching about artificial contraception. It seems to me that this is no accident. Contraception is an act by which we give ourselves permission not to respect the other, but instead to use the other in the service of our own interests. It might be a mutually agreed-upon use of each other, but it is use nonetheless. When we contracept in married life, holding back our fertility or rejecting the fertility of our spouse, it damages marital communion, because it interferes with our vocation to be a gift to our spouse and to receive our spouse as a gift in all the dimensions of their being. And when we engage in spiritual contraception by receiving Communion unworthily, holding back our assent to the deposit of faith preserved by the Church, it damages our communion with Christ’s body. We begin to relate to the Church simply in terms of how She might benefit us, and we cease to pay attention to how we might serve Her.

A public servant who is Catholic is just thata servant. It’s a noble calling and a beautiful witness when lived authentically. The more deeply I come to appreciate the faith, the more I recognize that the service of the common good is sustained and nourished by a vibrant Catholic faith. It is the Church who fosters the awareness that in every person we discover an image of Christ, that Christ gave His very life for every human being, and that we are called to revere every life even when it costs us dearly to do so. We must not cease to remind ourselves that our leader in the faith sacrificed His very life for the well-being and redemption of every human life.

Our true adherence to the Church does not make us partisan in our attitudes, as though we had joined some club which only respects its own members. Rather, our life in the heart of the Church opens our heart to every human person, regardless of creed, ethnicity or any other distinguishing characteristic.

To be Catholic is to love and to defend humanity as such: Children on either side of the birth canal are truly human. The lives of our African-American brothers and sisters are truly human. The lives of undocumented immigrants are truly human, as are the lives of displaced Uighur Muslims in China. The lives of forgotten elderly and the homeless in our own neighborhoods are truly human. The lives of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are truly human. The disabled in mind and body are truly human. The lives of our enemies and those with whom we engage on Facebook are truly human. Rioters are truly human, as are police and politicians and drug lords and money launderers. And our own life also is truly human, in all of its beauty and its brokenness.

Failing to see the humanity and the dignity of other people diminishes our own humanity, because it robs us of the beauty both of being a gift to others and of receiving others as gift. A kind of blindness can set in.

The gift of the Eucharist can help restore our vision as it is a sacrament not only of communion with God, but also of communion with our neighbor. Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the interplay of the two dimensions of communion eloquently in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est. Here’s an extended passage from that letter:

Love of neighbor… in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus… consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Part of the miracle of the Eucharist, when I consider it personally, is the astonishing fact that it reveals that even I have been invited into the embrace of the love that made the universe. Who am I to receive such a gift? And who am I to hesitate even a moment in desiring to share that unmerited gift with others?

C.S. Lewis says it succinctly in the final words of his essay The Weight of Glory:

…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Before this great mystery, let all mortal flesh keep silence.

a clear focus on priestly formation

The uniqueness of the priestly role in the Church calls for specialized programs of learning and formation. Because of the important emphasis placed upon personal and spiritual formation, diocesan seminarians are usually educated in a seminary community whose clear focus is priestly formation (PPF, 12).

Although this paragraph from the PPF may seem like stating the obvious, it drives home an important point: seminaries are primarily for training candidates for ordination.

Seminaries are, in many places in the U.S., combined with programs of formation for lay people. This can be a good and natural arrangement. Lay people who are catechists and who serve in other apostolates need a rigorous theological training just as much as priests do… so why not share the same resources? And there can be a healthy exchange between lay students and candidates for priesthood when they share the same classroom. If the seminary environment is one in which there is a solid understanding of the complementary and distinct roles of lay people and ordained ministers, a “mixed” educational environment could work very well. This is a big “if”.

a confusion of roles

If, instead, there is confusion about the role of the ordained priesthood vis-à-vis the role of the priesthood of all the baptized, things can get quite weird and political. That was my experience at the Saint Paul Seminary. A strident spirit of political correctness was evident among some of the staff; some bent over backwards to reassure lay people that they were “full members” of the community… and, by their continual reference to this fact, all but ensured that lay people would become self-conscious about their presence in the seminary. Take, for instance, the full name of the institution I attended: “The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of Saint Thomas” or SPSSODUST for short. The politically correct shorthand was not “Saint Paul Seminary” but “School of Divinity.” Lay students were commonly referred to as “commuter students”, as if to imply that the distinction to be made was between those who lived on the premises and those who lived off campus.

All of this may seem like splitting hairs, but they are small indicators of some pervasive attitudes in the seminary environment at the time. In the late fall of 1997, shortly after the Vatican released the instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, MA in Theology students in an elective course on ministry got an earful from an instructor about this document. I suppose the parenthetical in the following passage may have been fueling his fire:

In accordance with the norms of particular law, [laypeople] should perfect their knowledge particularly by attending, in so far as possible, those formation courses organized for them by the competent ecclesiastical Authority in the particular Churches, (in environments other than that of the Seminary, as this is reserved solely for those preparing for the priesthood).

One of my fellow seminarians who participated in the class reported that the document was treated with derision by the faculty member leading the session — a faculty member who played a key role in the lay formation program at the time. And later, when a priest on staff raised the topic of the document’s distinction between “ministry” and “lay apostolate” for discussion, he was treated with ridicule. Why? I can’t say for sure, but I think it was due to a fear that making such distinctions was divisive and petty. But Rome had some reason for publishing the document… dismissing it seems a little too easy.

a fear of distinctions

I think that this fear of making distinctions is connected to an atmosphere of unredeemed feminism that makes itself felt in certain quarters of the Archdiocese… and certainly was simmering in the administrative offices of the seminary, just below the surface. (If you have read Donna Stiechen’s Ungodly Rage, you get a sense of the flavor of feminism in the Upper Midwest.)I’m speaking about the way some wanted to blur the fundamental distinction between the male and female ways of being human. The only way to protect the dignity of women, according to this view, was to treat them not only as equal to men, but as identical to men. This is actually nothing more than another face of chauvinism. Similarly, some seemed to believe that the way to encourage the laity was to treat lay people like ordained ministers. But this is really just another face of clericalism.

For example, “commuter students” were encouraged to take more and more “active” roles as “liturgical ministers.” Lay people were always encouraged to serve as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, when clearly there was no need for such a thing with several priests in attendance and a congregation of, at most, several hundred people at the largest events. As if to make a political statement, in the fall of 1996, at the seminary’s Mass for the installation of acolytes, those who planned the liturgy made a point of arranging for several lay people to distribute the Eucharist, while several concelebrating priests stood by. It seemed to me like one of the efforts to push the buttons of the more conservative seminarians in the hopes of “flushing” a few into view.

On a related note, I always wondered if the program of lay formation clearly and positively presented the role of the ordained priest in the life of the Church. I think in particular of an alumnus of the MDiv program who was the DRE of my home parish. She went on record in a Minnesota Monthly article saying how painful it was for her to be visiting the sick in the hospital and not to be able to perform the anointing of the sick, simply because she was a woman. After all, she had the same degree as the priests of the archdiocese. This was the same woman who invited an ex-priest to give a four-week adult education series about “Refounding the Church” — including a “re-evaluation” of contraception, homosexuality and the ordination of women. When I confronted her about the program in the presence of the pastor, just months before entering the seminary, she condescendingly reassured me that once I had been through a couple years of the MDiv program, I’d understand where she was coming from theologically. Later on, she offered to write one of my letters of recommendation for admission to the seminary. Naturally, I declined the offer.

All by way of saying, if a clear focus on priestly formation is a goal, then a related goal in “mixed” seminaries like the Saint Paul Seminary ought to be a healthy, positive understanding of the complementary roles of laity and clergy in the Church.