One of the best books to come my way this Lent is Father James Martin’s best seller, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.  I will review it in full in a few weeks when I have completed it, but what I have experienced so far has touched me deeply during this Lenten season and brought me back to the roots of my own childhood spirituality.
Early in his book Father Martin recalls his first experiences with the mystical as a boy. Riding his bike through a meadow one day, he stopped to look around. “All around me was so much life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge not only to be a part of it, but also to know it and somehow possess it. I felt loved, held, understood. The desire for everything, somehow for a full incorporation into the universe, and a desire to understand what I was doing here on earth filled me. It wasn’t a vision. I was still looking at the meadow. I hadn’t ‘left myself.’ And as a boy, I don’t think I would have been able to describe it as I just did. But I knew something had happened: it was as if my heart had stopped and I was given a conscientious inkling of the depths of my own desire for…what?” [p. 23]
The above cited passage stirred an early memory in my own childhood, probably about the age of four. We were living in an apartment over my grandparents’ house in East Buffalo, in the early 1950’s a green paradise of countless elm trees [later destroyed by Dutch Elm Disease]. Buffalo summers are alive with robins and their distinctive early morning and dusk distinctive song. My mother told me that the robins were singing their morning and evening prayers to God, which made a considerable impression on me. Consequently, in the still of sunset I would sit quietly in my bedroom with my face pressed to the window screen, taken up the robins’ medley, captivated by their tune and the stillness of the trees. It was my first sense of “purposeful quiet” and even these many years later I can still listen to a robin with an intuitive sense of home.
Father Martin believes that many of us in childhood have such transcendental moments of awareness that, truthfully, constitute an awareness of the beyond that is the essence of prayer. He is too kind to say it, but I have the impression that organized religion, with its stress upon routine, business, order, and correctness in its faith formation of children somehow squashes that early union of loving detachment, play, and comfort. My first communion at age 8 was such a ritual production that I decided to get up early the next morning and attend the sunrise Mass by myself with the handful of elderly and blue-collar workers, to receive the Eucharist without distraction and talk to Jesus in my own way. I consider that to be my true First Communion. I was struck this Lent by Father Martin’s observation that “children may be more open than adults to experiencing God, because they are not as burdened with as many expectations about prayer.” [p. 23]
As I guess happens to many of us who progress through church life, the structure of the thing does not allow much attention to spontaneous, unstructured joy. I found this to be true in the seminary, where there were many scheduled prayers but little or no direction on how to cultivate or attain that inner connectedness to the mysterious, or even respect for the possibility of it. For all my high school years my only real source of detached meditation was a copy of The Imitation of Christ which I had received from a relative as a gift. I used to read it after receiving communion after repeated failures to generate my own sense of “talking to Jesus.”
In college I did get one insight about prayer that has remained with me as it resonated with childhood experience. I was assigned Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels  in a philosophy course at Catholic University. Berger was a sociologist in search of divine experience in the common life of man. One of his “clues” [i.e., “rumors” of angels] is the experience of play. As he describes play, it is an experience of disconnect from the world of hard reality and death, and it is children who are particularly good at it. In the true experience of play, the participant[s] lose touch with time and space and enter a dimension of detachment.
I always felt sorry for kids on my street who “had to be home at 5 PM” on fear of punishment. In my own case my outside play was curtained only by the site of my dad’s car in the driveway at dinner or nautical twilight at night [and when my mother put a bright lamp in the living room window, we could play Monopoly on the porch if no one noticed how late it was getting.] Childhood play is escape into another true reality. Being with inseparable friends is timeless. In this sense the relationship of playing to praying is uncanny, and I suspect that deprivation of one is deprivation of the other. Mental health professionals are right to wonder how the Covid epidemic has impacted children.
There are many ways to pray, of course. Liturgy is the supreme act of prayer in the Church. Liturgy, particularly the Eucharist, is play in the way that the great Greek dramas lifted audiences out of time and space into a new world that Aristotle defined with the word catharsis, a draining of the emotions. [Catharsis: the first time I saw “The Godfather” in a theater, I could not find my car for fifteen minutes after leaving the theater.] The reason why young people [and the not-so-young] find Sunday Mass a chore is because we celebrate it not with the escape of catharsis but with the grim determination of miners.
It is worth remembering Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” My hunch is that heaven will be a playful place.
Back in August 2019, shortly before the Covid pandemic, the PEW Research think tank released the result of a national study of Catholics which revealed that only one-third of the Church in the United States believes in “Real Presence,” the full physical and spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Bishop Robert Barron of “Word on Fire” took to YouTube to express his dismay, with much of his ire falling upon weak catechetics and diminished attention to the teaching of Church doctrine. If that is the case, the Bishop might have cited the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1972 pastoral, “To Teach as Jesus Did,” which assured us that religious education programs could easily assume the quality of faith education as Catholic schools, which were beginning to close in significant numbers at that time.
