Last month the Bishops of the United States approved a document on the Eucharist entitled: “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” The document is divided into two sections: “Christ’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist and our response to that gift.” The debate over the document was not without controversy, particularly around the issue of who is eligible to receive communion. In the end, however, the bishops decided (wisely) not to wade into those waters.
I very much liked the title of the document. In my initial reading of it, I was struck in particular by two sentences: “Having been sanctified by the gift of the Eucharist and filled with faith, hope, and charity, the faithful are called to respond to this gift. Indeed, it is only natural that we give thanks to the Lord for all that He has given to us.” I think the recognition of the Eucharist as a gift is not just significant, but of ultimate importance.
As Catholics, we believe that Jesus Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist. Not present just in memory, not present just symbolically, and not present just spiritually, but really and truly present. How this can be we don’t know. That it can be is our abiding belief. It is an act of faith. And faith as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews is: “Confident assurance of what we hope for; conviction about things we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1) In the Eucharist we receive the Body of Christ so that we might be and bring the Body of Christ to the world.
The Eucharist is truly Christ’s gift of Himself to us. And as we all know - or should know - we don’t earn gifts; we don’t merit them. We can only accept them graciously and with gratitude. Perhaps most importantly, though, we should never judge another person’s worthiness to receive a gift. Specifically regarding the Eucharist we need to remember that Christ is the host of the table. We are all guests. At best, priests are just part of the wait staff, and as John Whitney, a Jesuit priest in Seattle, wrote back in June: “The wait staff doesn’t get to exclude those who want to come.”
Now, I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that priests should invite anyone and everyone to receive communion. I am suggesting that priests (and others) should not make judgements about the worthiness of those who present themselves for communion. As a wise priest told me many years ago: “You don’t know what has happened in someone’s life in the past five minutes. It is not up to you to judge someone’s worthiness to receive communion.”
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a copy of an essay from The New York Times written by Michael O’Loughlin, a correspondent for a Catholic news organization and a gay man. Two sentences in the essay were very important for me: “With the U.S. bishops meeting in Baltimore this week, following months of debate about the worthiness of some Catholics to receive Communion, I’ve realized that personally, I stay in the church mostly for the Eucharist, that ritual during Mass when I believe the divine transcends our ordinary lives and God is present. I haven’t found that elsewhere.”
While there are many things I disagree with about our Church, the Eucharist holds me bound. I can’t imagine my life without it. I can’t find it anywhere else. And so on the great Feast of Christmas, let us be mindful of the gift of the Eucharist. And let us pray that we might accept this gift with great humility and deep gratitude that Christ has chosen to share Himself with us in this wonderful sacrament.