For a number of weeks now I have been watching the communion reception debate play out on social media. People asserting their right to receive communion on the tongue in and out of times of pandemic and questioning the authority of the bishop to restrict that form of reception in the circumstances that we find ourselves. I try to avoid social media debates at all costs as I think they really go nowhere and change no one but, as I have watched this debate unfold, I believe that I have gained some insights into the state of our knowledge of the faith, fears and even a learning about priestly ministry.
First, a number of faithful Catholics have little to no understanding of what is meant by the term, “the common good”. Many canon lawyers have weighed in, bishops have weighed in, the Catechism itself teaches that yes, individual rights are important but they are not the ultimate value. Rights always have to be balanced with the common good and the common good can sometimes trump individual rights (i.e. in the context of a global pandemic). Restricting the reception of communion to receiving in the hand in our current context is not a suppression (with malicious intent) of a personal right, rather it is a striving for the common good – the protection of the health and life of other persons. Through baptism we are not brought into just a gathering of like-minded individuals with whom we may more or less agree. In baptism we are grafted into the Body of Christ – something of which we are each a unique part but also something much bigger than ourselves and our individual rights. A focus solely on individual rights with little to no awareness of the common good demonstrates a worldview that is more influenced by the secular than by the faith – apparently even among devout souls. There is a serious lack of understanding regarding what the Church means by the common good.
I have to wonder if part of what is at play in the debate erupting at this particular time on social media with particular vigor from some quarters is, in fact, a psychological coping mechanism where people choose to quibble about minutiae in an effort to avoid the full weight of the reality we are facing as a world. Let me be clear here. Reception of communion is not a minor thing. It is the Body of Christ and it should be received with full reverence but the teaching of the Church makes it clear that it can be received with equal reverence both on the tongue and in the hand. Both are valid ways of receiving this great gift. To say that not receiving on the tongue is more of a suffering and sacrifice at this time than not receiving in the hand or, out of an awareness of the common good, soon to be asked to solely receive in the hand once public Masses resume is simply not true. Frankly, it carries the danger of falling into a self-focus bordering on narcissism. The suffering of the world right now is not occurring in the communion line. The suffering of the world is in the person dying from coronavirus, it is with the family unable to be with their loved one laying sick in the hospital, it is with the people out of work and despairing. This is where the suffering of the world is and it is where the Church should be – if not in our bodies physically assisting those in need then in our hearts, thoughts and prayers.
Finally, I have become convinced that those persons so adamant about their right to receive on the tongue do not truly love their priests. Rather, their focus of love is on what their priests can do for them. There is a key difference here. Most priests are older and many have underlying health concerns – they fall within the category of being not only vulnerable to the virus but also not being able to recover once infected. To demand reception on the tongue which has been shown to be riskier in spreading the disease simply puts the priest at greater risk. It is not an act of charity to demand reception on the tongue in this context nor is it an act of heroism on the part of the priest to give the Eucharist that way. When an equally valid and reverential form of receiving communion is available (i.e. receiving in the hand) and the need to help protect the safety of other persons calls for an awareness of the common good it is not an act of heroism to give on the tongue just to satisfy a person’s own piety. True charity and heroism demand much more and should not be so reduced.
So, to say we love our priests while being adamant in demanding reception on the tongue is, at best, a disconnect. The disconnect reveals that the priest is valued primarily as a means to an end and – in a sense – that is okay. To admit this is much more honest than pretending there is a level of love present that is not really there. As a priest I will serve you. This is what priests do. When we get to the day when the restriction is lifted, I will happily give communion on the tongue to those persons who want to receive that way but I will not say it is the only true way to receive communion nor a holier way because it is not.
But, there is something else about the dynamic of seeing the priest solely as a means to an end that should be noted. There is a freedom here for the priest. It is hinted at by our Lord in Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Yes, the priest is a servant and for many if not most people he – as a servant – is seen as a means to an end but there is actually a freedom found in this. When a servant has fulfilled his duty and leaves there is no obligation to return. The servant is free to move on.
Yes, the priest will serve all persons including those whom he knows only view him as a means to an end but, when he leaves he is under no obligation to return to those people who only approached him in such a manner. Our Lord had many encounters and he healed and forgave many people in his ministry but he did not keep returning to those people. The one house our Lord kept returning to was the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. I think he kept returning to that house during his earthly ministry because there he was loved for who he was and not just for what he did or could do for others.
To those persons who solely see the priest as a means to an end; yes, the priest will serve you but when it is time to move on, he has the freedom to do so without looking back. This is the freedom of the servant and it is precisely the disconnect noted above that helps to point out the value found in the servant’s freedom and it is worthwhile for every priest to learn this value. The priest will serve you honestly – and that is a form of love – but the love of friendship and family is not to be played with nor bandied about and the priest has the right to reserve that love solely to the Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ of his life. To these houses he will keep returning – when circumstances allow – and there he will be nourished and strengthened.
Some insights and learnings gained from the ongoing social media debate regarding the reception of communion during the time of a global pandemic. Lessons can be learned in all contexts!