by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” has typically received the secular media spin in these days. Predictably The New York Times and The Washington Post, to name the most prominent publications, cast the letter in terms almost entirely of President Biden’s worthiness to receive Holy Communion.
We really should avoid the common temptation to take our theology from these sources. Perhaps rightfully they view many religious questions in partisan political terms — which are only part of each issue, particularly the meaning of the Holy Eucharist in Catholic life.
[A digression: would those who doubt President Biden’s Catholicism also call into question the worthiness of the six Catholic justices on the Supreme Court viz a viz implementation of capital punishment?]
Regarding this “political” take on the bishops’ statement, it would be good for us to recall the very “political” nature of another letter, St. Paul’s to the early Christians of Corinth. It was a great city in ancient Greece, a seaport and commercial crossroad; it was described as a “melting pot” filled with devotees of various cults and marked by a measure of moral depravity. Sound familiar?
Sometime after the church was founded by Paul around the year 51, open factionalism broke out among Christians there. This situation was reflected in the manner of their Eucharistic celebrations which Paul addresses strenuously in his letter,
The text is somewhat familiar to us — “somewhat” because for reasons unknown in current Liturgies of the Word where it is read (on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi principally), we hear only a part of Paul’s message. It begins and ends with the apostle reminding the community that Jesus himself gave the gift of his Eucharistic presence at the Last Supper. He repeats the very words Jesus used in this regard: “This is my Body … This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (I Corinthians 11:24-25). Lovely, very pious – and entirely incomplete!
Strikingly absent is the context of Paul’s comments – serious divisions in the community. He begins by warning that their meetings “are doing more harm than good … there are divisions among you … when you meet it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.” Then Paul lays down this severe rebuke: “Do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you” (I Corinthians 11:20-22).
Reaction to this “political” take of Paul facing a concrete situation should resound in the Church today, particularly in statements from the “successors to the Apostles”, the bishops. As we slowly emerge from COVID lockdowns and unfulfilling Zoom Masses, we need a renewed Eucharistic catechesis, even a conversion experience regarding this incredible gift of Christ to us. For example, it is beyond sad that some surveys have found that 2/3 of U.S. Catholics today do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine.
Just as serious for modern Catholics to consider is what Paul calls for in his letter – a recognition of the consequences, the “price tag”, attached to celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. He insists that the reenactment of Christ’s paschal mystery is a communal, social act – not some private devotion reserved to privileged groups of “real Catholics”. Eucharist is a bold and revolutionary experience which calls us who celebrate it to live out in this historical moment the reasons for Jesus the Christ’s death and resurrection.
The often maligned but genuinely Catholic theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, puts this into modern Pauline words: “Without a real commitment against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice, the Eucharistic celebration is an empty action…”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.