As we enter into the season of Advent, a season of “joyful anticipation,” we first stir up the embers of our hope for Christ’s return in glory, a hope that is so easily suffocated in the activities and concerns that fill our daily lives. It is good to remember that Jesus promised to return and, being a God-man of his word, he will do so at a time and in a way that he considers right. It will be a wonderful thing when he returns to manifest to the whole world his saving work. How do we prepare for his coming? By following him in faith and love. Should we die first, as have our forebears, our faith in him and love for God and neighbor will allow us to be confident as we meet him and learn our eternal destiny.
In early Advent we relive ancient Israel’s yearning for a Savior but then we turn our focus in the latter part of the season to the events immediately preceding Christ’s coming: the annunciation of his conception in the Virgin Mary, the conception and birth of John the Baptist, Joseph’s marriage to Mary at God’s command, the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the census. Finally, the Messiah is born and we rejoice in song and flowers and wreathes in our Christmas Masses. God has kept His promise to give us a Savior.
Between his first coming in humility and his final coming in glory, the Lord comes to us gently in our prayer, our reception of him in the Eucharist, our devout confessions, our meditation on his Word, our acts of kindness to others. Read Revelations 3:20 to grasp the personal encounter he wants to have with you. Even before his final return, you will understand St. Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord always! I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near [Philippians 4:4-5]. He is near to all who will open the door to him and let him in. Be that person and you will have a fruitful Advent.
2. The US Bishops’ Recent Meeting
You may or may not pay much attention to what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops does at its semi-annual meetings but we had one in mid-November in Baltimore, MD, the first diocese in the newly independent United States. It was our first in-person meeting in two years and on that score alone was a blessing. As a participant, I found the bishops strongly committed to working for the good of our people. We heard addresses from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, from Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, the President of our Conference, and from West Virginian Mark Saad, now the chair of the National Advisory Council, which proposes agenda items to the bishops and responds to the bishops’ decisions. All spoke of the need for unity among Catholics in a country increasingly polarized. Happily, that unity was evident among the bishops in Baltimore.
What did we do? We approved new English and Spanish translations of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which is in use in all of our parishes and will guide parish teams in preparing catechumens for baptism and non-catechized Catholics for the other sacraments of initiation. We heard a presentation on the new penal section of the Code of Canon Law, issued by Pope Francis in June of this year, that deals with punishments of clergy and laity in Church service who abuse persons or use their positions for personal gain. I think the recent scandal in this Diocese may have contributed to the strengthened provisions of the Code. We also approved our 2022 budget and, not surprisingly, the assembled bishops decided not to raise the tax on their dioceses (but they did not lower it either).
We voted to move up to the summer of 2022 the review of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that was originally scheduled for 2025. The implementation of the Charter since 2002 has greatly reduced new cases of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy but we decided we could not wait three more years to see if any gaps needed to be filled or provisions needed to be strengthened. We also overwhelmingly voted to have Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s feast (September 5) be added to the US liturgical calendar. We agreed with the bishops of Honolulu and Lafayette in Louisiana that they should advance at the local level the causes for the beatification and canonization of two laymen – Joseph Dutton, who served with St. Damien among the lepers of Molokai, and Auguste Robert Pelafigue, a renowned catechist – and a laywoman – Charlene Marie Richard, whose sanctity at her death at age 15 was testified to by many people and whose intercession is linked to miracles. We need American saints!
The bishops also approved having a national Eucharistic Congress in 2024 as part of our Eucharistic Revival Project to reaffirm Catholic belief in Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist. We heard presentations on marriage, family life and youth and on a prolife effort called “Walking with Moms in Need,” in which parishes and pregnancy centers team up to offer more effective help to struggling mothers. There were other presentations on immigration, Catholic Charities, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Relief Services and the diocesan phase, already in motion, of the Synod Pope Francis has called to strengthen the Church in communion (being one in faith and love), participation (leaving no one out) and mission (bringing Christ and his Gospel to others). At times the week felt like a forced march but I think we did some good.
