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.

Pentecost

Jesus said: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

The truth which makes us free is Christ, because only he can respond fully to the thirst for life and love that is present in the human heart.

Those who have encountered him and have enthusiastically welcomed his message experience the irrepressible desire to share and communicate this truth.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to raise up courageous communicators and authentic witnesses to the truth, faithful to Christ’s mandate and enthusiastic for the message of the faith, communicators who will “interpret modern cultural needs, committing themselves to approaching the communications age not as a time of alienation and confusion, but as a valuable time for the quest for the truth and for developing communion between persons and peoples” (John Paul II, Address to the Conference for those working in Communications and Culture, 9 November 2002).

Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 42nd World Communications Day (Sunday, May 4, 2008)

the message of Fatima

FatimaOn May 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three shepherd children in the hills of Fatima, Portugal.

I had the chance to be in Fatima for the 75th anniversary of the apparitions, in 1992. (It was also the 11th anniversary of the assassination attempt on the life of Pope Saint John Paul II).

It was an amazing week. I was digging through my photo albums a while ago, and it gave me the idea of blogging about my overseas travel adventures: the semester I spent in Austria back in 1992, the summer I spent in England in 1993, and the travels in Europe and Israel during my seminary studies in the fall of 1996.

Fatima, Portugal

Today I’m posting a link to the document about Fatima published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000. It includes several elements about the secrets of Fatima and their interpretation. The theological commentary – which has a great discussion of the proper understanding of private versus public revelation – was written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Here’s a teaser from the end of his analysis:

What is the meaning of the “secret” of Fatima as a whole (in its three parts)? What does it say to us? First of all we must affirm with Cardinal Sodano: “… the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima refers now seem part of the past”. Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.

I would like finally to mention another key expression of the “secret” which has become justly famous: “my Immaculate Heart will triumph”. What does this mean? The Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind. The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Saviour into the world—because, thanks to her Yes, God could become man in our world and remains so for all time. The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word. From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.

IV: Jesus meets His Mother

From the midst of a sea of angry, fearful faces, the Mother appears, her eyes tender, vulnerable, and heartbroken. “I’m here,” she says; nothing more is needed. What else could we ask of a mother’s heart? Jesus meets one heart in solidarity with His own, and it is enough. He studies her face: This face I will carry with Me all the way to Golgotha. Her loving face is the certain sign of My victory, the sure evidence that truly I will make all things new, that I will take stony hearts and make them hearts of flesh. In her face, I see this promise: the redemption of humanity.

Love means being dependent on something that perhaps can be taken away from me, and it therefore introduces a huge risk of suffering into my life. Hence the express or tacit refusal: Before having constantly to bear this risk, before seeing my self-determination limited, before coming to depend on something I can’t control so that I can suddenly plunge into nothingness, I would rather not have love. Whereas the decision that comes from Christ is another: Yes to love, for it alone, precisely with the risk of suffering and the risk of losing oneself, brings man to himself and makes him what he should be…. I think that that is really the true drama of history.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth

the Church in the Sudan and Saint Bakhita

Saint Josephine BakhitaIn January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing William Saunders for an article about the persecuted Church in the Sudan. Just three months earlier, Pope John Paul II had canonized the first Sudanese saint, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and so Saunders told me a bit about her in the context of helping me understand the situation of the Church in the Sudan. The Church now remembers her in its liturgical celebrations on February 8th of each year.

Pope Benedict XVI references Saint Bakhita at the beginning of his encyclical, Spe Salvi, as a model of Christian hope:

To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

Below, I’ve reprinted my article about the Church in the Sudan.

The Church in the Sudan Gives Witness to Christ During Persecution

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 edition of The Catholic Servant.

“In the holy days of Lent the ‘offering’ assumes a deeper meaning, because it is not just giving something from the surplus to relieve one’s conscience, but to truly take upon one’s self the misery present in the world. To look at the suffering face and the conditions of misery of many brothers and sisters forces us to share at least part of our own goods with those in difficulty…. The world expects from Christians a consistent witness of communion and solidarity.”

