In all the debate about whether divorced and remarried Catholics and others in irregular unions should be allowed to receive the Eucharist, I have been pondering how routine it is for people who are for a range of reasons improperly disposed to receive Holy Communion line up because everyone else does as if the Blessed Sacrament is a token of belonging and not the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been slowly making my way through a book by Cardinal Jean Danielou on The Bible and the Liturgy where he explores what the early Church Fathers said about the sacraments. Baptism, for example, was not merely a brief ceremony but a process that began with an examination by the bishop of a catechumen’s readiness, and a solemn writing of the candidate’s name in the register, akin to writing that person’s name in the Book of Life. (When I read that I thought, wow, too bad that sense of why Catholics are such sticklers for records has been lost!). Then there was a period of intense catechesis during Lent to prepare candidates to receive the Holy Mysteries.
In the early Church, there was a lot of hostility and misunderstanding of Christianity so the Holy Mysteries were kept behind closed doors. There was a process of initiation after people were evangelized before they could go behind those doors, fully prepared.
Now, however, after centuries of Christendom, those Holy Mysteries are right out in the open and everyone just seems to help themselves whether they truly believe the Catholic faith or not. The forms of initiation still take place, but how deeply do they penetrate the souls of those who go through them? If retention rates of Catholicism in the West are any indication, not very deeply, it would seem.
The other thing I have thought about is how God used a wonderful seeker-friendly Baptist Church to wean me from Gnosticism and a bizarre kind of cafeteria Christianity. From there I went to the Traditional Anglican Communion’s Anglican Catholic Church of Canada because I was hungry for Church history, and liturgy and intuitively attracted to Real Presence. We had open Communion then, though with strong Scriptural exhortations. I have often thought that had I been blocked from receiving Communion I would not have stuck around. And how impoverished I would have been as a result!
Now, of course, Holy Communion is restricted to Catholics in good standing now that we are part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
Which brings me to the doors. How can Catholic Churches reach people like I was—people who are seeking, who have had an initial encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, but believe a lot of lies from the world and who do not understand sacraments?
Should we not start thinking about protecting believers from sacrilege and protecting the Holy Mysteries from being desecrated? Should we not act as if there is something exceedingly precious that one must prepare one’s soul diligently to receive rather than hand it out like a token to everyone who comes forward?
When it became apparent in the early 1950s that television sets would soon be in many households, German bishops deliberated about whether it would be wise to allow or even promote television broadcasts of the Holy Mass. Indeed, people thought about such questions sixty years ago and they asked the great philosopher Josef Pieper for an expert opinion. In his opinion, Pieper rejected such television broadcasts on principle, saying they were irreconcilable with the nature of the Holy Mass. In its origins, the Holy Mass is a discipline of the arcane, a sacred celebration of mysteries by the christened. He mentioned the lowest level in the order of priests – done away with following the Second Vatican Council – the ostiary, or doorkeeper, who once had to ensure that the non-baptized and those temporarily excluded leave the church and move to the narthex following the liturgy of the Word. The Orthodox still do so in some places; the call of the deacon, “Guard the doors” is heard in every Orthodox liturgy before the Eucharist. While in Georgia I once experienced this demand, often merely a ceremony of a recollected past, being taken literally. A monk approached me, fell to his knees and apologetically asked me to leave the church since I, as a Roman Catholic, was not in full agreement with the Orthodox Church. I gladly acquiesced as I think not everyone has to be permitted everywhere all the time. Sacred places and holy acts are first declared quite plainly by the drawing of boundaries and such boundaries must somehow be visible and palpable.
Now that society is increasingly hostile to Christianity,and even many Catholics need to be re-evangelized, is it time to rethink the kind of openness to the world that was possible when societies were steeped in Christianity and the faith was communicated by osmosis?
Is it time for parishes to think about having prayer meetings and other outreaches for the newly evangelized that do not always and routinely offer the Eucharist for those who are not prepared?
Also, from Mosebach’s address, this beautiful, beautiful passage:
He Himself taught them to associate the Last Supper, which already stood in ritual context to the Passover meal, with His bloody sacrificial death the next day. The biblical words spoken by Moses to establish the offering on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and the words of the Eucharist, which proclaim the surrogate sacrifice of Christ’s blood, are nearly identical. Exodus 24:8 says, “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.’” In Mark 14:23, Jesus “took a cup […] and said to them ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’”This is the clue to the correct understanding of the events: the foundation of a sacrificial ceremony devised for repetition. A rite is an ever-renewed repetition of an act prescribed by an outside will. But the framework within which this foundation should be seen was also clear to the disciples. Paul articulated it when he called Christ the High Priest who, however, no longer absolves the people with the blood of a calf, but with his own blood.This is a most incredible reinterpretation. For the apostles, however, it was purely an awareness of reality: the slave’s death as an outcast becomes the free sacrificial act of a High Priest. The passio of death on the cross becomes actio – and truly the part of the mass in which the sacrifice of Christ is visualized is called “actio” –, the suffering becomes a deed. The deed of a High Priest: with Christ we have a new way to see reality. Christ brings about knowledge of this reality by thinking in terms of opposites that will not be resolved until the end of human history. It is true that Jesus, bathed in sweat and blood, gasped out his life on the cross. It is just as true that He was the High Priest who sprinkled the world in his blood and with freely raised arms, “took everything on Himself.”