Tag Archives: Eucharist

A Plethora of Percys: On Fidelity to Christ and Ecclesial Coherence

26 Aug

I like the idea of being a descendant of the Northumberland Percys because they were recusants and a couple of them lost their heads as martyrs.
~ Walker Percy

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,” Joshua tells the Israelites in today’s first reading, “decide today whom you will serve…. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Note that Joshua’s affirmation of loyalty to the God of Israel is not a declaration of personal preference, but a summation of his clan’s corporate identity. He’s announcing that he and his family (and, ultimately, his people) consider fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be essential to who they are, and that nothing – not even the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the Canaanites – can make them budge.

A similar stubborn fealty is on display at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus had just finished his bread of life discourse with a startling twofold proposal: First, that he himself was the new manna, and that, second, everyone should partake of his lifegiving flesh. “Do you also want to leave?” the Lord asks his disciples after most of the rest of the crowd, alarmed by Jesus’ words, had split. “Master, to whom shall we go?” St. Peter flatly states on behalf of the Twelve. “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6.67-69).

As we now know well, Peter and the apostolic band will come to pay dearly for that conviction. They were hunted down, tortured, and martyred in a variety of grisly ways, but their belief in Jesus stood firm because they’d known him, they’d been with him for years, they saw what happened on Calvary, and yet they’d encountered him – alive! “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands,” St. John relates on behalf of his confreres, “we proclaim also to you” (I Jn 1.1, 3). That unshakeable faith, combined with extraordinary outpourings of grace, gave the Apostles courage – as a group, as a band, as an ecclesial brotherhood – to remain ambassadors of the Gospel and steadfast witnesses to Christ until their last breaths were taken from them.

It’s the same kind of tenacious communal commitment to the Lord that we glimpse in the heroic legacy of the Percys during the English Reformation. The elder Sir Thomas Percy participated the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising against Henry VIII following the King’s repudiation of Papal authority, his suppression of the monasteries, and other royal anti-Catholic actions. After Percy’s conviction for treason, he was drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1537, and is “considered a martyr by many” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Because of Percy’s crimes, his young sons, Thomas and Henry, were estranged from their noble privileges, but they were rehabilitated in 1549. The Catholic Queen Mary restored the Earldom of Northumberland to the younger Thomas in 1557, citing his “noble descent, constancy, and virtue, and value in arms.” Six years later, despite misgivings regarding Thomas’s likely Catholic sympathies, the Protestant Elizabeth I bestowed on him the Order of the Garter.

In time, however, Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of those loyal to the Pope and the old Faith grew too much for Thomas, and he took a leadership role in the 1569 Rising of the North, an effort to seat Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The effort failed, and Thomas, like his father, was captured, tried, and convicted of treason. Although offered a commutation of his death sentence in exchange for a renunciation of his religion, Thomas refused and was beheaded in 1572. Pope Leo XIII declared Thomas Percy a martyr and beatified him in 1895, and his feast is ordinarily observed today (August 26).

Before his death, Bl. Thomas’s final words summed up his organic, integrated vision of family and faith: “I am a Percy in life and in death” – that is, just as his bloodline couldn’t make him anything other than a Percy, his convictions couldn’t make him anything other than Catholic, and if that meant the chopping block, then so be it.

Percy’s ultimate witness to the Faith, like so many of the lay English martyrs, is especially instructive today. With the sole exception of St. John Fisher, all the English bishops had previously given in to Henry VIII’s schismatic demands, as did many of the clergy. Faithful lay Catholics like Thomas Percy and his kin were spiritually on the lam with little or no support from the hierarchy or institutional Church. Intrepid Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries managed to administer them the sacraments from time to time, but even that was hit and miss – more often, miss. And so, you have to wonder: What kept folks like Percy going? Why’d they stay Catholic? Why didn’t they just give in, take the path of least resistance, and conform?

