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 overshadow its purpose. What is the purpose of receiving Communion? The word should give us a hint; it is all about unity.
Jesus feeds us with his body and blood in the Eucharist, but as finite human beings we are obviously unable to consume God himself. Rather, as William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed, the Eucharist should consume us. We shouldn’t see the Eucharist in an individualist manner, as being all about 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 disregarded. For instance, reactionary Catholics tend to have a very individualistic view of the Eucharist. They complain that the Mass of St. Paul VI is too community-oriented and too much like a meal. In particular, they object to concelebration, the Offertory Procession, the Sign of Peace, and vernacular responses being spoken by the laity. These liturgical elements were common in ancient and medieval liturgy, yet 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 foster private prayer. Rather, the liturgy is a public prayer in which the community comes together to worship God. If private prayer was the point, we wouldn’t need to come together at all.
Eucharistic individualism can also be found among progressives. Typically, they hold that an individual’s decision to receive Communion is a private matter between the recipient and God and that such decisions should be left unchallenged. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, editor-at-large for Commonweal magazine, wrote that “The Church has many rules about what Catholics should or should not do to receive Communion worthily, but observing them is typically a private matter.”
In an America magazine article responding to O’Reilly, The Very Rev. Robert Aaron Wessman, G.H.M challenges this claim 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 Communion! He goes on to quote Henri de Lubac as having said that “True Eucharistic piety, therefore, is no devout individualism. It is ‘unmindful of nothing that concerns the good of the Church.’”
It is certainly true that there is a personal dimension to the reception of Communion. This personal dimension, however, is not private. Wessman goes on to discuss a 2006 document from the U.S. bishops on the Eucharist that “states the importance of conscience in discerning worthiness to receive Communion but also presumes that one’s conscience is formed “in accordance with the Church’s teaching”—that is, by a community.”
The debates around the reception of Communion have been reignited by the recent news that Archbishop Cordileone has barred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion. Some Catholics see Archbishop Cordileone’s action as being justified, since Speaker Pelosi’s position on abortion is at clear odds with Catholic teaching. Others, while agreeing in principle, have expressed doubts about the prudence and utility of such an action under the current circumstances.
Regardless of prudential opinions on this particular case, however, we can’t allow ourselves to slip into an individualistic view of the Eucharist that would downplay its communal meaning. 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 may see themselves as seeking unity. They don’t want to see individuals or groups excluded from Communion, since 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, St. Paul described the unity that should 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 out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also everyone for those of others.” If this unity of mind and heart does not truly exist, then the unity symbolized by the Eucharist becomes an empty symbol.
Unity of mind is sadly lacking in the Church today, but a lack of “looking out for the interests of others” is perhaps even more dangerous. Underlying the various ideological strains of Eucharistic Individualism is a more pervasive problem: the Eucharistic individualism of the average Catholic parish in the USA. Today, many parishes function as “Mass Stops” where a disconnected collection of individuals spend an hour a week “getting their sacraments.” As soon as Sunday Mass is over, the parishioners go their separate ways; there is no communal connection that binds them all together. We certainly aren’t looking out for one another’s interests; in fact, we know so little about one another that we don’t even know what these interests and needs are.
It is tragic that we Catholics, with our sacramental theology, are doing worse in this regard than various Protestant groups. At least in the USA, many Protestant churches are much more community-oriented than the typical Catholic parish. It almost seems 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 through a comprehensive renewal of the Eucharistic community. In Being Consumed, Cavanaugh discusses the temptation to “spiritualize” this talk of union and communion, to make it so spiritual that it ceases to truly exist. St. Paul, however, condemns those who “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing”. The Eucharist calls us to a level of community that is frighteningly concrete; 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 one another, 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.