The only thing much of the media seemed interested in, along with some folks who gathered outside our hotel, was a document called The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. We disappointed those who hoped we would fight over whether or not President Biden should be denied Holy Communion. That was not our objective nor the competence of our Conference. We wanted a theological and pastoral document that would undergird our Eucharistic Revival Project. The vote was 220 to 8 in favor. Our unity could not have been clearer.
3. The need for a Eucharistic Revival Project
The Eucharist, both its celebration in the Mass and its reception in Holy Communion, is central to our Catholic faith, for we believe this sacrament is unique in that it becomes what it signifies: the very Person of Jesus, the Son of God, once crucified for us and now risen from the dead. It is distressing that, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, many Catholics have stayed away from Mass and therefore from the Lord who wants to give himself to them in the Eucharist. Moreover, the bishops of our country have learned from both national surveys and anecdotal evidence that many Catholics, even some who regularly go to Mass and receive Holy Communion, do not believe that they truly receive Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.
For this reason we will launch a Eucharistic Revival Project nationwide on Corpus Christi Sunday, June 19, 2022. We need this Project because, as pastors of souls, we are concerned that our brothers and sisters who lack the Church’s faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist may not receive any benefit from their reception of the Sacrament. The Lord presents himself – “Body of Christ, Blood of Christ” – but if we say, “No, it’s not you; it’s just a piece of bread or a reminder of you,” can we expect him to bless us? He stands at the door and knocks but what if we won’t let him in? How can he dine with us? [See Revelation 3:20]
How could it come to pass that many Catholics today do not share the Church’s faith, believed and taught from the days of the Apostles, that Jesus Christ makes himself substantially present in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood? I suspect it is in part a result of a diminished sense of the supernatural leading to a practical materialism. This materialism does not allow for the sovereign God to intervene in His creation to change, in a mysterious and spiritual way, bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood while leaving the material elements unchanged. Everything is interpreted on the horizonal level; the vertical level is left out. So, as this thinking goes, the Eucharist could not possibly be Jesus.
In addition, Americans’ high regard for individualism can lead to unfortunate results if it reaches beyond its proper limits. Sadly, we see many examples in our society of a heightened individualism that prioritizes personal opinion over even the strongest consensus of others, thus undermining the common good. I think that the resistance to being vaccinated against the Coronavirus and wearing masks when in group settings is a prime example. But this heightened individualism also influences some Catholics’ view of the Eucharist. They hold to their erroneous opinion despite the testimony of Scripture and Tradition and the experience of saints and ordinary Catholics through the centuries who have found such great strength through the Lord whom they received in the Sacrament.
We need, then, to stir up our people’s faith in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, lest it cease to be the “source and summit” of the Christian life and our sacrament of unity with the Lord and with one another. That is why the US bishops approved The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. It will give us a useful theological framework for our Eucharistic Revival Project and provide some marvelous testimony of Catholics, ordained, religious and lay, to the immense spiritual power of the Sacrament.
4. The worthiness to receive Holy Communion
Regarding a person’s reception of Holy Communion, the bishops repeated traditional Catholic teaching in our Eucharistic document that we should approach the Sacrament only if we are not conscious of having committed mortal sins of which we have not repented and been absolved in the Sacrament of Penance. This applies to everyone. Prominent Catholics bear a special responsibility not to lead others into error by receiving the Eucharist if they teach or live in a manner that contradicts authentic Catholic doctrine. Those prominent Catholics include anyone with influence in others’ lives, starting with parents, teachers and coaches and reaching up to university officials and professors, CEOs and their teams, labor leaders, media and entertainment personalities and politicians. Remember Jesus’ words: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6]. Being looked up to brings a heavy moral and spiritual responsibility to one who has influence over others.
The great error of those who persist in receiving Christ in the Eucharist while continuing to betray Christ in practice is their separation of personal piety from the demands of truth, justice and love. Through the prophet Amos, in a passage often quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., God said to the people of Israel: I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. . . But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream [5:21-24]. Isaiah directed the same message to the princes and people: What care I for the number of your sacrifices, says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings. . . When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you. Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow [1:10:17]. God expects us who pray to and worship Him to treat our fellow human beings with justice and mercy; otherwise, He says, our worship is worthless and our prayers go unheard.
