Leah Libresco ran a symposium last week on “Loving Parishioners in their Particularity” about concrete ways that the Church can welcome people in unusual or difficult circumstances. There’ve been a variety of excellent suggestions as to how to welcome specific groups of people – those suffering with depression, single people, or people with disabilities.
My proposal (one that’s probably too late to be part of the symposium proper, but was certainly inspired by it) has more in common with Calah Alexander’s post on parish ministries and the ways in which they can often isolate just as much as they include, and with Leah’s own post about making it easier to say hello and strike up meaningful connections with fellow parishioners. It’s an idea, which, if implemented, would hopefully be helpful in welcoming people in a whole variety of circumstances.
Here’s my idea: make it much more socially acceptable to not receive communion at Mass.
So, who would this help welcome? The group that Aaron Taylor recently wrote about over at Ethika Politica: “Bad Catholics”. Analysing the confusion wrought by a piece in the Spectator by former MP Louise Mensch, who wrote that, as a divorced and remarried Catholic, she emphatically did not want people in her circumstances to be able to receive communion. Taylor pointed out that the Church used to be much more comfortable with people like Mensch:
“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.
Sometimes bad Catholics confessed, made a half-hearted attempt to mend their ways, and then slipped back into their old sins like a comfortable pair of slippers. They were never, on that account, excluded from the Church.
Sarah from A Queer Calling has an excellent account of her time as a “bad Catholic”, and she concludes it with a key insight: every Christian is a bad Christian at times. Every Christian is, to a greater or lesser extent, rubbish at Christianity, and by making it easier for parishioners to be able to not receive communion without being questioned or analysed we’re not only helping them to follow church teaching – we would be making space for and acknowledging our shared weakness, our shared brokenness.
At the moment, most churches are not really making that space.
A few weeks ago I didn’t present myself for communion. Or, rather, I tried not to present myself for communion.
I thought that there was a reasonable chance that I wasn’t in a state of grace, I hadn’t been to confession in a few weeks, and I figured the best thing I could do, short of getting to confession as swiftly as possible, was to receive a blessing instead of the eucharist. To be entirely honest, I’d actually been trying to work up the courage to not present myself for a couple of weeks, but here’s the thing: it was extremely embarrassing. I sing in the choir, have a lot of friends around the parish – and that’s before considering the matter of younger siblings. I was afraid that people would ask me questions. So I ended up receiving communion on a couple of occasions when I in conscience believed I probably shouldn’t.
This particular week, I finally screwed up my courage and crossed my arms over my chest (staying in the pew would’ve been even more noticeable). I got into the line, crossed my hands over my chest, went up to the priest, bowed my head, and…
“The body of Christ.”
I looked again, and did a sort of ostrich-like neck movement to indicate my crossed arms, and bowed my head again. No response. The pause was getting awkward. I uncrossed my arms, said “Amen” and received. I went back to the pew shaken, and remained so for the rest of mass.
Now, I don’t for goodness sake think anyone should feel sorry for a pretentious middle-class Catholic schmuck with a blog. I shouldn’t have let something as pathetic as the prospect of public disapproval (nay, public curiosity) stop me from doing what I thought was right. I could have stayed in the pew. I could have got my sorry ass to confession.
And I don’t think it was the priest’s fault at all. Grown Catholic adults crossing their arms for a blessing is pretty unusual, and he probably just thought I wanted to receive on the tongue.
But there’s the rub: grown Catholic adults crossing their arms for a blessing is pretty unusual.
There are actually rather a lot of quite commonplace sins that (depending of course on one’s degree of knowledge and culpability) might cause one not to be in a state of grace on a given Sunday. And unless the reports of drastically reduced numbers going to confession are completely erroneous, then what we’re dealing with is a lot of people who either don’t know that you’re not supposed to receive communion when not in a state of grace, or they for some reason are not following the teaching.
Both problems, it strikes me, have more or less the same solution. Priests could just announce at every mass for a couple of weeks that people are very welcome to come up for a blessing* if they’re not Catholics, have already received communion twice that day, or are not in a state of grace. Talk about how this is going to be a pretty normal occurrence, and use it as an opportunity for catechesis. It’d be a chance to talk about some of the ideas that Aaron Taylor and Sarah wrote about, a chance to remind people of the unique way that the Catholic Church sees the world, and a chance to do something concrete to welcome the largest group of all: sinners.
* I am aware there is some liturgical kerfuffle about the practice of offering blessings during the distribution of communion. Deacon Greg suggests saying “Receive Jesus in your heart” instead, which is not a blessing but an invitation to worship.