Who Eats at the Lord’s Table?
Dear Cardinal Pell,
In the lead-up to next month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family you and a number of your confreres are re-asserting the church’s longstanding exclusion of divorced and remarried people from communion.
Your foreword to The Gospel of the Family appears to leave us with little doubt: outsiders are not welcome.
As you have said, “The sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realise that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated.”
Respectfully, I have a number of questions I’d like to consider with you; conscious, of course, that neither of us in our grappling can claim to really know the mind of Christ.
So, what was it that our Lord had in mind when he instituted the Eucharist with these self-emptying words, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Whose hunger was he responding to? Who was welcome? And what are the implications for our Sunday worship and beyond?
Well, we do know this: The tax collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to him, and the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them …’ (Lk 15:2-3)
And this: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: ‘Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice.’ And indeed I came to call not the upright, but sinners. (Mt 9:12-13)
And this: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!
Let anyone who believes in me come to drink! (Jn 7:38)
And this: When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town … She covered his feet with kisses and anointed him … the Pharisee said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know … what sort of person [was] touching him and what a bad name she has …’ (Lk 7:36-39)
And this: They were at supper … and he got up from table, removed his outer garments … and began to wash his disciples’ feet … (Jn 13:2, 4, 5)
And this: Peter said …‘You know it is forbidden for Jews to mix with people of another race or visit them; but God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean … God has no favourites … and who am I to stand in God’s way?’ (Acts 10:28, 34 & 11:17)
Could it be, given the exclusivity of our Communion, that when we proclaim these words we are potentially condemning ourselves as well?
Just think: Jesus, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners (Lk 7:34), real and present in our Breaking of Bread. Wow. Extraordinary. Out of this world. We actually believe this … don’t we?
If we answer in the affirmative, there are profound consequences: are we not also compelled to look beyond the in-crowd and welcome outsiders; are we not also compelled to take risks: like the risk of being labelled and pilloried for sharing our table with those we are not supposed to; for doing something that is forbidden by law. I am not thinking here of people who do not care. I am concerned for those who are hungry for love and long to share even the crumbs from the table.
Can any of us truly look at our Lord and Master and say without a profound sense of foreboding: ‘Yes, I am a follower; but you must understand there are rules …’
His disciples were hungry and began to pick ears of corn and eat them. The Pharisees noticed it and said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing something that is forbidden on the Sabbath’. (Mt 12:1-2)
If the Eucharist is essentially an encounter with the real presence, rather than essentially an institutional-cum-cultic event, then surely the Master’s social interactions make it abundantly clear: hunger, not worthiness underpins Table Fellowship. To allow the law, cultic statutes, and theology to take precedence over mercy and love and encounter, is tantamount to perpetuating the hard line rigour of those Pharisees who complained bitterly and moralised pompously about so many things.
Their approach fostered a cold, superficial temple-based religion. But Jesus invited his followers to a change of heart, a heart oriented to the one called, Abba – Father : a relational, God-based faith.
Indeed, if Jesus himself was bound by the strictures of his religious tribe and the social mores of his day, he would never have encountered the woman at the well because ‘Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans’ (Jn 4:10). Thankfully, he was not. Thus, a women consigned to the margins, and thirsting for love, was afforded one-on-one time with the One who risked everything to offer her living water.
Yet, despite the extraordinary inclusiveness and openness of our foot washing Master; not to mention the accusations his behaviour attracted – blasphemy, law-breaking, ‘prince of devils’ – there are still those who insist that the meal instituted by him who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:7) be an exclusive, High Church event with all the accoutrements, pomp and ceremony, do’s and don’ts, and rules about who’s in and who’s out, as if the Holy One needs protection and distancing from an encounter with the great unwashed.
If this non-relational Temple-centred worship takes hold, then we too leave ourselves open to the criticism:
Now here, I tell you, is something greater than the Temple. And if you had understood the meaning of the words: ‘Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice’, you would have not condemned the blameless. For the Son of Man is master of the Sabbath. (Mt 12:5-8)
And if, in the depth of our being, we believe Jesus is real and present at the breaking of bread, then how do we justify the exclusion of so many? Can we in good conscience continue to turn away those longing to drink from the well-of-life because Catholics, of course, do not break bread with …?
There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can neither be male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28-29)
I do not presume to know the mind of Pope Francis either, but his musings on spiritual worldliness seem especially apt:
[There] are those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelising, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door of grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. (Evangelii Gaudium #94)
In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few … The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ. (Evangelii Gaudium #95)
It prompts the question: has a simple, inclusive and profound ‘family’ meal been overwhelmed by an impersonal and, often times, sterile institutional sacrifice; one that tends towards mass exclusion?
Peace and regards,
Fr Peter Day, Parish Priest, Corpus Christi (source)
Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia