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?

Protestants believe that we are justified by “faith alone” while Catholics believe that we are saved by a combination of faith and works. Right? At least, that was what we were taught in catechism class through apologetics. Those foolish Protestants believe that they can do anything they want as long as they have faith!

Of course, Protestants don’t believe this, but it’s easy to see how this simple formula can be whittled down to this gross oversimplification. It’s also easy to see how, from this formula, Protestants might think that Catholics believe that we can save ourselves through good works. This is hardly the case, and a faithful Catholic should be repugnant at the idea: at the Synod of Orange, Council of Carthage, and Council of Trent (the latter being the one directly responding to Protestantism) the Catholic Church categorically denounced this position.

So how did we get here? And how we do get out of there?

The answer lies in cutting through the oversimplifications and getting to the root of what we actually believe. Novel idea, right? This means that things will not be automatically apparent to us. It means that the answer is going to be a bit confusing at first. We’re going to want a simpler answer to remember, a way to boil down the difference to a single line. But that is what got us into the mess in the first place! We must resist this temptation and try to get to the precise language our Church’s have come up with after hundreds of years of thinking about these topics.

Up for the challenge? Then I present you with the latest episode of Catholicism in Focus, a look at how Lutherans and Catholics define justification.

What was the first sin? Not what was the first act (eating of the fruit), but why was the first sin a sin and what did it do?

While it might seem like an easy question, there are a number of ways of looking at it. Some might see it as an act of disobedience against God, that humanity sinned in breaking God’s law. Others might see it as a poor use of the intellect, that it was the act of choosing something that was not pure and true, turning away from the source of Truth. Others, still, might see it as an act that affected future generations, breaking down the ways of a perfect society to create a world of injustice. All of these things are true, and yet they reveal a different operative theology.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I look at the work of Justo Gonzalez, Roger Schroeder, and Steve Bevans, theologians that suggest that there are three types of theology for which all theologians generally conform. These types identify how we may begin the theological process from a different assumptions and values, and how this leads us to a different conclusion.

Take, for instance, the role of evangelization. What is mission and why should we engage in it? For those of Type A (sin as disobedience), the outside world is depraved and without the light of Christ, so we must save souls by informing them of what they do not know, namely, that Christ saves. For Type B (sin is untruth), the truth of Christ can be found everywhere and so we must ask questions, engaging in mutual discovery with all of creation. For Type C (sin as social disorder), the kingdom in which we live is far from the Kingdom of Heaven and we must undertake the process of bringing, proclaimed and lived by Jesus, of reconciliation and justice.

Are all three of these answers capture an important aspect of our theology. All three of these answers have defined our mission theology for centuries. And yet, all three of these answers end up at a completely different place with widely divergent expectations.

And for me, that is not only fascinating, but encouraging. When we think of Catholic theology, we must fight the temptation to think of it as a singular relation of answers and open ourselves up to the true meaning of “catholic”: we are a universal Church. When we look to the full history of our Church, we see that we consist rather of Catholic theologies, many perspectives that offer a deeper, more universal take on God and our reality.

What a strange sight it is to return to your seat after communion only to find half the people in your pew no longer there. They walk up to communion with jackets on, purse in hand, and in one fluid motion receive communion as they’re walking out the door.

They got what they came for, so what’s the point in staying any longer?

When I see this happening each week I just want to shout, “Wait! Don’t leave yet! Mass isn’t over yet!” I wouldn’t… because, you know, I have tact. Also, I hate confrontation. But it doesn’t stop some priests. There was an infamous priest we used to see every summer on vacation who would literally call people out each week if they tried to leave early. If he saw people heading for the door before he made it down the aisle, he would actually call to them and tell them that mass wasn’t over. He would make an announcement either before communion or before the final dismissal that mass was not over until he processed down the aisle, so people were to remain in their pews. (Which… is not even correct. The procession by the priest down the altar isn’t technically a thing. The final part of the mass, according to the GIRM, is the reverencing of the altar. A procession to the door is simply a practical reality of getting the priest outside so he can greet the people, and there is no requirement that the congregation stay until the song is over. But I digress.) If I remember correctly, I think he even preached about it.

