Communion Guideline Announcements as Mercy in Motion

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.

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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

Grace Over “Good Standing”

If you travel around enough as a visitor to different Catholic parishes–especially for Christmas, Easter, funerals, or weddings–you’ll hear a range of different announcements given just prior to Mass or (more jarringly) just before communion distribution pertaining to who should or should not receive the Eucharist. There’s one that always strikes me as odd, if you are a Catholic in good standing you may receive communion.

As far as I can tell, the phrase “good standing” is not in the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the USCCB’s official Guidelines for the Reception of Communion. It seems that the verbiage of “good standing” isn’t drawn from our faith tradition. In fact, it sounds more akin to civic organizational culture, i.e. “I’m a member in good standing of the local Lions club.” “Standing” in a club is something we earn. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, a Holy Temple–we’re incorporated into it through our response to grace–not by attaining “good standing.”

 

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Image: “Credentials” by davidd via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 license)

As Pope Francis explained in a General Audience:

our taking part in the Church is not an exterior or formal fact, it is not filling out a form they give us; it is an interior and vital act; one does not belong to the Church as one belongs to a society, to a party or to any other organization. (Sep 11, 2013).

Talking about “Catholics in good standing” gives the impression that Church is about filling out a form or meeting some man-made organizational standards. As a baptized believer I share in Christ’s anointing as prophet, priest, and king. I’m God’s beloved, adopted child. And, as Pope Francis so concisely put it, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

No amount of “good standing” can make me worthy to receive the deepest essence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist–it’s only having my soul healed by the Word that makes communion possible. “State of grace” is far more awe-inspiring (and accurate) than “good standing.” I’m not able to stand alone before God and worship Him, except for the power of the Holy Spirit, uniting me to the perfect prayers and praise of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Good standing doesn’t tell the half of it. How sad to think that the divine life God so wants to share with us could be spoken of, publicly to the unevnagelized, with such a paltry phrase as “good standing.”

I believe, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we can live boldly the vision in Acts 2:42 of worship (“breaking the bread” and “prayers”) in the context of devotion to the “teaching of the apostles and to the communal life” we call the Church, while finding more precise, theologically sound, Tradition-filled, and evangelistic ways to counsel against partaking in the Eucharist “unworthily” (1 Cor 11:27).

In Part 2 (tomorrow), I’ll offer some concrete alternatives to cautioning-without-an-opportunity-for-response.

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

 

No More “Sacramental Conveyer Belt”

Insights on Confirmation in parish life. “Discipleship or Bust” says Fr. Peter Dugandzic, aka how to get away from a “sacramental conveyor belt”…

If I am correct, the only way to stop the conveyor belt is to return to the early Church model — one filled with personal witness and encounter. In the initial proclamation of the Gospel, there were no “programs” to be instituted or “standards” to be met. The first criteria was, and still is, Faith in Jesus Christ. The second criteria was, and still is, encounter with Jesus Christ. Both of these criteria were met, and should still be met, through a community of believers on Fire with the Holy Spirit. It is this type of community that a new convert must encounter, and it is this same community that was, and still is, the avenue of encounter with Christ. Such an encounter cannot be measured with objective standards because it is a highly subjective experience. Without a real encounter and subjective conversion, the newly initiated eventually will fall off the conveyor belt at the end, and will most likely never be seen again.

Read more…

Infant Catechumenate….a Possibility for the New Evangelization?

Dr. Edward Peters makes this insightful comment regarding recent media attention on Pope Francis’ celebration of the sacrament of baptism:

“Lost in this whole discussion has been, I fear, any recognition of the fact that, while baptism is of great value, it is also to take on very serious, life-long duties. Imposing via baptism those burdens on a child who is at heightened risk of not receiving adequate assistance in the Faith, and on some parents who in public respects seem ill-equipped to live the very Faith they want passed on to their children, is itself pastorally problematic, no?”

Indeed. Pastorally problematic.

