The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is one of the most amazing aspects of our faith. Sometimes, however, I wonder if the amazing reality of the Eucharist has managed to eclipse its purpose. What is the purpose of communion? The word should give us a clue; it’s all about unity.
Jesus nourishes us with his body and blood in the Eucharist, but as finite human beings we are obviously incapable of consuming God himself. On the contrary, as William Cavanaugh writes in be consumed, the Eucharist must consume us. The Eucharist should not be seen in an individualistic way, as being an individual encounter with God. By participating in the Eucharist, we become one both with the local Eucharistic community and with the Mystical Body of Christ as a whole.
This unifying effect of the Eucharist is often overlooked. For example, reactionary Catholics tend to have a very individualistic view of the Eucharist. They complain that the Mass of Saint Paul VI is too communal and looks too much like a meal. In particular, they oppose the concelebration, the procession of offerings, the sign of peace, and the vernacular responses spoken by the laity. These liturgical elements were common in ancient and medieval liturgy, but reactionaries claim that these communal elements distract them from their private prayers. Such claims, however, show that they misunderstand the true purpose of the liturgy. Private prayer is a wonderful thing, but the liturgy is not designed to promote private prayer. On the contrary, the liturgy is a public prayer in which the community comes together to worship God. If private prayer were the goal, we wouldn’t need to meet at all.
Eucharistic individualism is also found among progressives. Generally, they hold that an individual’s decision to receive Communion is a private matter between the recipient and God and that such decisions should not be challenged. For example, in a article for AtlanticMollie Wilson O’Reilly, Managing Editor for common good magazine, wrote that “the Church has many rules about what Catholics must or must not do to worthily receive Communion, but keeping them is usually a private matter.”
In a America magazine article Responding to O’Reilly, the Very Reverend Robert Aaron Wessman, GHM disputes this assertion that Communion is a private matter. He points out that it is ironic to see the editor of a magazine called “Commonweal” arguing for a private understanding of the Communion! He goes on to quote Henri de Lubac as having said that “true Eucharistic piety is therefore not devout individualism. It is ‘without caring about anything that concerns the good of the Church’.
It is certainly true that there is a personal dimension to receiving Communion. This personal dimension, however, is not private. Wessman goes on to discuss a 2006 document of the American bishops on the Eucharist which “states the importance of conscience in discerning the dignity of receiving communion, but also assumes that conscience is formed ‘in accordance with the teaching of the Church’ – this is i.e. by a community”.
Debates around the reception of Communion have been revived by the recent new that Archbishop Cordileone barred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion. Some Catholics consider Bishop Cordileone’s action justified, as President Pelosi’s position on abortion is clearly at odds with Catholic teaching. Others, while agreeing in principle, questioned the wisdom and usefulness of such action in the current circumstances.
Regardless of prudential views on this particular case, however, we cannot afford to slip into an individualistic view of the Eucharist that minimizes its communal significance. In a press conference in 2021, Pope Francis emphasized that bishops should be pastoral in their handling of such situations; but he also said “Communion is a gift, a present, it is the presence of Jesus in the Church and in the community. Then, those who are not in the community cannot take communion.
Progressive Catholics can see themselves as seeking unity. They do not want to see individuals or groups excluded from the Communion, because such exclusion symbolizes division. This desire for unity is admirable but can lead to a magical understanding of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. In 2 Philippians, Saint Paul describes the unity that must exist within the Christian community: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; rather humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each not looking after his own interests, but each looking after those of the others. If this unity of mind and heart does not really exist, then the unity symbolized by the Eucharist becomes an empty symbol.
Unity of spirit is sorely lacking in the Church today, but the lack of “concern for the interests of others” is perhaps even more dangerous. Behind the various ideological strains of eucharistic individualism lies a more pervasive problem: the eucharistic individualism of the average Catholic parish in the United States. Today, many parishes operate as “mass stops” where an unconnected set of individuals spend an hour a week “getting their sacraments”. As soon as the Sunday mass is over, the parishioners separate; there is no community tie that binds them all together. We certainly don’t look out for each other’s interests; in fact, we know so little about each other that we don’t even know what their interests and needs are.
It is tragic that we Catholics, with our sacramental theology, fare less well in this regard than various Protestant groups. At least in the United States, many Protestant churches are much more community-oriented than the typical Catholic parish. It’s almost as if we feel that since we have the Eucharist, we don’t have to worry about the community that the Eucharist is supposed to create!
True Eucharistic unity can only come from a complete renewal of the Eucharistic community. In be consumed, Cavanaugh discusses the temptation to “spiritualize” this discourse of union and communion, to make it so spiritual that it truly ceases to exist. Saint Paul, however, condemns those who “despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing”. The Eucharist calls us to a frighteningly concrete level of community; a community in which what belongs to one belongs to all, and in which the joys and sufferings of one affect all the rest. Until we are willing to enter into such community with each other, our eucharistic unity with Christ will be incomplete.
Image: Pope Francis and US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi meet at the Vatican, October 9, 2021. Vatican Media.
The hosts of Malcolm Schluenderfritz happy are you poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelism. He works as a graphic design assistant and horticulturist in Littleton, CO.