These words, taken from Pope John Paul II’s message for Lent 2001, invite all the faithful to examine the suffering face of Christ present in today’s world. The image of the suffering Christ manifests itself vividly today in the trials borne by the people of the Sudan. William Saunders, an attorney from Washington, DC, who is the founder and director of Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., spoke about the sufferings of the Sudanese people at a conference on evangelization held this past January at the University of Saint Thomas.

The Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is situated just south of Egypt and has a population of nearly 30 million people. A third of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where about half of the Sudanese people are Christian, and half are animists. Since 1983, when civil war broke out in the Sudan under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the country, more than 1.9 million people have died from war-related causes: starvation, bombings and other atrocities. This death toll—which is larger than the number of deaths due to the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined—averages out to about 14 deaths every hour since the outbreak of the war. Another 4 million people have been displaced from their homes. This is an Islamic holy war, or jihad, carried out presently by the ruling government, the radical fundamentalist group known as the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF, representing only about seven percent of the Sudanese population, overthrew the elected government in 1989 and immediately intensified persecution of all non-Muslims in the Sudan. William Saunders notes that the Christian population—in particular the Catholic Church—has been a special target for persecution, since it is seen as an obstacle to the NIF’s goal to make Islam the sole religion of the country. Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools are a regular target of bombings and other forms of oppression. However, moderate Muslims, who are tolerant of Christians and other religious traditions within the population, are also persecuted by the government.

The jihad—which seeks to eliminate all non-Muslim elements of the population through tactics such as torture, bombing, and the withholding of food and water from non-Muslim populations—operates on the premise that Islam is the rightful religion of the Sudan. However, Christianity was the religion of the land for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In fact, as Saunders notes, the Church in the Sudan has apostolic roots. According to the book of Acts, one of the first non-Jewish converts to the faith was an Ethiopian from the court of Candace, who received the gospel from the deacon Philip. Scripture scholars say that Candace is a reference to modern-day Sudan. Christianity was eventually suppressed by the rise of Islam, but made a revival in the nineteenth century through missionary efforts. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, when the Sudan achieved independence from Britain, Christians again began to experience intensified religious persecution.

Since the southern part of Sudan is almost entirely non-Muslim and non-Arab, persecution is currently most intense in this area. Bombing raids are carried out regularly from high altitudes; according to Saunders, the precision of the bombing is not as important to the government as the creation of an atmosphere of terror. Many people have been forced to seek shelter in remote areas, such as the higher elevations of the Nuba Mountains in the south. Interestingly, the Christian population has been growing in the Sudan, flourishing amidst the persecution.

The Sudan also has a long history of support for the slave trade, and the present government has legitimized the practice of slavery; in a holy war, it is not considered a sin to take slaves. In a gesture that rankled the conscience of the present government, the Catholic Church canonized its first Sudanese saint in October of 2000, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a woman kidnapped and sold as a slave late in the nineteenth century. Saint Bakhita eventually arrived in Italy, was emancipated, and became a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Her writings, which document the torture she endured as a slave over a number of years, are also a beautiful testament to her virtue, willingness to forgive, and the natural goodness that contributed to a holy Christian life when she was later catechized and received into the Catholic Church.

Saunders says that although there are regional efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese government, complicating factors have given the NIF some leverage. A border war between Sudan’s neighbors to the east—Eritrea and Ethiopia—has prevented these countries from uniting their efforts against the oppressive Sudanese regime. Also, the government is now profiting from the Sudan’s newly-discovered oil resources; by selling oil to other countries—most notably, to China—the Sudanese government has obtained a lucrative source of income to fund the jihad.