But it doesn’t have to be. In The Shape of Baptism, Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B. writes:

“In the context of tradition’s witness concerning the unity of the initiatory sequence….compels one to the following conclusion. Whenever it is deemed advisable to initiate a Christian, regardless of age, that Christian should be initiated fully and completely by water baptism, the ‘sealing’ of confirmation, and first eucharistic communion.

This should hold for everyone, although it may be found pastorally more advantageous to begin the sequence of baptism in its fullness so far as infants and very young children are concerned with solemn enrollment in the catechumenate followed by the sacraments of initiation in full sequence later at some appropriate time.

To do this is not to ‘delay baptism.’ It is to begin baptism in its fullness as soon after birth as practicable, and to celebrate its stages over a period of years according to the child’s growth in faith, rather than to telescope the sacraments of initiation into a few minutes or dismember the sacramental sequence altogether” (p. 175).

Basically, he’s suggesting an infant catechumenate. Any infant could be enrolled, no canonical worries. It offers a solemn ritual, important for the parents and community’s understanding. But, it allows the all important sacraments of initiation to be delayed until the child/family is able to participate in faith. Taking this option would surely reduce the number of baptisms out of culture that are devoid of the critical aspect of faith (within the baptized or the family).

It also creates an option from within our Church’s tradition for families who would prefer that children be initiated fully, in the historical sequence. Can we handle liturgical diversity, rather than a one-size-fits all approach? I think the tradition of our Church upholds both the theology inherent in infant baptism and the theology inherent in a unified initiation process of a “professing” believer. Another great both/and of Catholicism 😉

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s possible for a parish to have so many options? 

First Communion When Ready, Not By Grade Level? It Happens!

I recently made my way through Mary Ellen Konieczny’s The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics as part of my attempt to think outside the “ministry” box and explore how the social sciences can inform my service in the Church.

Konieczny’s work centers on an attempt to “better understand religion’s role in how ordinary Americans have become divided around contemporary cultural conflicts about he family” (p. 5). Her thesis involves the importance of the role local congregations, congregational cultures, and cultural processes play in shaping, supporting, and sustaining polarizing tendencies (p. 5).

Okay, so what did I learn? The most striking aspect of reading this book, which used many detailed interviews with parishioners at two Chicago-area parishes, was me as a minister/theologian (of sorts…I use the words loosely) being hit by how so many nuanced theological topics were seemingly dealt with in black and white terms by the faithful Catholics being interviewed. Reading sociology can be a good reminder of how people really think and speak about their faith lives and beliefs (outside of a seminary/university setting).

Another good reason, I discovered, to explore sociologists’ accounts is the inside look it can give into the practices of other parishes–the kind of stuff that isn’t always front and center on a parish’s website. For example, in one of the interviews, a father explained how:

“the [parish] priest had approached him when his son was not much more than five years old and told him that he thought his son might be ready to receive his First Holy Communion, even though the customary time for the reception of First Communion is in second grade, about seven years of age. Father James [the priest] then sat down with the child to ask him what he knew about the mass. Despite the boy’s lack of formal religious education, he had absorbed enough knowledge about the Eucharist from going to mass and family religious practice to correctly answer everything that Father James asked him. Father James determined that the boy was ready.

Father James’ practice of noticing when children are ready to receive the sacraments and telling them so affirms parents’ perceptions of their children as naturally capable and self-drive learners who actively seek knowledge of God and the church” (p. 160).

Now that was encouraging to hear! Liturgical and Canon Law offer more leeway than many parishes actually allow when it comes to determining the most fruitful time to receive sacraments. The attention given to an individual child and his/her readiness also reminds me of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd practice of children opting-in when ready, rather than being pushed forward at a certain age/grade.

Note: The Spirit’s Tether is an expensive book (and unless you’re in sociology, I wouldn’t recommend buying it). I used my local public library’s interlibrary loan to borrow it–go that route if you’d like to skim read it 🙂