The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Today is episode 27: Holy Communion
Well, hello friends. If you’re paying attention to Catholic news, then you know that this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, defying clear calls from the Vatican, overwhelmingly supported the creation of a document on the Eucharist which could co-opt the sacrament for political aims.
It seems clear from the many public statements from a range of American bishops and other clergy, plus the increasing politicization of the American Catholic Church, that the document is likely to outline, at least in part, the worthiness of Catholic public officials who present themselves for Communion.
Some bishops in the room were concerned about the rushed nature of the process, and the timing of the document itself, and here are some indicators about that: Efforts to draft such a document began just days after the election of President Biden. At the same time, these same bishops announced a formal working group to discuss the “problems” raised by having a Catholic president who, though personally pro-life, supports access to abortion. In addition, the document on the Eucharist will be released this November during high-stakes mid-term elections and the run-up to the presidential election of 2024; races which, if history is any indicator, the Church may play a large role.
My gut reaction to this politicization of the Church I love, and the weaponing of the Eucharist is part sorrow, part incredulity and part helplessness. As a Church, we seem to keep missing the mark over and over and over. In this episode, it is not my aim to rail against any particular group, though you may hear exhaustion, worry, and frustration behind my words today and I’m sorry about that. I am working on it. No, my intention for today’s episode is a primer on the Eucharist: what it is, its value, its history, and laying out Jesus’s words and actions surrounding the Eucharist as an example for the faithful to follow today.
The word ‘eucharist’ comes from a Greek word which means ‘thanksgiving’, ‘gratitude’ or ‘giving graciously’ and if you were born and raised Catholic, you know that we celebrate the origin of the Eucharist every year on Holy Thursday. The Eucharist is a gift that Jesus gave us during the Last Supper. He knew He was about to die for us, and as Jesus and His friends gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, He did a few very important things which He specifically told us to pay attention to, and to remember Him by.
The first is that He took the form of a servant, tied a towel around His waist, and washed the feet of His disciples. Second, He instituted a model of priesthood, based on that service, self-sacrifice, and love, giving them a framework in which He said, “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Well, love seemed pretty important to Jesus as He formed the very foundation of His Church on that day, don’t you think? Okay, so the third thing Jesus did was to give us the Eucharist, breaking bread and saying, and this is from the Book of Matthew, “’Take and eat. This is My Body.’ Then He took a cup and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” Well, did you notice a worthiness test in the words of Jesus just then? Any commentary on the particular beliefs of the people there? I didn’t. Among those gathered at the table were the one who would deny Him and the one who would betray Him and a whole lot of others who would hide and doubt Him yet at the table, He said only, “take and eat” and “drink, all of you”. I encourage you to read for yourselves the Last Supper narratives from all four Gospels, and to make that super easy for you, I’ll link to those in today’s show notes, because there will be a lot of commentary from the pulpits, and in Catholic media about this topic in the months ahead, I promise you, but reading and researching this topic for yourself is not only very accessible, but necessary. We are the Church.
Okay, so the history of the Eucharist got complicated after that first day as you can imagine because, you know, humans. We can’t seem to help ourselves to ruminate and add scaffolding and weight to the gifts that God wants to give us for free. Still, over time, there was light and color brought to some previous teachings of Jesus that maybe didn’t make much sense to the early disciples, like the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem which means ‘house of bread’. Isn’t that cool? There was the multiplication of the loaves and the beautiful symbolism of that, which they could not have known at the time. Also, that part of the Book of John in which Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from Heaven. If anyone eats this of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Gosh, can you imagine hearing Him saying that back in the day and trying to make any sense of it? We have trouble making sense of it even now. Also, I love the discourse around Jesus revealing Himself to His disciples in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus, so I’ll link that for you, too.
Okay well, then there was Paul. He was the first one to say that there was such a thing as receiving the Eucharist unworthily, though responsibility for that idea seems to land on the one who receives it, not on the one who distributes it. There were councils and debates over transubstantiation, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the how and whether and when and who should receive the Eucharist, and all of these decisions made by humans who have debated over centuries on a wide variety of topics surrounding church. Debates over the Eucharist, the mass, and the details of how we do all the things, well, these persist to this very day, but amid all of that noise, I try to go back to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Do you remember them?
Take and eat. Drink, all of you. Love one another.
When we consider a worthiness test for the distribution of the Eucharist for public officials or for anyone, we are opening a very dangerous door. If those who support access to abortion are denied the Eucharist, it follows that public officials who support the death penalty should also be disallowed. Catholics such as United States Attorney General Bill Barr and Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett did that publicly just within the last year without a peep from the USCCB. In fact, Bill Barr received an award from the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast for exemplary Christ-like behavior when he reinstated the federal death penalty after a seventeen-year discontinuance. Oh my gosh. And what of the Catholic public officials who don’t demonstrate care for the immigrant, or the least of these, or for those who use racist language, all of that against Catholic teaching, by the way. Should they be denied? When it comes down to it, who is worthy of this gift of God? Am I? Are you? And who will decide, and what does this stark division mean for the future of the Church?
In my work as a music minister, I’ve often noted that my best singing of the mass typically takes place during the Communion song, just after I have received the Eucharist. It’s often as though I can feel Jesus singing through me to all the people in the pews, like we are united as the Body of Christ, and there’s a connection and fortifying there that I can’t see or explain but I know it’s there. The Eucharist is food for my spiritual journey for sure. And when I taught CCD, I used to tell my students that the God who made the planets and the mountains and oceans and every big thing you can imagine also made Himself small enough to fit into a piece of bread, so that He could live in our hearts. And this is still my theology: God making Himself human, making Himself small, making a home in us, all of this reflects a God who is more humble, more personally loving, and more proactive than we as a Church seem to be able to wrap our heads around. He comes to us, Emmanuel, God with us. Oh friend, He loves us, and in the Eucharist, He calls us home. Pope Francis said, “The Eucharist is essential for us. It is Christ who wishes to enter our lives and fill us with His grace. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” It’s not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. Okay, hot take here. Friend, if we really believed that the real presence of Jesus was in the Eucharist, why would we deny that powerful grace to anyone, friend or enemy? If we really trusted in the transformative power of the Eucharist to change souls, heal sinners, and establish a home for God in a human life, we wouldn’t limit it. We’d take it out to the streets and make the world a holier place, one soul at a time, wouldn’t you think? I don’t know. Okay, it’s clear, my exhaustion is coming through a bit here. I am sorry about that, friend. I have no answers to the huge challenges the Church is facing right now or in how the American hierarchy seems so focused on deciding individual worthiness that we forget our call to love one another. At the end of the day, I have to remember the bigness of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and that’s where I put my hope and trust for the future of this broken Church that I love. My friend, would you pray with me today, for our Church and for us, too.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
At the time You were betrayed and entered willingly into Your passion, You took bread and giving thanks, broke it. You gave it to Your disciples saying, “Take this, all of you and eat of it. This is My Body, which will be given up for you.” Thank you, Jesus. Oh Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Thank you for the gift of Yourself, Jesus. We pray, heal Your Church.
And in Your holy name, we pray for our Church and for us and our dear ones too, amen.
Oh friend, let’s love one another in His name today, and I’ll see you next time.