[You can subscribe to daily PEW news releases here.]
Significant Church discussion about this study by all the American bishops and the Church’s educational establishment was interrupted by Covid-19 when the reception of the Eucharist itself—whatever one’s understanding—was interrupted for significant periods of time as churches closed and gatherings prohibited. In the meantime, the USCCB was faced with another dilemma involving Eucharistic belief and discipline, this time the election of a lifelong Catholic, Joe Biden, president of the United States, on the Democratic platform which maintains the availability of abortion as a basic right. When the election of Mr. Biden was certified, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, established a “working group” of bishops to determine what kind of action should be taken in response to Mr. Biden’s weekly reception of the Eucharist vis-à-vis his administrative stance of freedom of choice. Three months later the working group was terminated with no public indication of what the USCCB response would be.
The two recent Eucharistic controversies are interconnected, for both assume responses of the faithful—in the first instance, to a long held doctrinal formulation of holy communion, and in a second to a national bishops’ conference’s assessment of worthiness to receive the Eucharist based upon an assessment that abortion is the preeminent sin of our times.
The PEW study undertook to determine what Catholics actually believe about the Eucharist. The question was framed, as far as I know, upon adherence to the formal doctrine, written in the language of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, which in philosophical and theological terms is called “transubstantiation.” Specifically, transubstantiation asserts that that the reality of bread ceases to be bread and becomes the full living presence of Christ. The appearance of the bread, called its “accidents,” remains the same. Hence Aquinas, who also composed beautiful hymns in prayer to the Eucharist, could write that the glory of Christ is hidden by the “accidents” of the bread. An interesting sidebar here is that three hundred years later, Martin Luther, himself deeply immersed in Thomistic thinking, suggested the term “consubstantiation,” i.e., that Christ and the bread are both present in the Eucharist. His argument was that as the divinity of Christ coexisted with his humanity without destroying it, likewise the enduring divine presence of Christ in communion should not entail the destroying the reality of the bread. Luther’s understanding never gained approval of the Church, but it does illustrate that men and women of good will can comprehend the term “presence” in a variety of ways, all of them in good faith.
The PEW study noted that 28% believe in Real Presence and understand the doctrine of transubstantiation. Another 22% grasp the concept of transubstantiation and reject it, presumably for another formulation. Nearly half of Catholics do not know the doctrine of transubstantiation but reverence the Eucharist as a symbol of the Body and Blood of Christ. In his YouTube presentation Bishop Barron anguishes over the fact that so many Catholics are not catechized in the rich tradition of the Faith, and I do agree with that to a point. However, we need to exercise a more nuanced eye toward Catholics who understand the Eucharist as a symbol. They are not wrong. The very definition of sacraments—all seven—introduces them as outward signs of inner realities. There may be many reasons why their adult comprehension of communion is devoid of the full expression of divine presence, but bad will is hardly one of them.
To approach the Eucharist with an incomplete understanding—and we are talking about 50% of U.S. Catholics if the research is anywhere near correct-- is still a sign of faith in the communicants. Something religious is occurring in the hearts of these receivers; they are drawing closer to Christ and evidently encounter the Lord in communion even without an understanding of the medieval language of transubstantiation. It is my understanding that the USCCB is taking under consideration some kind of pastoral guidance for Catholics which would encompass the doctrinal reality of the Eucharist, the obligation to participate at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and the necessity of receiving communion in a state of grace, i.e., without mortal sin.
I would have two concerns about such a strategy. The first is the exercise of caution in demanding an immediate and full allegiance to the doctrine of Real Presence across the board in the Church. The doctrine ought to be taught, to be sure, but with the proviso that, as an article of faith, Real Presence is a mystery toward which all of us are journeying to grasp. Full understanding will not be ours to possess until the end of time, when the need for all sacraments will cease as we behold God face to face. It is worth recalling that when Jesus proclaimed his presence in the Eucharistic food, many in the crowd protested that “this is a hard saying.” Speaking for myself, while I have been a regular communicant for 65 years, the challenge of grasping this mystery of love and awe remains a spiritual struggle the longer I live. Eucharistic teaching by our bishops should not be reduced to allegiance to a credal formulary, but rather, exposure to the faith tradition of two millennia. Real Presence has inspired devotion and intellectual exposition by countless saints. As Father James Martin would put it, we fall in love with God by listening to those who already have. I agree with Bishop Barron that our catechetics is woefully deficient on this score, but this deficiency cannot be laid at the feet of the faithful. A more useful pastoral instruction by the USCCB might result from an honest assessment of the poor condition of all our faith formation efforts.