Okay, so it’s not that big of a deal…

But it is a little bit of a deal. Mass may not end with the priest processing down the aisle, but it also doesn’t end immediately after receiving communion. If this is something that you do, or think is fine, here are a few things to consider:

1. Communion, by its very nature, is a communal activity, not a personal one. If all we’re focused on is getting mine, regardless of others, I think we miss something about the experience. As I mentioned in the last video, the communion hymn begins when the priest receives and ends after the final person receives. Why? Because none of us truly receives until everyone receives. It’s a holistic, communal act. To leave the church before everyone receives turns the whole event into a personal experience, which is a shame. (If you’re going to leave early, maybe consider waiting until the end of the communion song.)

2. There are still prayers to be said. Sure, receiving the Eucharist is certainly the high point of the mass, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the mass doesn’t matter. Just as the penitential rite is not the most important part of the mass but still serves an important purpose, the prayer after communion serves the purpose of bringing the event to a close, giving the Father thanks for what we have just received. We did just receive something amazing, right? It only seems polite to say “thank you.”

3. Our prayer is a continuous whole, beginning and ending with the sign of the cross. To leave before the blessing leaves the prayer sort of hanging. We opened it but never brought it to a close. The symmetry is lost, the acknowledgment of the act is skipped over. Something about it seems incomplete if we leave immediately after communion.

4. And finally, much to the point of today’s video, the dismissal gives insight to the rest of the Mass. In being sent out—not just as a practical, “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” but as a Christological imperative—we see that our Christian life does not reside within the walls of the Church. To fulfill our discipleship, we must go! Too often we think of Church as the place to find God, to be a Christian; we come to Church to find refuge from the world. But it’s so much more than that. God is just as much in the world as in the church, and our duty is not to hide from the world, but to take the church to the world. In being sent out, we see that the reason we gather is not so much an end in itself (at least not the only end) but the means for discipleship: we gather together so that we can have the strength and inspiration to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations.

I think that it is in this act that we find our true identity and purpose. As many theologians say today, we are not a Church that has a mission, but rather a people of mission that happens to have a Church. The Church—the institution, its prayer, its worship, its leaders—is not the complete end in itself for which the mission must support by raising money or gathering new members. It is the other way around: the mission we share—our call to follow Christ, making disciples of all nations—gives us our primary identity, and the Church exists to support and drive that work.

It is through this lens that we see the purpose of the Eucharist. Obviously an end unto itself in that we are in communion with God, it was also given to us as a means: to offer the guidance of knowing where to go and the strength to actually get there. The Mass is not an end in itself in the sense that our lives as disciples would not be complete if we remained in the liturgy our entire lives. It may be the “source and summit” but it is not the entire journey. By its very nature, by its dismissal, we are a people that goes forth, returning with new prayers, experiences, pains, and hopes, but ultimately so that we may go out again.

We are a people on a mission, and this is our prayer.

This past weekend we heard the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the desert, and it got me thinking… about how stupid the Devil is. Don’t get me wrong, he’s obviously very skilled and cunning. But stupid nonetheless.

In the midst of temptation, though, it’s sometimes hard to see how stupid he is because we have a bright and shiny object in front of us and we’re blinded by our own desires. I understand that. Trust me, I’m not immune to temptation. But when we’re able to take a step back and look at what he does in trying to tempt us, we see a set of tactics that makes no sense:

  1. He offers us distorted versions of good things that will not bring us true happiness.
  2. We are told that its free, but it’s pretty obvious when we have to worship him or deny ourselves that it’s going to cost us much more than we bargained for.
  3. There is nothing that he can offer us that God has not already offered, in a better version, for free.

So… yeah. Why would we ever make a deal with him? Why would we ever give into his temptations? Truly, I think the only way that anything he offers might seem appealing is if we take our eyes off of God. It is only when we fail to see how good we have it with God, fail to see the gifts placed before us, that we could ever be tempted.

If you want to resist the devil and all his empty promises, do everything you possibly can to keep your attention on God.