Frank Sheed provides a ready answer. “Institutional Israel, the Chosen People, as the Prophets show it, was even worse than the harshest critics think the Catholic Church: yet it never occurred to the holiest of the Jews to leave it,” Sheed writes in Christ in Eclipse (1978). “They knew that however evilly the administration behaved, Israel was still the people of God. So with the Church: an administration is necessary if the Church is to function, but Christ is the whole point of the functioning.” Sheed continues, and it’s noteworthy that he refers back to the English Reformation for an object lesson:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy, do not receive the cardinals sacramentally, will not spend eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. St. John Fisher could say in a public sermon, “If the pope will not reform the Curia, God will”: a couple years later he laid his head on Henry VIII’s block for papal supremacy, followed to the same block by Thomas More, who had spent his youth under the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, lived his early manhood under the Medici pope, Leo X, and died for papal supremacy under Clement VII, as time-serving a pope as Rome had had.

St. Thomas More, in other words, was in the same boat as Bl. Thomas Percy: both had been lay heads of household who were compelled to defend the Faith with their lives in the face of a full-out episcopal abandonment. No doubt many thought the two men foolish, irresponsible, and utterly selfish. Many would’ve argued that, given the apparent perfidy of the bishops, More and Percy could’ve felt justified in cutting corners of conscience in order to survive.

But they could not, for their Catholic identity was not subject to deliberation, dilution, or dissembling. Here, again, I think Sheed captures the nub of what might’ve been in the minds and hearts of lay martyrs like Percy and More, and he is worth quoting at length:

Christ is the point. I myself admire the present pope, Paul VI; but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I sometimes find the Church as I have to live in it a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, though I might well wish the he would. Israel, through its best periods as through its worst, preserved the truth of God’s Oneness in a world swarming with gods and the sense of God’s majesty in a world sick with its own pride. So with the Church. Under the worst administration – say as bad as John XII’s a thousand years ago – we could still learn Christ’s truth, receive his life in the sacraments, and be in union with him to the limit of our willingness. In awareness of Christ, I can know the Church as his Mystical Body. And we must not make our judgment by the neck’s sensitivity to pain!

A distant relation of the Tudor Percys distills Sheed’s insights into a single line: “When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: ‘Why are you a Catholic?’” writes Catholic writer Walker Percy, “I usually reply, ‘What else is there?’” It’s as if, in the midst of tumult, disillusionment, and shame, that latter-day Percy is reminding us of the extemporaneous insight of the Fisherman and first pope: “To whom [else] shall we go?” And we pray, like Bl. Thomas Percy and St. Thomas More, that we all might meet with fortitude the consequences of adopting that insight as our own.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Fuel for the Fire: St. Sebald and Eucharistic Transformation

19 Aug

“To nourish ourselves with him and abide in him through Holy Communion transforms our life into a gift to God and to our brothers.”
~ Pope Francis

Today’s Gospel couldn’t be plainer: Eat Jesus and become Jesus. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” says the Lord. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6.55-56).

It’s what happens every Sunday – for some folks, every day – if we’re properly disposed and we present ourselves for Holy Communion. The priest holds up the consecrated host and states simply, “The Body of Christ.” If we bow and say “Amen,” then we’re affirming that spectacular claim, and if we go further and actually dare to receive him – to consume him, to appropriate all that Christ is to ourselves, and, in so doing, to be totally appropriated to him – then we tacitly agree to do our best to act as his emissaries in the world. We accept the charge to become extensions of his divine person here and now, and we look forward to the Cross in the form of all kinds of crosses – from minor hassles to martyrdom – as we go about living and loving as Christ did.

But that Eucharistic transformation isn’t a static one. It’s not magic, and it’s certainly not an assembly line. If we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, and then do nothing to flesh out in our words and actions whom we’ve received, then the efficacy of the sacrament is muted to the point of silence. “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us,” the Catechism insists, “we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (CCC 1397, emphasis added). And, if there were any question as to what that implies, the Catechism goes on to quote St. John Chrysostom: “You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.”

In other words, our worthy reception of Christ in the Eucharist requires that we then strive to become more Christlike, and to become more Christlike is to strive for ever greater charity toward the poor – and everybody. In the course of the Mass, the bread and wine on the altar really does become the Body and Blood of Christ, no question. But if that sacramental reality is to change us into Christ, then we have to intentionally and repeatedly subject our entire selves to it – what we do, what we desire, what we will.