Concurrent with this theme is the idea that one must be in a spiritually proper state to receive the Eucharist. Technically speaking, Church discipline has maintained for centuries—since St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, actually—that to receive the Eucharist unworthily is “to eat and drink a condemnation to oneself.” Specifically, in First Corinthians, Paul writes: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” [11:27-29]
The full context of this text is the liturgical practice of the Christian assembly in Corinth [Greece] around 55 A.D. When this local church gathered to break the bread, i.e., celebrate Eucharist, there was a social segregation between rich and poor which was a mockery of the unity that Jesus intended when his followers gathered to remember him in the breaking of the one bread. It is interesting that one of the New Testament’s most famous teaching on Eucharistic decorum involves worthy reception vis-à-vis what we would call social justice. This is an interesting contrast to the pastoral and canonical emphasis in recent centuries on sexual sins and their role in rendering persons unfit to receive the Eucharist. It is rare, for example, to hear racists, tax cheats, or corrupt politicians identified among those who cannot licitly receive the Eucharist, while divorced and remarried persons or couples using artificial contraception are the poster children for those to be excluded from the communion table. It is to be hoped that any pastoral instruction on appropriate preparation for reception of communion takes the broad approach of general sinfulness rather than focusing on concerns du jour. Moreover, the strength of the Eucharist as a remedy for chronic sin and moral failure needs greater attention.
Which brings us to the USCCB’s dilemma of what to do about Catholic elected officials who support access to abortion. In the first instance, what is the number of Catholics in general who support access to abortion? Studies throughout my adult life have remained remarkably consistent in that American Catholics are divided 50-50 on the subject, a reality which has aggravated many bishops since the famous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision of 1973.
Some background on the abortion controversy is in order. I was 25 years old and a graduate student in theology at the time of Roe v. Wade, and as luck would have it, working on a master’s paper for my morality requirement, on women’s liberation and the Catholic Church. In the early 1970’s the push for women’s rights in American society was very strong politically—the ERA was passed by Congress though not ratified just a few years later. The feminist literature of the time made a strong case that decisions about women’s health and reproductive issues were being determined by men, and the Roe v. Wade decision was received into that atmosphere. In the half century since then, and very recently in the #metoo movement, any discussion of limiting legal abortion rights is cast as an assault on women per se. I am not certain that Church leaders understand this or factor it into pastoral considerations when embarking on Pro Life ministries.
Second, the term “pro-choice” covers a considerable amount of territory. It can be invoked as advocacy for unlimited abortion, though interestingly the Roe v. Wade decision did not make that determination in its attempt to balance the right of the mother with the right of the unborn child. Moreover, I strongly doubt that all 50% of Catholics considering themselves prochoice are advocates of unlimited abortion. More fine-tuned analysis may discover that many Catholics, like many other Americans, simply believe in more therapeutic options where the life of a mother and her unborn child are at risk. A somewhat notorious case in the Diocese of Phoenix in 2010, where an abortion was performed in a Catholic hospital to save the life of a hypertensive mother, brought considerable national news coverage and, at the very least, confusion over the unilateral actions of the Phoenix bishop, Thomas Olmstead. Others may raise questions about pregnancies involving incest, child rape, etc. While Catholic moralists debate such questions, their deliberations do not seem to percolate upward toward the counsel of the national bishops’ conference.
A third factor, dating back at least to the presidential election of 2012, is the decision of the USCCB to designate abortion as the preeminent issue of social justice and to promulgate this designation in all Church sanctioned guides to presidential elections. If taken at face value, such official episcopal guidelines are de facto directives to vote for Republican candidates, as the GOP has included a Pro Life plank in its convention platforms almost since Roe v. Wade. Some bishops and pastors took this designation further in 2020 by publicly preaching that a Catholic in good conscience could not vote for the Democratic candidate, the Catholic Joe Biden, who ran for office under the Democratic pro-choice banner.
What has resulted is an uncomfortable alliance of the USCCB [with some notable exceptions] and a specific political party with its own moral baggage that violates the conscience sensitivities of many Catholics. Polls taken after the 2020 election indicate that about 50% of Catholics voted for Mr. Biden. There are bishops in the USCCB who would like to deny the Eucharist to the president. On the other hand, there are many social policies where the president and many Catholics would be in harmony with the bishops, and certainly with Pope Francis.
I do believe that abortion is a major moral concern for the Church and for American society. I recall years ago the wisdom of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who coined the phrase “seamless garment” to describe the unifying ethic of protecting life from conception to the grave. Every baptized Catholic carries a piece of that concern to the Eucharistic banquet. It makes no sense to exclude anyone from the one mission.