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Timothy P. O'MalleyNovember 04, 2021
A woman presents herself for Communion during a March 8, 2020, Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta. (CNS photo/Christopher Aluka Berry, Reuters)A woman presents herself for Communion during a March 8, 2020, Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta. (CNS photo/Christopher Aluka Berry, Reuters)

The U.S. bishops will soon gather in Baltimore to discuss a document on the Eucharist for the United States. As this meeting approaches, much of the media’s focus will return to the possible denial of the Eucharist to President Joseph R. Biden Jr. because of his support of legal abortion.

I am not a bishop, but I find it unlikely that this document will address the Biden controversy. Bishops in the United States are aware of the nuances of canon law. Only the local ordinary can decide if President Biden is able to receive the Eucharist, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has stated publicly that he can.

Further, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is aware that the church in the United States has many problems unrelated to President Biden. Denying Communion to Mr. Biden will not stem the tide of declining participation at Sunday Mass. It will not end the cronyism that led to the elevation of figures like Theodore McCarrick, or the clericalism that still unfolds in too many U.S. parishes. It will not suddenly bring together a church ripped apart by ideological clashes, whose members are sometimes more likely to bend the knee to an elephant or donkey than to the eucharistic Lord.

Denying Communion to Mr. Biden will not stem the tide of declining participation at Sunday Mass, or the clericalism that still unfolds in too many U.S. parishes.

And yet, more than ever, the U.S. church needs to return to a eucharistic vision of ecclesial life. Covid-19 took us away from Mass, the sacrifice of praise where we receive Jesus Christ under the signs of bread and wine. Our political and social lives are fractured. Factions in the church (which sometimes include bishops themselves) seem to hate one another.

What would this vision look like? Let us, for a moment, turn to a eucharistic antiphon written by St. Thomas Aquinas. In his “O Sacrum Convivium,” the angelic doctor sings, “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received; the memory of his passion is recalled; the mind is filled with grace; and a pledge of future glory is given. Alleluia.”

In the Eucharist, we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is not some pious or antiquated Catholic claim. The Lord comes to us in what looks like bread and wine. As we pray the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord of heaven and earth becomes present, offering himself to us in a way that we can receive.

And that “we” is important! The Eucharist is a sacrificial meal of love. In the Gospel, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet in which “the least of these” are welcomed to sit down and eat. The banquet of the Lord is given in honor of these least, of those who come with open hearts to receive love itself.

The church receives Jesus Christ not out of a logic of tit-for-tat or of an economy of exchange. It receives Jesus Christ out of pure and total love.

But St. Thomas does not stop there. In that holy meal, the memory of our Lord’s passion is recalled. The God who created the world bent down in love to bring Israel out of slavery, spoke through the prophets and, in the fullness of time, dwelt among us and even died. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, died. As a criminal. As the one who loved us unto the end. “This is my body. This is my blood. Given for you.”

It is this total gift of love that is offered in the Eucharist. Not because we deserve it, for who deserves love? But the church receives Jesus Christ not out of a logic of tit-for-tat or of an economy of exchange. It receives Jesus Christ out of pure and total love. This is why I behold with love the Blessed Sacrament, why I bend the knee before the Lord made present.

And yet it is not an abstract church that receives such love. It is every concrete man and woman whose mind is filled with grace. Grace is often treated as a concept, but it is nothing more than the gift of divine love, of God’s life given for us. God became human so that we can become divine.

[Related: ‘Can I hold my Jesus?’ The Eucharist gave my nana peace in her dying days. She wouldn’t want it to be politicized.]

That’s the whole thing. It is not we who consume Christ, but the word made flesh who consumes us. Through consuming his body and blood, we are taken up into his complete self-gift to the Father. Through the power of the Spirit.

Not because we earned it. Or because we are rich or powerful, or woke or not woke. But simply because God gives and gives and gives.

And yet we are incomplete. The Eucharist is a pledge of future glory. The reality of the Eucharist is communion: communion with Christ, communion with one another. A communion in which the presence of love I receive in the Blessed Sacrament becomes the only way I look at the world. At my neighbor who bleeds and suffers and whose life is ended because he or she is expendable. At the unborn, the prisoner, the migrant.

This is the eucharistic vision, calling every member of Christ’s body to become what is received in the Blessed Sacrament.

It is time for the entire people of God to return to this eucharistic vision. And that is the real purpose of the eucharistic document that the bishops are working on. Yes, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and other political leaders as Catholics are addressees of this document, even if their names are not mentioned. But in reality, it is the entire church to whom this document is directed, because each of us need to return to this eucharistic vision.

[Related: Most U.S. Catholics believe the Eucharist is just a symbol. The bishops want to change that.]

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