An apt metaphor for this metamorphic sacramental relationship is the connection between fuel and flame. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” reads the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127). When we receive Holy Communion, it’s as if we allow ourselves to be changed into combustible Christs, but only if we’re serious about being set aflame in a world in need of his light and warmth. St. Angela of Foligno, writing in the late Middle Ages, made a similar point: “If we but paused for a moment to consider attentively what takes place in this Sacrament, I am sure that the thought of Christ’s love for us would transform the coldness of our hearts into a fire of love and gratitude.”

Yet, we often hold back – at least I do. And it’s often due to the severity of that coldness St. Angela mentioned – the icy selfishness in my heart, the frozen motivation to become a saint. I receive Jesus in the Eucharist, yet I’m not all that convinced that I’m truly flammable material, and so the divine love that ought to be bursting forth smolders instead.

For help with this, it’s worth turning to St. Sebald of Nuremberg, an 8th-century hermit whose feast day is ordinarily celebrated today (August 19). Although the hagiographic record is mixed, it seems that Sebald was a Danish prince who experienced a conversion, abandoned a royal romance, and embraced a life of penance and prayer. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, sought and received the Pope’s approbation for his new way of life, and then associated himself with the saintly brothers Willibald and Winibald, along with their sister, Walburga, in their efforts to evangelize the German people.

Eventually he took up a solitary life in the Bavarian wilderness (around present-day Nuremberg) where he developed a reputation for sanctity and wonderworking. After his death around the year 770, a local cult of devotion grew up, and the people built a shrine in honor of their hometown holy man. This was the beginnings of the great parish church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg, and the city in time adopted the humble hermit as its patron saint.

St. Sebald is also known as the patron saint of those suffering from cold weather, and the reason for this is curious – and relevant to today’s Eucharistic Gospel theme. According to legend, it appears that one cold, snowy night, Sebald took shelter with an impoverished peasant who couldn’t locate any firewood nor afford to buy any. The poor man’s hut was not much warmer than it was outside, and his family, along with his saintly guest, felt it keenly. “So Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of the long icicles hanging from the eaves,” writes Rev. Alban Butler. “This she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”

A couple things to consider in this little vignette. First, the icicles didn’t miraculously turn into wood before the saint tossed them into the hearth. Instead, it seems that the icicles morphed into fuel at the very moment they were burned up. This is similar to the story of the ten lepers who approached Jesus for healing. Certainly he could have snapped his fingers and cured them on the spot, but what he actually did was send them, still leprous, to the priest, “and as they went they were cleansed” (Lk 17.14). That is, the healing and the deed facilitated by the healing were simultaneous.

I think this is how Eucharistic grace operates in our lives. We can’t sit back and wait for sanctification to happen after we receive Holy Communion. To the degree that we’re able, we’re called on to draw on that sanctifying grace by extending, stretching ourselves in our efforts to be Christ for others. It happens incrementally and over time, which is why the Church urges us to receive the Eucharist frequently. But every time we do, we should be mindful that God will want to set us aflame, and there’s no sense in resisting that.

One other thought: Since we’re talking about miracles here, it’s important to note that the icicles weren’t even really required. There’s biblical precedent for flame without fuel – like the fiery pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness, for instance, and Moses’s encounter with God in a bush that was “was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex 3.2). But God doesn’t normally work that way with us. He expects us to throw caution to the wind, abandon our own priorities and stubbornness, and submit ourselves to his blazing love. Even when we’re convinced that we’re not capable of being the kind of people he wants us to be – even when we’re still wrestling with doubt and temptation, even when we’re still icy in our lack of faith – he wants us to rely on the power of the Eucharist we receive and have courage.

Go, you are sent,” we’re told at the end of every Mass after we’ve consumed our Lord. It’s the crucial moment we’re expected to follow through on what we’ve received and be consumed ourselves.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Toting Christ

11 Dec

painting-of-the-eucharist-in-salford_large

“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
~
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.
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Erring on the Side of Eucharistic Excess

15 Nov

A priest gives Holy Communion to faithful during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The soul cannot expect to be anything but lukewarm
without the grace of frequent Holy Communion.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller, OSB

Cecilia had served the 7:00 a.m. Mass on Saturday, and I was driving her home. She’d be heading back to church at 2 p.m. that same day to serve a wedding Mass, so I attempted a clever remark. “Too bad you’re not serving the Vigil at 4:30 this afternoon – three Masses in one day would be a family record!”