The greatest sign of hope for the persecuted Church in the Sudan has been the prophetic presence of a courageous, native-born Catholic bishop, Reverend Macram Max Gassis. He is bishop of the diocese of El Obeid, an area of Sudan that is twice the size of Italy. Named a bishop in 1988, he began speaking to international organizations such as the US Congress and the United Nations about the Sudanese atrocities. The NIF declared him a criminal for exposing the government’s human rights abuses, and he now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya. Saunders says that Bishop Gassis regularly carries out clandestine operations into Sudan to bring in supplies of food, water, seeds, and building supplies for wells, schools, churches and hospitals. The bishop also helps educate and house 1,200 orphaned children. In one region he visits, northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, there have been no resident priests for over twenty years. The faith is spread by courageous catechists, many of whom are women trained as part of Bishop Gassis’ efforts to advance the education of women in a country where women are considered to be second-class citizens. Gassis calls the catechists “heroes of love,” who live under the threat of torture and even murder. The bishop makes great efforts to be present to his people, holding clandestine Masses in the thick of sycamore trees for hundreds of Sudanese Catholics at Christmas and Easter. Sudanese Catholics travel many miles to receive with joy their faithful shepherd. During the holy days, the government will often launch bombing raids because they know the Catholic population will be gathered in larger numbers at these times.

William Saunders met Bishop Gassis in 1997, when Gassis was in Washington, DC, speaking about slavery and genocide in the Sudan. At the request of Bishop Gassis, Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., an non-profit 501(c)(3) organization designed to fund and support the work Gassis is doing in his native land. This is volunteer work for Saunders, whose livelihood is his pro-life and human rights work as an attorney.

Saunders has traveled with Bishop Gassis to the Sudan, notably during the Christmas season in 1998, and has moving stories to tell about visiting with orphaned children, viewing damage from government bombings, and participating in clandestine liturgies in the Nuba Mountains. Saunders is not simply a human rights activist; he is also, like Bishop Gassis, a man of deep faith who can penetrate the meaning of the suffering of the Sudanese people. “The persecuted Catholics in the Sudan are offering their sufferings for the whole Church! As Bishop Gassis says, the Church of the Sudan is a donor Church, offering up its sufferings on behalf of all the faithful,” says Saunders. They are expressing their communion with us; how will we express the same to them?

Acutely aware of the gift of the Sudanese people, Saunders notes the great witness they offer to the Church in this country, and notes that the current situation gives us the chance to serve our persecuted brothers and sisters across the globe. “If you say, ‘I am a Catholic’ in the Sudan, you are going to suffer. So if you don’t mean it, you don’t say it! In the materialism of America today, our enemies are more subtle and we don’t realize the compromises we’re making. It’s a great blessing for Christians here to realize what it costs to be Christians in other places; it wakes us up here in the United States so that we can help to alleviate the suffering of others and build up the Church.”

What, practically, can we do to reach out to our Sudanese brothers and sisters? First, Saunders says, we can offer our prayers. Second, we can make financial contributions to Sudan Relief and Rescue (SRR) to assist Bishop Gassis in his work of building hospitals and schools, training catechists and seminarians, caring for orphans, and providing food, water and medical treatment. While there are other relief organizations, SRR reaches territory that no other organization can reach: “The UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, a kind of a consortium of relief groups, had to negotiate an agreement with the government in order to be able to deliver food. The government won’t let them go into these areas where we are going. They do a lot of good in other parts of the country; I’m just saying that if you want to help in the areas served by Bishop Gassis, just about the only way to do it is through our organization.” Third, we can ask our elected representatives to push for a UN-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan in order to end the bombing raids.

As Pope John Paul II noted last October during the canonization of Saint Bakhita, the plight of the Sudanese people is the responsibility not only of world governments, but of every Christian: “I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St. Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.” May this Lent be a privileged time for Christians worldwide to express their communion with the persecuted Church of the Sudan.

To contact the Sudan Relief Fund, write to: PO Box 7084, Merriffield, VA 22116-9798 or call toll-free: 1-888-488-0348. You may also visit the organization’s website at: sdnrlf.com. All donations are tax-deductible.