Whenever I read an article that advocates refusing the Eucharist to people whose public politics conflict with church teachings, it worries me. I find I have a lot of questions. Why, for instance, does the controversy seem to center only on one hot-button issue? I wonder, too, how anyone could possibly be comfortable making the judgment call on who gets served and who does not. Don't they worry about usurping the role of the One Who Alone Gets To Judge?
There's another thing that troubles me. I know that there are legitimate ecclesiological and canon-law issues surrounding the question of prochoice Catholics who present themselves for Communion. But as a pastor on the front lines, so to speak, I want to know what the proper etiquette is when denying someone the Eucharist. Do I simply shake my head and call out “Next!” like that Seinfeld character the Soup Nazi? Do I ask the uninvited to cross their arms over their chest and receive a blessing, along with my fervent prayer that they will one day come around to the correct way of thinking? Or do I just glare at them until they go back to their seat? What really is the proper way to withhold Communion? And will those church leaders who recommend awarding “refusal status” to some of my flock offer any practical tips to help me do it?
How did it all get this complicated? I remember the very first time I distributed the Eucharist, three decades ago. A first-year seminarian home for Christmas break, I went with family and friends to Midnight Mass. At the door, the pastor mentioned that an emergency had come up with one of the Eucharistic ministers. Would I help out? I was honored—thrilled, actually—and more than a little nervous. At the proper time, I took my place, paten in hand, and began the ritual. “Body of Christ,” I pronounced solemnly, and placed the host on tongue or palm. After the pounding in my heart slowed down and the shock of it all subsided a bit, I fell into the rhythm of the moment. The Communion line seemed endless, but there was plenty to give, grace in abundance. It humbled me to be standing there, offering something that wasn't even mine. “Body of Christ.” I was feeding people, and they wanted what I offered. They were hungry.
In my many subsequent years of “priesting” in a parish, I have seen these hungers up close; and to this day I remain humbled, amazed at the faith that seeks to satisfy them with what is in the chalice and on the paten. “Body of Christ,” I give to the one mourning the death of a child. “Body of Christ,” I say to the man struggling with an abusive past and a joyless marriage. “Body of Christ,” I assure the harried mother of four highly active children under the age of seven. “Body of Christ,” I tell the teenager trying to figure out why he still goes to church.
They line up, each and every Sunday, to be fed on Word and Bread and a bit of community; and in that long line, I don't see politics. I don't see how someone voted, or whom they slept with. I don't see bright orange merit badges signifying spiritual worthiness, or a golden aura indicating a state of grace. What I do see is a group of people eager to live the best they can, trying to comprehend the world and the God they sense in the world. I see a people who know they are hungry and imperfect, but who believe that God will continue to shape them, and who trust that the church will nourish them.
Of course, in a body so vast and varied, there are bound to be disagreements, some so serious that they seem to cut to the bone. Yet sacramental starvation is not the answer. Refusing the Eucharist heals nothing and solves even less. It reflects the thinking of someone who would rather exclude than sit down and converse. I hope no one in my parish ever has to go without because someone thinks he owns the paten. That would truly worry me.
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