“I couldn’t do it anyway,” she responded, shooting me down. “You can only receive Holy Communion twice in the same day.” It’s indeed true that the Church limits our intake of edible grace – of the Eucharistic Jesus, of the comestible God himself – to twice a day (Cn 917). And if we received him the first time outside of Mass – say, at a Communion service in a nursing home or hospital – then the second time has to take place within the context of a Mass. This is to ensure that we don’t just sit around all day and fatten ourselves on sacramental grace – to take in the divine nutrients well beyond our spiritual caloric needs. After all, Jesus himself established a standard ration of “daily bread” in the Our Father.

“Pretty impressive,” I granted my daughter. “Not many eighth-graders would know Canon Law when it comes to frequency of Communion.” I could’ve clarified that acolytes aren’t required to receive the Eucharist in order to serve at altar, but I let it go in favor of affirming her liturgical acumen. In any case, her instincts were correct: the Church has made it clear that the norm is to receive the Eucharist whenever we attend the liturgy. “It is in keeping with the very meaning of the Eucharist,” reads the Catechism, “that the faithful, if they have the required dispositions, receive communion when they participate in the Mass” (emphasis in the original).

That naturally led into a discussion of the Easter duty – the requirement that Catholics who’ve made their first Holy Communion must receive the Eucharist at least once a year, ideally during the Easter season (Cn 920). It was hard for her to grasp that such a precept was necessary. I observed that it used to be pretty widespread to rarely receive Holy Communion on account of extreme scrupulosity. Of course, one could argue that the opposite is the case these days, but I appreciated Cecilia’s response. “Even if you have doubts – even if you’re not quite sure if you should receive,” she said, “it’s better to go aheadmore communion and let Jesus figure it out.”

Allow me to interject here that I’m confident that my daughter has a good understanding of proper interior preparation with regards to the sacraments – that one must not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin before approaching the altar, in other words. As already indicated, she has a well-rounded grasp of Church teaching, and I know she’s familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (CCC 1385).

On the other hand, I like Cecilia’s gut sense that we’re not to starve ourselves either – whether from an old-fashioned Eucharistic anorexia borne of scrupulosity or, more likely today, an overreliance on substitutionary and inferior sources of pseudo-spiritual sustenance. Better to receive Holy Communion even when you’re in a crummy place with God than not to receive it at all.

Besides, the Eucharist itself forgives our minor offenses, and it helps us to avoid offending God any more in the future. “If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins,” writes St. Ambrose, “I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins.” In other words, if we wait until we’re really worthy to receive the Eucharist, we’ll never receive it – I think that’s what Cecilia was getting at. It’s like waiting until we’re ready to get married – or waiting until everything is in place to have a baby. We’ll never get to that place – we all know that, right? We’d be waiting forever.

Even so, it’s also true that the Eucharist, like any sacrament, isn’t automatic – it doesn’t work moral and spiritual wonders without our cooperation and effort. “Frequent Communion is not magic,” writes Fr. Van Zeller. “The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.”cms-2papalmass

Jesus is really present whether we apprehend him or not, and his grace is present in his sacraments whether we assimilate it or not. But we still have to apprehend him, and we still have to assimilate him. That is to say: we have to do our part! God could save us against our will, I suppose, but he isn’t going to do it. We’re free agents with will and intelligence. We know in our intellect that we’ve been granted the free gift of grace that can save us, and we can willfully choose to cooperate with that grace – not resist it, that is, like a child refusing the medicine that will foster healing and restore life.

“Only action is the proof of sincerity,” Fr. Anthony Paone observes, and going to Communion even when we have doubts or scruples is action that is oriented to sincere spiritual growth. Along with that, however, we must also act to align our whole selves, interiorly and exteriorly, with our desires for spiritual growth.

We can’t expect Holy Communion – or even Jesus, which amounts to the same thing – to do all the work. We’re not automatons, we’re not mindless marionettes, waiting helplessly on the Lord to save us despite ourselves. Not at all.

In fact, we’re very active sinners, in need of grace, in need of Jesus, and he expects us to approach him in Holy Communion with all manner of mixed motives and complicated aspirations – do we really want to be saints? Well, yes…and no. We show up at Mass, though, and we go forward with everybody else for Holy Communion, because…what? What do we want?

