Fine Print on the Invitation: Who Is Welcome at the Table of the Lord?

Fine Print on the Invitation: Who Is Welcome at the Table of the Lord? July 27, 2013


I am confused. This will probably seem disingenuous, or a violation of my fast from bile. But I truly am curious, not angry.

How do I understand my call to mission—our common calling to evangelize? What kind of invitation do I issue, and to whom?

This is what Pope Francis said to the bishops and clergy gathered in Rio today (h/t to Fr James Martin, SJ):

Let us help our young people to discover the courage and joy of faith, the joy of being loved personally by God, who gave his Son Jesus for our salvation. Let us form them in mission, in going out and going forth. Jesus did this with his own disciples: he did not keep them under his wing like a hen with her chicks. He sent them out! We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people! Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They too are invited to the table of the Lord.

Right alongside Fr Jim’s Facebook post quoting the Holy Father, there was a very long thread criticizing the role of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion—triggered by a meme encouraging communicants to cut lines to receive only from a priest. This thread reflected a high degree of concern about those fingers not pure enough to touch the Lord’s Sacred Body, not to mention communicants unworthy to receive him. The takeaway seemed to be that if you have more communicants than Father (and, grudgingly, a deacon) can handle at Mass, it’s likely that most of them are receiving unworthily anyway.

This reminded me of a post I read this week from canonist Ed Peters, expanding on his recent proposal that the Sunday Eucharistic fast be extended to 3 hours. He makes some arguable points (principally, that an hour without food does not a fast make), but I was startled by the reason he goes into in this post: that a longer fast would eliminate many unworthy Communions. Dr Peters claims that these unworthy Communions are actually prompted by the Sunday obligation and the Church’s “encouragement” to commune at every Mass. Since, in the absence of a significant fast, the only thing keeping a person from receiving is consciousness of mortal sin, people (in Peters’ reasoning) are reluctant to make a de facto revelation of the state of their souls by hanging back, so they receive unworthily out of peer pressure. But if they could have another excuse, Peters suggests, they’d happily sit back and let only the worthy receive.

Restoring the three-hour Communion fast, as outlined above, would virtually eliminate the social pressure to make an unworthy, indeed sacrilegious, Communion, in that a sandwich, a cup of coffee, or a piece of candy, taken a few hours before Mass, would break the Communion fast. Under my proposal, one’s failure to take Communion at Mass would be attributable to nothing more sinister than a case of absent-minded munchies, and the problem of placing Catholics in a situation that requires of them a de facto disclosure of conscience—and the problems associated with Catholics making poor choices while under such pressure—would be virtually eliminated.

Honestly, I don’t know a lot of people who impute sinister motives to those who abstain from Communion. Do you? (It’s more likely to be irritation at the inconvenience of stepping around people.) And under Peters’ assumption, the longer fast wouldn’t really prompt people to greater spiritual discipline or more frequent confession—it would just serve as social window-dressing for those scrupulous enough to worry about it (who are not, in my experience, the ones looking for an excuse to refrain).

I do seriously understand the importance of celebrating the Eucharist with reverence and care, and of good Eucharistic catechesis for all. But I find it difficult to square the joy and hospitality of Francis’s invitation with the “yes, but”-ness of the extreme concerns over unworthiness of both ministers and communicants. It’s the same real confusion I have about whether we are indeed a Church that welcomes homosexual persons—that mixed message surfaced yesterday in an article in the Columbus Dispatch about Catholic parents wondering if their gay son would be denied Catholic burial. There are those who say that the answer is Of course not, and that the question means we need to do a better job of proclaiming that the Church does not hate gays. But I wonder, seriously, what this family’s experience would be if their son has not “washed his hands,” as Cardinal Dolan put it, and maintained lifelong celibacy. I am not holding out for one position or another. I just want to know what we should be writing on the invitation.

I keep thinking of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23-24:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Jesus wasn’t dissing rules, but asking for them to be prioritized. And that’s something I need help doing, because we are all blind guides in this case. Justice, mercy, and faith seem to be where Papa Francis is throwing his weight. Yet it is difficult to imagine following his directive to invite the marginalized and the unchurched to the table when there is this much concern that too many already in the fold don’t cut it. Can we talk about what the mint, dill, and cumin are? What gnats are we straining? What camels are we swallowing?

I want more than anything to welcome to the table those who have been too long away, as I was. But I want to do so honestly. If there are points beyond which only the worthy may be admitted, what are they? What is the fine print on the invitation?

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