I’m going to propose something that sounds utterly impractical. Completely inconvenient. And, at first, flat out impossible, maybe even ridiculous. Here goes: during this Jubilee Year of Mercy (and beyond!), when we know that it’s an occasion where a lot of the “baptized who no longer practice the faith” are going to be present in our churches, we need to open the doors to mercy, right then.
What do I mean? Instead of simply announcing (at say, Christmas, Easter, First Communions, Funerals, etc.) that only those in “good standing” (poorly chosen phrase to begin with, as discussed in Part 1 of this blog post), in a state of grace, who uphold the teachings of the Church, and/or are in full communion should come forth to receive the Eucharist, we need to do something. To open up the door of mercy, and not simply in an abstract sense. But tangibly. Right then.
I mean seriously. Just think about our present reality. We make an announcement reminding folks why a person would abstain from physical communion at times of the year when we’re blessed (just think of everything in our society that contributes to a decline in religious attendance) to have the “baptized but not practicing” visiting us in large numbers! What are we hoping will happen as a result of an announcement like “only Catholics in good standing may receive communion?” Concretely, we’re informing so that each person can discern properly before the Lord. That’s a good thing. But, for the many who discern, “no, I should not receive” what are we hoping happens next?
If we’re hoping that that by hearing such an announcement, the baptized but not practicing will be spiritually moved to (at a later date) go find a place and time for Confession, participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (maybe for the first time in decades!), and then return to share in communion and thus receive the graces anew–this seems to make an awful lot of assumptions. A “leap of reason” (h/t Mario Morino) rather than a well-discerned leap of faith. It doesn’t seem like a good model at all. I’ve yet to see any studies or newspaper clippings that reveal that these announcements are effectively bringing many people back to relationship of communion with and in the Church.
If we were deeply concerned with the salvation of every person on earth, profoundly convinced that it would be an utter loss for someone to miss out on one more day without a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ who loves to save and desires to know each of us personally, then we’d probably act differently.
In his announcement of our Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reflected, “Jesus’ reminder urges each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we have a person before us.” Making an announcement at Mass, with no specific invitation (other than maybe words buried in the bulletin that we’re hoping people aren’t reading during Mass anyhow) seems like an example of stopping at the surface of things. And, stopping when we have a person before us–precisely when we have people back at Mass who rarely enter our sanctuaries.
Pope Francis continued in his announcement, “I have often thought of how the Church may render more clear her mission to be a witness to mercy; and we have to make this journey.” So, let’s figure out some options for ways to do mercy when it comes to communion reception announcements.
First, prepare by hosting your seasonal Penance Services (quick example, if this liturgical service is unfamiliar) strategically, in concert with other events that will attract the “baptized who no longer practice the faith.” While many Catholic priests and parishes work together to offer these many different nights during Lent and Advent, the “draw” is generally limited to those already attending Mass regularly, those who will see it in the bulletin or on the sign outside of the church. I mean, for those who no longer practice the faith, is “Penance Service” usually the kind of thing that gets someone in the door? Not usually. But, what if a Penance Service was done before or after an event that is likely to draw in those who no longer practice, i.e. a December Christmas Carol Festival or a music/drama performance of a Catholic school (think relatives!).
Secondly, when that Mass-with-lots-of-visitors comes around each year, include an invitation along with any communion directions.
Let’s face it “state of grace” or “grave sin” are not a terms those who no longer practice the faith are necessarily familiar with. Many even have misunderstandings about what theological terms mean, thinking that these are code for a permanent exclusion. Conversation on these matter is crucial–so let’s invite.
For example, an announcement could include, “we invite those who are unsure about or interested in receiving communion to come talk to us during the hymn for the presentation of the gifts…we’ll be in the lobby/entrance area wearing blue nametags.” These members of the parish could be trained to help quickly welcome, answer questions, point those in need to the next available Confession time, and invite them to surrender to Jesus as Lord and make a spiritual communion during the Mass. And/or, an announcement could invite those interested to come talk to the celebrant priest in a quasi-private, easy-to-slip-away-to-place (i.e. sacristy area) immediately following Mass. Don’t worry about missing handshakes–lots of parishioners have the right personality and gifts to engage people as they leave the church; but only the priest can administer the sacrament of conversion.
Parishes with more than one priest can offer even more opportunities. For example, having one priest offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation before the most popular Masses of the year (and if the demand is so great that the confessions run into the start of Mass, this is okay, sometimes we can let a flood of mercy can mess up our plans!). Regardless of how your parish chooses to do it, what’s important is to respond to the presence of the “baptized who no longer practice” in a way that offers an immediate option. Think of it as a Jubilee Year of Mercy version of the old phrase, “strike while the iron’s hot.” Plus, hoping that people will call you during the week and make an appointment is less likely to make an impact.
We must do everything possible to keep the doors of mercy wide open, so that those touched by grace may find the assurance of forgiveness, reconciliation with the Church as quickly as possible, and an immediate, personal connection of someone who can lead them in prayer. Let us never provide our sincere counsel on discerning reception of communion, without in the same breath offering a concrete invitation to reconciliation (even if it’s simply a starting conversation and prayer). Challenging? Yes. But the very same Holy Spirit who enabled Peter and the disciples to somehow manage the logistics of an unexpected three-thousand baptisms (Acts 2:41) in one day is still at work in us today 🙂
This post previously appeared at NewEvangelizers.com