Every three years, the Sunday Gospel readings spend a few weeks working through chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. The Year B Gospel readings mostly focus on Mark’s Gospel and so John 6 comes as a somewhat startling and bracing interlude at an otherwise slow point in the liturgical year. It is an incredibly dense, theologically-meaty chapter, even by the standards of this most abstruse and theologically technical of the four Gospels. It begins with John’s version of the Feeding of the Multitudes, then features the Walking on Water, the Bread of Life Discourse, and finally, an exchange on eternal life between Jesus and Simon Peter. Featuring everything from two of Christ’s best-known miracles to His concern for the needy to foundational Christian sacramental theology, it is a tour de force of a chapter.
At what is arguably the chapter’s climactic moment, Jesus asks the apostles if they, too, will leave him because they are unable to accept the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a means of sharing in the salvation he offers. “Master,” Peter replies, ““Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”” (vv. 68-69).
Both this summer and in the summer of 2018, public events in the life of the Church have seriously shocked the consciences and rattled the faith of many Catholics, myself included. Both now and three years ago, the lectionary has reached John 6 almost exactly at the time that the implications of those events have started to become clear.
Providence, serendipity, or whatever we choose to call it, seems to have provided this chapter, where the truth of the centrality of the Eucharist in the economy of Salvation is once again brought forth for our contemplation. Let’s examine this timeliness with intention in light of those recent events.
The summer of 2018 gave us the Pennsylvania grand jury report in which hundreds of cases of clerical sexual abuse actively covered up by the bishops of almost every diocese in that state were revealed to the public simultaneously. We witnessed the public fall of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as his decades as a sexual abuser began, finally, to come to light. Then came the first Viganò letter, accusing Pope Francis of being aware of the charges against McCarrick and going out of his way to rehabilitate him after Benedict XVI had allegedly imposed informal restrictions on his movements.
People may not remember these events today after more than a year of “Viganò 2.0,” the conspiracy-mongering version of the archbishop, an obviously bad-faith GOP political surrogate rather than a whistleblower. In 2018, however, his allegations were taken seriously enough that even some contributors to this website reckoned with the possibility that they had thrown in their lot with a morally evil Pope. Very little was settled that summer about people’s opinions of Pope Francis, the Church in general, or the abuse crisis in particular.
Now, three years later, the Church in the developed world has become entrenched in a politicized malaise. Unlike the hierarchy-centric scandals of three years ago, this situation is driven in large part by the agendas of strongly political sectors of the laity. These agendas are in turn responding to dangerous political situations in many parts of the world, involving the “populist” and “liberal” currents criticized by Pope Francis in Fratelli tutti. Most famously, many in the Church feel the need to provide strong responses to the election of a Catholic US President who dissents from Church teaching on abortion, responses that themselves often take a politicized form. And once again into this new period of turbulence and uncertainty, John 6 has returned to us through the Liturgy of the Word. Its message is one of trust in Christ and in the Church, not because of feelings of positivity or misguided optimism, but because in the Church is where we find the Eucharist, in its fullness, for what it is.
Perhaps appropriately, this year’s go-around with the readings in John 6 comes at a time in which the Eucharist itself is a political and theological flash point. The previously obscure term “Eucharistic coherence”—the unity of Catholics with Church teaching as connected with their unity in the Eucharist—has been thrown back and forth constantly in recent months. Both the bishops and many in the laity are now hyperaware of a perceived lack of piety and belief in the Eucharist, and that it is a serious problem today. Indeed, in the minds of many, this is the most serious issue currently facing the Church—with worthiness to receive judged according to the Catholicity of both one’s private and one’s public political views. To top everything off, an oft-cited Pew poll (whose methodology has been criticized) “revealed” a depressingly-low statistic for belief in the Real Presence, which is the central point of John’s sixth chapter. Regardless of the statistics, anecdotally I have definitely perceived a somewhat lackadaisical Eucharistic piety among Catholics I know. Many in parishes that I have attended do approach the sacrament cavalierly or presumptively rather than humbly. One could certainly be forgiven for worrying that many Catholics today have no particular regard for the Eucharist and see it as more of a status symbol—a way of getting one’s hand stamped so one can come back in, if you will—than as “the source and summit of the Christian life.”
And yet some sense of the seriousness of the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity is still there, even among Catholics who are not particularly concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy or punctilious religious practice. The idea of denying pro-choice Catholic politicians (or any Catholic politicians, for that matter) access to the sacrament of the altar would not be nearly as controversial if the Eucharist, as a sign of unity with the Church, were not taken seriously in any way. It’s true enough that thinking of the Eucharist as simply a sign of “membership” in the Catholic club is an impoverished understanding of what it is. Even so, therein exists at least the basics of an understanding of the mystery of ecclesial unity.
Without that mystery, there is indeed little reason to be Catholic. Catholic priests are not known for wowing people with their homilies, relative to the preaching in most Protestant denominations. Western Catholic liturgy is not known for overwhelming people with the power and force of the Almighty, relative to the liturgy of the Eastern Churches. Certainly the Catholic Church is not now known for the moral rectitude of its members or leaders, relative to almost any other group of people in contemporary society.
What is left is the centrality of the mystery of union with Christ. The Eucharist is the way that that mystery is most frequently communicated in the lives of observant Catholics. Peter’s words in John 6 are admittedly a somewhat negative way of putting this; “Master, to whom shall we go?” (v. 68) are quite obviously words of acquiescence as much as words of worship.
Another word for acquiescence might be surrender, and another word for negative might be apophatic—an accepted theological and mystical term meaning to arrive at God by ruling out all those things that God is not. The Middle English text The Cloud of Unknowing is a work of apophatic theology, as are novels such as Silence, the “what do I love when I love my God?” passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions, and to some extent even the well-known story of the “still, small voice” in 2 Kings 12. Jesus’ dialogue with Peter reminds us that following Him is not always about the things that we can get by doing so, but the things that we cannot get by doing otherwise. The Church points to Christ and Christ is more than scandal, more than merely an option to take or to leave, even if it at times seems like the Church on earth is fatally compromised and leaving is the most natural or even most moral choice.
“To whom shall we go?” Simon Peter asks. Those of us whose faith—or, one might better say, confidence—in the Church has been rattled might find ourselves asking it with him. The answer, at least for Christians, is as obvious as it is arresting, demanding, and even discomforting. God, the God who was made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and is now “ever eaten and never consumed” in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, is not anybody else; anybody else would not be God.
Dismayed as the Apostles are by Jesus’ insistence on what sounds like literal divine cannibalism as the only sure way to salvation, their experiences with and belief in him teach them to trust his words nevertheless. We have been taught that too, those of us for whom the Eucharist always draws us back, outweighing the sins—grave as they so often are—of those who share in that sacrament with us. Somehow—again, call it providence or serendipity or both—John’s Gospel, and Peter’s words, always seem to come back around at the right time to remind us of that.