So, what is to be done if a prominent person continues to receive Holy Communion while speaking or acting publicly in a gravely sinful manner? Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law expressly says: “Those who . . . , obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” The canon is directed to the individual minister of Holy Communion (clerical or lay), who must be certain of three things: that the person has committed a sin that is objectively grave, that, after being warned, he or she refuses to desist from committing that sin, and that the sin is widely known by the Catholic faithful. That is a high bar. Canon 915 does not give authority to a bishop to forbid a person from receiving the Eucharist throughout his diocese; that would require a formal trial in which the accused would have the right both to the presumption of innocence and to self-defense (see canon 221). By no means does canon 915 give to an episcopal conference the right to forbid a Catholic, even one who notoriously violates Catholic teaching, from receiving Holy Communion. So, canon law is not so easy to apply in this case.
Turning from Church law to the Scriptures, we find some very interesting situations in which objectively unworthy persons receive the Eucharist. The most obvious one is Judas Iscariot’s reception of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Last Supper (Luke 22: 14-23]. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him [Matthew 26:21-23] yet he did not stop him from receiving the Eucharist. He did foretell that Judas would come to a bad end but not by his disciples’ hands.
St. Paul in I Corinthians 11: 17-34 deals with a situation in which people are receiving the Eucharist unworthily. The Corinthians were dividing themselves at the communal meals they had before they celebrated the Eucharist. Some members of the community brought food and ate well while poorer members had little or nothing to eat. Paul condemns the selfish behavior of the first group and then describes the Last Supper, in which Jesus said: This is my Body, that is for you. When you receive his sacramental Body, Paul tells the Corinthians, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. It was Jesus’ physical body that died on the cross, not his sacramental body. So, when Paul tells the Corinthians that anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself, he is saying – given the context of reprimanding selfish behavior – that they have not discerned that Jesus’ sacrifice of his body on the cross was a supreme act of love. The wealthier Corinthians should imitate Jesus’ loving behavior by sharing their food rather than ignoring the bodily needs of their poorer brethren.
Yet Paul never tells the offending Corinthians to stop receiving the Eucharist. He puts the burden on them: a person should examine himself and so eat the bread and drink the cup. Like Jesus, he does speak of God’s judgment on those who persist in acting selfishly: many among you are ill and infirm and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment but since we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. Paul leaves the punishment to God.
Before concluding that someone should be denied the Eucharist, ask yourself: did Jesus do the right thing or the wrong thing when he allowed Judas Iscariot to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood? Did St. Paul do the right thing or the wrong thing in not forbidding the selfish Corinthians from receiving the Eucharist? It is hard to argue against the Lord’s and his Apostle’s example. If those who persist in manifest grave sin, after being warned, still receive the Lord in Holy Communion, they eat and drink a judgment against themselves. If they imitate Judas Iscariot, they are betraying the Lord they receive. We should pray for them, that they may be converted to the truth, for they remain our brothers and sisters.
5. To conclude: a thought on the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has not gone away. We must be patient and prudent. Simple protective measures, such as being vaccinated and wearing masks in group settings, make sense. I urge you to trust that the vaccines we prayed for will help you and others stay healthy. I hope you understand that wearing a mask is an annoyance but not a grave hardship. We are honoring the Lord’s command, Love your neighbor as yourself, when we adopt these safety measures. Let us pray for all those who are sick, for those who died and for the consolation of their families, for our dedicated health care personnel and our essential workers.
At Christmas we will celebrate the birth of our Savior. He came to do us the immense good of freeing us from our sins and from eternal death. Let us, in the midst of this plague, do good to others and to ourselves by practicing both patience and prudence. A blessed Advent season and Christmas to you all!
Sincerely in Christ,
Bishop Mark E. Brennan