We want the Savior who spread himself around like a dissipated feast, a rolling banquet through time and space. We want to become whom we eat.
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The Romance of Closed Communion

22 Dec

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All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another (NCCB).

Read more…

Of Giving Shots and Making God

21 Sep

“Do not neglect the gift you have.”
~ St. Paul

Our skills lab for nursing fundamentals starts at 7:00 a.m., and so students frequently have trouble staying awake during our tedious PowerPoints and videos. We try to keep them engaged – regaling the students with hilarious anecdotes from our own years as staff nurses, for example – but there’s only so much you can do to make things like bed baths and body mechanics interesting.

nursing-practice-shots-nurse-oceancity'10-275Nobody sleeps on injections day however. Eyes are open wide; attention is rapt. “This is important,” their demeanor suggests. “We’re learning to give shots.”

They’re right – it is important. Of course, we think that everything we teach our beginning nursing students is important, yet there’s no denying that shots are different. Not only does it involve the administration of potent medications – important enough in itself – giving shots also involves jabbing strangers with sharp objects.

The surprising thing, however, is that the teaching part isn’t all that difficult – in fact, it’s actually a lot of fun. Each new detail is like a revelation to the students, and we nursing instructors get a kick out of seeing their reactions. We put syringes and needles in their hands – wonder of wonders! The students watch us demonstrate proper technique by administering injections to manikins – fascinating!

And then the moment comes they’ve all been waiting for: Stabbing a needle into a vial of fluid, drawing up a mock dose of medication into a syringe, and giving that first shot – into an injection pad, granted, but still an honest-to-goodness shot!

It’s all very Montessori-esque and kinesthetic, as the learning unfolds manually, hands on, and not solely by way of abstract whys and wherefores. After the students’ initial lab experience, they will practice – lots of practice, on the manikins and injection pads, and maybe oranges and hot dogs – and they will make the skill their own. Eventually, each student will provide a return demonstration (on a manikin), and only those students who perform the skill safely will be permitted to attempt a real injection on a real patient.

Frankly, that’s when the true challenge comes for the nursing instructor. Teaching shots in the lab is one thing; coaching students to give actual shots to people they’ve just met is quite another.

We’re teaching injections right now at my school of nursing, so all this stuff was in the back of mind when I was at Mass the other day and our assistant pastor reminded us that he’d only been ordained for a year. Thus, a little more than a year ago, Father would’ve still been in the seminary chapel, practicing the Eucharistic Canon as a transitional deacon, and anticipating his first real Mass on ordination day. It got me thinking: What an exciting and strange thing it must be to teach men to say MassDoubt-427x276. What an exalted privilege. And lots of fun to boot – probably one of the best parts of teaching future priests.

Sure, seminaries have to instruct men how to preach and teach, how to counsel and collaborate, and how to run a parish – the Code of Canon Law demands as much, and it’s what you’d expect. But lay people and deacons receive formation in such matters as well, and they often carry out those duties as a part of their ministries. What sets priestly formation apart, among other things, are those dimensions that are specifically geared to the “sacred power (sacra potestas)” conferred at ordination – which, for the priest, includes especially the power to confect the Eucharist. The power, that is, to make God.

For that’s what the word “confect” means – to put something together. In the case of the Mass, it’s the priest putting together bread and wine, along with his spoken words and intention, and, voila!, there’s God himself on the altar! It’s a miracle every time, regardless of how routine it might become for us – or even for the priest. And that’s where I was thinking the parallels between teaching nurses and teaching priests are particularly noteworthy.

I mean, I was already picking up on a correlation in the instruction arenaboth groups of educators guiding their respective students in the mechanics of future privileged duties, and delighting in their charges’ anticipation of the day they themselves would be able to fulfill those duties. Moreover, there are additional similarities with regards to the interior preparation naturally accompanying such practical instruction – instilling in our students the attitudes and dispositions that will facilitate a lifetime of service to the people entrusted to their care.

Finally, there’s also a parallel with regards to the day – for the nursing student, the first real shot; the priest, the first real Mass. No more pretending in the lab or seminary; no more dry runs and rehearsals. This is it – the time has come. The new priests will surely have rattled nerves considering what they’re about to undertake. Do seminary instructors have to coach their students at that point like I do mine? Urging them to project a confidence they don’t possess yet, relying instead on our confidence in them?

