Studies in The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, our gathering as One around Christ
Pastoral Letter on the Eucharist
There has been much written in the news lately, and thus much resultant confusion, about who can and who cannot receive communion.
Catholic politicians who do not enforce the Vatican’s teachings on abortion in their public roles as legislators, and recently people who wear sashes to identify themselves as gay or lesbian, are among those presently debated as not being able to receive communion at some Catholic churches. More groups could be identified as outside the pale in the future.
A commission of notable Roman Catholic prelates is now studying this issue, even as a few of the most conservative bishops break loose and issue edicts barring pro-choice Catholic politicians from the sacrament.
I would like to point out a few principles, so that you might make up your own minds on this issue. I speak as a Catholic bishop, but not of the Roman rite. However, truth, which we each must seek ourselves, is not limited to any particular rite or church. What Jesus said and what he meant is as it is. It is up to each of us to interpret for ourselves, listening to as many points of view as possible, what it is that Jesus calls us to.
Of key importance is PRIMACY OF CONSCIENCE. As followers of Jesus, we also are called to act as he did in the treatment of others. We see that Jesus always told stories with morals to be interpreted by his listeners, and he often asked questions like, “What do you think?” Jesus did not command; he invited. Thus, primacy of conscience has been the most fundamental of Catholic postures, even invoked today through the teachings of the most prominent of Roman Catholic theologians, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that conscience was first.
Secondly, we must get our priorities in order. From the earliest days of Christianity, “adherence to orthodox teachings” was not the definition of a Christian, but “the way they love one another” was. Christians were followers of “The Way.” There were no official dogmas, creeds or doctrines in the church until 325 C.E., when Emperor Constantine, who was not yet himself a Christian, approved the dogmas of the Council of Nicea, which he had called, reviewed and approved … a shaky start to dogmas.
Jesus seemed almost totally unconcerned with the definitions and codification of laws and rules. He spoke virtually all the time about the abiding presence of our loving God in all that is and in every human person, and invited us to look for that and to see it as our way to joy and peace. Such an approach seems far better suited to a church that would be like Jesus than the demand to adhere to human, time/culture-bound definitions.
Finally, we must look at what the Eucharist – communion, the body and blood of Jesus – really means. Jesus did not teach for three years, and then on the night before he died give us something new, out of the blue. The Eucharist is the physical expression of what Jesus had been teaching his whole ministry. Incessantly Jesus had spoken about the “kingdom of God,” the “reign of God,” and the “kingdom of heaven.”
We can count 140 references in the gospels to these ideas. In the Aramaic language Jesus spoke, what he was saying and what his audience was hearing was: “the all-pervasive and life-giving presence of God in all that is.” Thus, Jesus whole message was that God lives in, gives life and existence to, everything and everybody. We do not exist outside of the energy, power, intelligence, spirit and life that IS God.
It is impossible for any of us or anything to be separate from God. That was the essential message of Jesus. Not that we must obey his (or the church’s) directives in order to get the prize of heaven, but that we already have heaven. Not that God will love us if only we do what is prescribed, but that God already does love us.
Not that we shall have eternal life, but that we do. Jesus mission was to help us to see that, so that we might avoid choosing that which causes us live in a temporary “hell.”
And so, Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a physical reminder of all that he had been teaching his whole ministry. We do not have to make ourselves “worthy” to approach and receive the body and blood of Jesus.
The very gift of this sacrament is a statement that we – all of us – already ARE worthy. Communion is a visible sign of Jesus’ fundamental teaching: that God already lives within each and every one of us, that we ourselves and everything that is, ARE the body of God.
Everybody is worthy, and everyone may receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.