One of the most beautiful and symbolic gestures of the Catholic faith occurs when a person is unable to get to church to participate in the Eucharist and the parish sends one of its members to that person with a consecrated host. The hunger must be satisfied. Without community a person is alone; without Communion the Catholic is isolated.
What I wonder is: When the sense of community is absent, is Communion enough to sustain the believer? In other words, can the body of Christ as bread make up for the lack of body of Christ as communal flesh? And vice versa: Can the body of Christ in the form of faith community sustain a person denied the opportunity to receive the body of Christ in the form of a host? Who and what determines when a believer is severed from the body of Christ?
When the subject of faith came up during a recent reunion with close friends from college, the subject of alienation wasn’t far behind. There was general lamenting of their inability, despite continued searching, to find a parish to feel at home in, one that challenged and nurtured. They’ve come up dry not because they didn’t like the music or homily or decor; it’s more pointed and more intangible than that. Like many other Catholics whose work and family life are committed to cultivating a Christ-like sense of community and tolerance, they feel disconnected from church (to say nothing of “the Church”). Despite living a Catholic worldview, they find it all but impossible to live out their Catholic identity.
One among this group is remarrying, though not in the church. Because he opted against the infamously grueling annulment process, he is not embarking on his new life (with a fellow Catholic) under the aegis of a holy sacrament and henceforth cannot receive Communion. All six people at the gathering personally knew someone who had begun the annulment process in good faith only to throw up their hands in disgust after what each described as a chilling, humiliating ordeal. My own sister spent the better part of a year meeting with the priest assigned to her case, subjecting herself to bizarrely inappropriate questions and lectures. Told to write an autobiography, she dutifully labored over it for months, trying to be thorough and honest. She finally submitted it for review, and when she walked into the chancery office a week later to discuss it, the priest tossed her autobiography on the floor at her feet, shaking his head. “This simply won’t do,” he said. Who could tolerate such a process? My sister did not, and she is not the only one.
But alone is precisely how so many Catholics feel—isolated from the church they know and love, from something inseparably bound up with who they are: Eucharist, Communion.
I don’t consider myself an extremist in this matter, and I’m not one to be persuaded by anecdotal evidence that illuminates only one end of a spectrum. During the discussion with my friends, I found myself in the awkward position of trying to defend the church, arguing that any one could cite examples of insensitivity by particular clergy and other Catholics. One small part of the faith, I argued, cannot define the whole experience of being a Catholic.
Only later did I truly hear what my friends had said that night, and sadness swept over me. These are my people, a deeply cherished community of spirit and mind. When they are broken, I am broken. And this, it struck me, is what it means to be in communion. Without it I would feel more than a void; I would feel unnaturally torn asunder—which is the sense these friends conveyed about the faith in which all of us, in various parts of the country, have been baptized, raised, schooled and thoroughly steeped.
What I’m talking about is a problem that is both larger and more personal than being unable to find a parish that suits one’s political leanings or liturgical style. It’s not a question of comfort level. For many adults who were raised Catholic and embrace Christian values, and in their hearts identify themselves as Catholic, somewhere along the line being a Catholic and raising children in the Catholic faith has gone from making them uncomfortable to causing them pain. Rules do not entirely define an institution, but they certainly shape it. Catholics with dear friends who are divorced or homosexual, for instance, find it increasingly painful, hypocritical, even indefensible to practice in a church where such members cannot be recognized.
While Mother Church is neither a smorgasbord nor a chameleon, surely we the church are organic. If it has meaning at all, our growth as Catholics, as spiritual seekers, must be contingent not only on God’s grace but also on each other’s grace. The church is people—flawed, varied, broken, changeable. Our personal experience and our efforts to de-institutionalize—to humanize—the Catholic church are neither impertinent nor otiose. They are, perhaps more than ever before, critical to carrying on the iconoclastic work Christ began.
It’s not the church but I, as church, who must assume responsibility for creating and manifesting community. I’ve felt Christ’s love reach into my being nowhere more palpably and abidingly than in these friends now experiencing alienation from church. Communion doesn’t come from Rome or the local pulpit; we distribute it just as we receive it—from one human hand to another.