But that’s about it with regards to the analogies, I’m afraid, for there’s no comparing the actual tasks at hand. Giving a shot correctly and well – even the first time – is imperative for the recipient and the student nurse alike, and for obvious reasons. But saying Mass? Calling down the host of heaven, and traversing millennia 22bprhoadespopeJPII478to drag into the present Calvary’s awful paradox; holding up created matter, and commanding it to become the Creator himself – this is what the priest does, even that very first time he stumbles and falters his way through the Eucharistic Prayer.

And he’ll be doing it again and again, probably daily, and for the rest of his life. I know nurses can lose touch with the passion for care and service that drove them to nursing school in the first place, and we have to actively guard against that. Do priests have to do the same? Can they forget, in other words, their first love?

Pope John Paul II thought so, which is evident in his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. “Live the mystery that has been placed in your hands,” St. John Paul wrote, calling to mind the charge given priests in the Rite of Ordination, “when the offerings of the holy people for the eucharistic sacrifice are placed in his hands.” That mystery is the Lord Jesus himself, of course, who is the source and summit of the Christian life, and whom the priest is directed to enflesh in a particular and irreplaceable way through his life and ministry. The Pope continued:

For this to be so, there is need for great vigilance and lively awareness. Once again, the Rite of Ordination introduces these words with this recommendation: “Beware of what you will be doing.”

“Beware,” the Rite warns – these are dire matters indeed.

Please join me in praying for our priests. We all require the medicine God provides us through their hands; they, in turn, deserve our unflagging support and gratitude.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Chaos, Ushers, and Handing Out God

12 Jan

Get rid of row by row Communion during Mass. Not much of a rant there, come to think of it.
~ Fr. John Zuhlsdorf,  Wherein Fr. Z rants about Communion

Holy Communion at St. Thomas was always an unholy mess, and I loved it.

Back then, it was a hodgepodge parish comprising every conceivable socioeconomic sector of Chicago. There was Mass in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) every weekend, plus an Eritrean priest would come by once a month to celebrate a Ge’ez liturgy for the Ethiopians. Sunday mornings were always chaotic, with kids in the aisles and people milling around here and there, the Korean grandmothers telling their beads all through Mass, and men occasionally ducking out for a smoke. It was like a big messy family reunion.

Then came Holy Communion. Unlike most American parishes, St. Thomas of Canterbury didn’t dismiss for Communion by rows. We had ushers, to be sure, but their main role was to take up and safeguardpews the collection, and then to intervene in case an inebriated or otherwise unruly worshiper got out of hand.

Instead of a nice, tidy, orderly march forward, the distribution of Communion at St. Thomas was more like a crush of surging humanity – like what you see on CNN after a natural disaster, and folks are crowding around those trucks handing out aid. The crowd is scared, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they’re not going to wait in a queue.

I get that. I’d be the same way.

There’s something seriously wrong with how we’ve applied principles of efficiency and uniformity to the Mass, especially when it comes to Communion. What is Holy Communion after all? Matthew Lickona plays it straight: “I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.” Seriously, the Church is handing out God to anybody who shows up – for free! But we sit there, ho-hum, like we’re waiting for our number to be called at the BMV. “Free God, here!” we should be shouting from the street corners. “Come and get your free God!” If we did that, and folks could recognize their hunger for God, and they believed us, wouldn’t they come crowding the aisles to get some? And would we blame them?

That being the case, what’s our problem? Sedately we sit there in our pews until the ushers allow us to get in line – no cutting! Considering what’s up at the front of church, you’d think it would be more like midnight before Black Friday at Walmart – some urgency, possibly some anxiety that the priest might run out.

On the other hand, if we do happen to dillydally – maybe pause to pray a bit more than we should – what then? Nudges, nods, and then clumsy encounters as our neighbors dutifully follow the ushers’ directives, clambering over us non-conformists and troublemakers.

I can think of at least three reasons why the messiness of my old parish in Uptown was preferable to the standard orderly Communion seen in most churches today, and I discovered that the first two had already been adeptly delineated by one Rev. Paul F. Bosch, a retired Lutheran pastor and liturgy professor from Canada.

