The issue of communion, particularly “who is allowed to receive,” is a topic that I run up against often. Many people have questions, and I am happy to talk about it.
That said, I find it to be one of the most frustrating topics to discuss. I can talk myself blue in the face and make no progress. There is a disconnect in communication, it seems, and I never seem to be speaking the same language as those who are curious.
The problem, I see, is that I can never get people to break out of a fundamentally private, individualistic notion of faith. Many think that because they believe in the real presence of the Eucharist and are approaching the altar with good faith that they should be welcomed. Who are we do “deny” them entry to Christ. “I am a follower of Christ. I believe in the real presence of the Eucharist. Why can’t I receive?” It seems wholly unChristian, just the work of an exclusivist Church that wants people to jump through hoops.
At work here, whether fully expressed or not, is a very problematic Eucharistic theology, at least from the Catholic perspective. Driving one’s desire to attend and receive is the notion of the Eucharist as a holy commodity, a “thing” that will bring us closer to God and make us better people. Even the way we speak of it betrays this idea: “We go to mass to get grace.” (For further evidence, notice how many leave right after receiving communion rather than staying for the closing prayer and blessing.) While others might be gathered in the same place for the same reason, at its core, Mass is nothing more than a very holy convenience store: we come in, follow the protocols, wait in line, and get what we want. There could be 1000 people or just me, it wouldn’t matter. We come to get Jesus.
From that mindset, I completely understand their frustration. It does seem exclusivist for the Church to restrict this. If Mass is nothing more than a believer wanting to come to Jesus and receive grace, then who are we to deny them that opportunity?
Of course… Mass is much more than that.
And here’s the point that I work so hard to get people to understand but find myself constantly running into a wall: the Eucharist is not a private act. Personal, yes. Absolutely. It is deeply personal. But there is hardly a less private act in the entire life of the Church! What we do, we do together. What we receive, we receive together. In the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ, yes, but we also give of ourselves to God and one another; we lay our sacrifices on the altar, pray in one voice, confess our need for mercy, and share peace with one another. The Eucharist is not simply the reception of a commodity, not simply about what God does for me; it is a communal celebration in which we gives thanks for what God has done for us.
Christian life is not a solitary act but one that is innately communal. When we speak of the body of Christ, we of course mean the Eucharistic species we receive from the altar, but we must also speak of the community that does the receiving: when we take Christ into ourselves, we become that body, united with Christ and one another. This act of receiving serves as a covenant in blood for those who receive, symbolizing the one baptism that we all share, but also constituting the one community that we make. That’s the beauty of the sacraments: they make present what they symbolize. In this case, what the sacrament makes present is not simply the Eucharistic species, but the community, bound by the blood of the lamb.
If someone is not a part of the community, doesn’t want to be a part of it, or has actually hurt the community, how can they take part in a celebration that symbolizes and constitutes community? That is the question we as Catholics ask when people who do not regularly come to Mass want to receive. It is not enough to believe in the real presence just as it is not enough to call him “Lord”; even the demons recognize this. To be a part of the celebration, one must break out of their private, individualistic notion of faith and realize that faith is inherently communal; they must make a commitment beyond themselves to be a part of the larger mission of Christ; they must be willing to pour out their own blood, lay down their own lives, and carry their own cross for the person to their right and to their left.
Anything less, really, and all the Eucharist becomes is a private commodity meant for me. Surely, it’s more than that, right?