It was a funeral mass, and the sanctuary was packed. I was present with another person from my congregation because the daughter of the deceased was a member of our Presbyterian church, and we were there to support her. The missalette (Protestants, read: bulletin) contained some explanatory notes about the service including these words about the Eucharist (Protestants, read: Communion):
We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion.
It was a kind reminder that my friend and I should not go forward to receive the sacrament, and I did not. My friend, however, was indignant and insisted that she had a right to receive the elements. Her insistence was more a reflection of her personality than any theological or ecclesiastical convictions.
The statement in the missalette came from guidance provided local Catholic congregations by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. While I bemoan the lack of unity in the visible church, I understand and appreciate the explanation offered by the USCCB. In fact, how the Roman Church understands the Eucharist is significantly different from my Protestant and Reformed understanding (which is different again from that of many of my Baptist friends). It was best that I not be admitted.
I honored my hosts at the funeral and my own understanding of the Sacrament by declining to go forward to receive the Eucharist. One day such divisions will not divide the holy catholic church, though we will have to decide whether our worship in the throne room of heaven is guided by a bulletin or a missalette.
The USCCB met last week and voted to create a study document and new guidelines for understanding the place of the Eucharist among Catholics. It is meant to be used within the church but has become subject to much discussion outside the church. You may have heard of it. Loving controversy as we do, the headlines are hoping for our clicks as they scream about the bishops versus Biden. “Bishops vote to deny President Biden communion” one headline reads.
In fact, the bishops have voted only to create the document and write the guidelines. And, yes, the guidelines could present a dilemma for the President and parish priests when he attends mass.
The bishops say they want to tell the faithful about the Eucharist as a “mystery to be believed, a mystery to be celebrated, and a mystery to be lived.” The “lived” section will attend to some of the practical implications of their understanding of the Eucharist in the life of the Catholic Church and of the Catholic believer. A subsection of the “lived” section will have to do with what they call “Eucharistic Consistency.” A subsection of the subsection will address, using a word from Scripture, “worthiness” to receive the Sacrament and may mention politicians and other public figures who act and live contrary to church teaching, especially its opposition to elective abortion.
Whatever else it may say, should it say what many think it will say, the study and its guidance could say a lot about President Biden and his support of abortion which is, to be sure, contrary to church teaching.
I am a pastor. I administer the Sacrament. What do I think about the President and communion? I think the bishops have some hard work before them.
Many years ago, the bishops, acting through the USCCB, graciously and kindly reminded me that I should not come forward to receive the Eucharist at a funeral mass. My friend, insisting on her sense of unalienable rights, went forward and was not denied. But the Catholic bishops were right to advise non-Catholics not to go forward, and I did not. I submitted to their authority in the church for which they have responsibility. The bishops are right, in fact, required, to teach Catholics the Catholic meaning of the Eucharist and the practical implications of the Eucharist in the life of the church and in the life of the Catholic believer. Someday President Biden and or his parish priest may have to decide whether or not to submit to the authority of the bishops in the church for which they, the bishops, have responsibility.
The President and the Lord’s Table? This Presbyterian pastor will gladly punt. Catholic bishops, you have some hard work before you.
We Presbyterians do not have bishops, but we have confessions and a Book of Worship. Our EPC Book of Worship also cautions us as we come to the Table: Those who are ignorant in their knowledge of Christ or who are living ungodly and unrepentant lives should be warned of the serious consequences for those who unworthily partake. The Westminster Confession tells us that the spiritually ignorant and the ungodly who partake of communion without repentance commit “a great sin against Christ.”
Scripture calls upon Joe Biden to examine himself as he comes to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. At their best, the Catholic bishops seek to guide him in doing so. Scripture calls upon me to examine myself as I come to the Table. And my church through its books of worship and its confessions calls me always to repent of my ignorance and ungodliness lest I commit a great sin against Christ.
We’re in this together, Joe.