To begin with, dismissal for Communion by rows is a distraction – as Bosch writes:

It can shatter your revery. It can intrude on your meditation. Those hymns we sing in many churches as people commune: They’re intended to be aids to prayer.

The Mass is a prayer. Hence, those who participate in Mass ought to be invited to…well, pray! And what better time to be communing with God than immediately prior to receiving Him in Holy Communion. Again, Bosch:

Surely during the distribution of Bread and Cup it would be appropriate for worshippers to be encouraged to reflect, to meditate on the Day’s Prayers, on its Readings, on its Sermon, on its Hymn tunes and texts. And not dissuaded or violated in that attempt!

Perhaps some would protest that the confusion and disorder accompanying a random rush toward Communion would itself be a distraction, but consider that there is nothing in the rubrics themselves that justify the pew-by-pew approach. Nothing in the General Instruction, and certainly not in Canon Law. Not a peep, at least as far as I could find.

Instead, we have the Catechism instructing us this way:

To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.

roman-catholic-mass-at-iwo-yima-1945-us-forcesOK, bodily demeanor conveying respect and solemnity, but at “this moment” – i.e., at the moment one actually receives Communion. And, lest we forget, the Catechism also advises “joy.” When I think of somebody joyfully anticipating an honored, looked-for guest, I think of my kids: Out in the front yard, craning their necks to watch for vehicles coming up or down the street in our direction, running around in excitement because they know the guest is almost here, almost here! But standing in a line and waiting their turn? Not a chance.

So, there’s distraction, but here’s a second objection to orderly Communion – again, in Bosch’s words:

Ushers at communion, escorting worshippers to the Table row by row, present an unnecessary and unseemly social pressure to worshippers sitting in those rows.

Dismissing the faithful in neat, tidy rows means that anybody who stays behind will be noticed! Thus, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to go ahead and get in line with everybody else, regardless of ones disposition, preparedness, or even beliefs.

I remember this pressure myself back when I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a Protestant teen. Now, the Europeans don’t normally dismiss for Communion in rows, but when everyone else went forward, I just got up with them – I thought it would be too awkward to be the only one left behind. When the priest handed me the Host, I took it back with me to my seat, heedless of the intense glares and raised eyebrows of surrounding clergy and congregants. Finally, my Catholic friends motioned to me to consume the Host – my controversial First Communion!  It was an innocent mistake that I’m sure is repeated often in this country, but it is one that could easily be avoided by adopting an unregimented Eucharistic distribution.

Distraction and social pressure – two good arguments in favor of chaotic Communion. And here’s a third: The Sacraments by their very nature are meant to be messy, all sensory and corporeal and bodily and all that – water splashing about, and flame and fragrant oils, and spit and salt, wine and bread, breath and utterance and God made present. It’s crazy stuff, like the Church herself, and family life, and marriage and sex and having babies, and birth and death. Nothing neat and tidy about any of that. And nothing neat and tidy about eating God’s Body and drinking His Blood, that’s for sure.

All this calls to mind those unnerving lines in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver describes the lion Aslan in this way:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion,” Mr. Beaver adds later on. Dangerous lions were also in the forefront of St. Ignatius’ mind when he wrote these words about martyrdom and the Eucharist: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius_of_AntiochThis is the very One we receive in Holy Communion: Wild, not tame, not safe; dangerous, in other words. That being the case, there is something strange about approaching Him like we’d approach a teller at the bank. It seems more fitting that Holy Communion would resemble a riot rather than a rank.

So, away with orderly Communion! Bring on the chaos. Of course, lest there be any doubt, we’d still need the ushers! Somebody will still need to take up the collection and intervene when there are disorderlies. But instead of policing the Communion lines, I’d recommend that they stand at the exits and remind Communicants Whom they’re carrying when they leave. And what that means – namely, this:

As then in the sad and anxious times through which we are passing there are many who cling so firmly to Christ the Lord hidden beneath the Eucharistic veils that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor danger, nor persecution, nor the sword can separate them from His love, surely no doubt can remain that Holy Communion…may become a source of that fortitude which not infrequently makes Christians into heroes.

Christian heroes? Think: Ignatius of Antioch. Think: Martyrs. Really, maybe the ushers should be warning folks about the Communion line. It’s not only messy; it can cost you your life!

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Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

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