After Mass last Sunday, I saw a young man praying on his knees with his hands clasped tightly and his eyes closed. Even the presence of a typically loud toddler did nothing to break his intense focus. There is an otherworldliness to this type of prayer. And it is not uncommon. I’ve seen it at masses across the country.
In these pews, people are pleading with God to give them hope, bring them comfort, or help them to repair the brokenness in their lives. Some are praying for a sick child, parent, spouse, or grandparent. Others are praying that the hole in their heart might heal just a little bit after the death of a loved one. Some are praying to escape the loneliness and despair of being abandoned by those they love; others are dealing with the guilt and grief that comes from afflicting that pain on others or other decisions they have made that were marred by selfishness and indifference. Some are praying for a glimmer of light as they walk through a dark night of the soul, hobbled by a sense of spiritual emptiness and detachment from the divine. Others are immersed in peace, a brief respite from an otherwise chaotic life. Some are looking for direction in lives that feel lost or even meaningless, disappointed by unrealized dreams or material success that has delivered neither peace nor joy. These broken people are God’s people.
It is not a surprise that this type of intense prayer so often takes place shortly after the person has received the Eucharist. The divine presence sweeps away the ephemeral. It tears down impediments to God’s love. It draws us away from the emptiness of individualism to the wholeness of communion. It is God’s gift to the broken people of the world. If we suffer, Christ suffered first. If we seek to walk the right path, Christ walks with us. And at no time is that more deeply felt than when we received the Eucharist.
Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. It is essential, transformative, and lifesaving.
Through this prism, to politicize the Eucharist is scandalous. To treat the Eucharist as a tool for partisan or ideological gambits is disgraceful.
If you are not worthy to receive the Eucharist, then you are human. This is the nature of this gift and God’s grace. We recognize this together at each mass.
When we consider our own brokenness and the impact of the Eucharist on the lives of real people, we recognize the gravity of denying a seat at the table of the Lord to any member of the Church who has sought forgiveness for past sins and is desperate for the Eucharist. This is why bishops are currently engaged in serious discussions about whether or not there should be a penitential path back to communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics who wish to receive the Eucharist once again, as is the case in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The seriousness of these discussions by responsible figures at the Synod stands in stark contrast to the irresponsible, self-righteous rhetoric of those who enthusiastically support the denial of communion to others, while relying on the type of legalism and selective literalism that Christ denounces over and over again in the gospels.
Any regulations on receiving the Eucharist should start from a recognition of the universal brokenness that exists in the Church, from our best understanding of Christ’s intentions (rather than a selectively literalist reading of one or two passages of the Bible), from a holy reverence for the transformative power of the Eucharist, and from a firm commitment to the law of love.
As Cardinal Wuerl recently stated, “It’s God’s love that saves, not the Code of Canon Law.” Law that does not reflect love is unjust. The Church’s law, more than any other form of law, should reflect the mercy of God, and its pastoral practices should be based on drawing in all of the broken people of God—welcoming them, accompanying them, and helping them to experience the limitless love of God.
This approach does not preclude disagreements on difficult pastoral challenges, as prudence is needed to find the best path for being merciful while still bearing witness to the truth, such as the nature of one-flesh marriage and its relationship to God’s will and human flourishing. But it would end talk of a special elect group of pure, faithful Catholics (those presumed not to be committing any sexual sins). It would stop the demonization of those bishops who favor revisions in these pastoral practices. And it would lead to the complete rejection of paranoid, hyperbolic claims that discussing these topics threatens the unity of the Church or integrity of its teachings.