Broken Communion

EucharistToday I’m troubled by the first major challenge from my parents to the Catholic Church: not so much, thankfully, to my personal journey, but ostensibly to the Catholic practice of closed communion.

My father feels offended to be excluded from the Catholic Eucharist. As a baptized Christian, he feels he is privileged to partake. He feels that in denying him communion, the Church is in effect saying he is not a Christian. He feels that the practice of closed communion perpetuates division in the Body of Christ. My mother is hurt that she could not come to my church and take communion with me, or I with her at her church.

Frankly, I had no expectation that this would be an issue. It had not even occurred to me that this would be upsetting to anyone until I googled and found that many Protestants were troubled by this matter. From the very first time I attended Mass some seven years ago, then a thoroughgoing Protestant, it seemed perfectly natural and reasonable to me for the Catholic Church to exclude non-Catholics from the Eucharist. I recognized, even then, that the Church held the Eucharist to be most sacred, was very protective of it, and didn’t offer it to just anybody.

Further study revealed that closed communion is nothing new; it’s one of the most ancient customs of the Church:

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 9, ca. mid to late first century A.D.).

We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ has rejoined (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 65, ca. A.D. 150.).

So the Eucharist was closed to non-Christians; it was only open to baptized Christians who believed the truth of catholic teaching. Certainly, in those early days, when Christianity was outlawed and persecuted, an unknown stranger could not have simply shown up at a Christian meeting, professed to be a baptized Christian, and been received into the Mysteries; no, he would have to have been a known, accepted, and approved member of that community, or else commended to it by other known, accepted, and approved Christians. The Eucharist was closed for the Church’s protection. The unbaptized were not even allowed to be present at the Eucharist, let alone to receive it.

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child.

What says, then, that communion should be open? My dad points out that there is nothing in Scripture that says explicitly that communion should be closed; but likewise there is nothing in Scripture that says that it should be open to all without restriction. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, is writing to the church at Corinth, a closed communion of Christian believers. He does not recommend that the church open its doors and its table to strangers from the street; he is advising the church in the context of its own private, closed Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist, the Communion of believers with Christ and with each other, is the most intimate and precious of all the Christian Mysteries. It was closely protected and guarded.

But this is 2012. There is no longer the need for such protection, is there? The liturgy of the Mass is no longer a closely-guarded secret; there are no longer accusations of cannibalism in Christians consuming the Lord’s Body and Blood; there are no longer persecutions unto death in our country. My parents are both baptized Christians. Shouldn’t they, known, accepted, and approved Christians, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, too?

That depends on what you believe the Eucharist to be. Evangelical Protestant communities that practice open communion by and large believe that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic, a memorial gesture of communion with the Lord, with no sacramental value. When I questioned my dad, this is basically what he affirmed. Christ extends the offer of grace and salvation to all; so why wouldn’t communion in His Body and Blood be extended to all? This exclusivity, this seeming denial of grace to the uninitiated, is what offends my dad.

Eucharistic adorationBut if you believe, as the Catholic Church believes, that the Eucharist is a real, actual, physical communion, in body and spirit, with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a sacramental commingling of our elements with His Elements, then it seems to me that you would have no choice but to be protective of that communion, and selective of who partakes in it. The Early Church allowed only those who believed and affirmed the reality of that Holy Communion. Why would the modern Church allow anyone who denies that reality? Should the Church offer the most intimate communion with our Lord to just anyone who walks in off the street, who doesn’t even have faith in Him? You may be a Christian — and the Catholic Church affirms that, if you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have a right to be called Christian (Unitatis Redintegratio I.3 § 1) — but if you deny His Real Presence in the Eucharist, it is you who are denying yourself full communion.

If you don’t share the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, why would you be offended at the closed communion? I think that is why it has never offended me: I recognized and respected that I believed differently. I think what offends my dad is the thought that since Christ’s death on the Cross was freely offered to all, why should participation in His Communion be offered to only a select few? This perception of exclusivity is in fact false. The Church has never excluded anyone from grace who sought it. She welcomes all Christians into full, Eucharistic Communion. But they must first affirm what she teaches: the reality of Christ’s presence in that Communion. What “perpetuates division” is Protestants’ continued denial of this core Catholic truth, the “source and summit of our faith.”

I think what offends my dad, even more fundamentally, is the idea that the Church has authority at all: the authority to tell anyone that they cannot celebrate the Eucharist when, where, and exactly how they wish. In the democratic and individualistic mindset that has ascended in modern evangelicalism, any individual is free to approach Christ outside and without the Church at all. It’s a misguided interpretation of the “priesthood of all believers,” taken to its furthest extreme: each believer individually is his own priest, and therefore needs no one else at all. And this gets into a whole ‘nother barrel of worms that I’ll have to deal with another time.

Suffice it to say that I am troubled. This will not stop the course I know I have been placed on; but I don’t want my parents to be offended or hurt. I don’t want them to feel excluded or rejected. But I’ve talked to my dad at length, and I don’t think there’s any getting past this; he’s unwilling to see the matter any other way.


Adoration of the Shepherds

Gerard van Honthorst. Anbetung der Hirten (Adoration of the Shepherds). Oil on canvas, 1622.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
—Isaiah 9:6 ESV

Merry Christmas!

It’s been a busy season, though thankfully not as frantic as it has been in recent years. We are mostly staying put for once. I am home with my family, and we are having most of the family Christmas gatherings at our house. Friday night we had the extended family Christmas party, which brought the most people this house has seen in twenty years. Last night, Christmas Eve, was a quiet evening with the immediate family. I attended a vigil Mass at the local parish. This morning I opened gifts with the immediate family (way too much stuff for my liking, but I can’t complain), and my aunt and uncle and cousins are coming over for Christmas dinner and festivities with my mother’s side of the family. Tomorrow we will travel to have Christmas with my father’s side of the family.

My family is apparently still uncomfortable buying Catholic gifts for me. My dad did, however, give me an ESV Bible with Apocrypha, which I discovered only a week or two ago. The English Standard Version is my favorite Bible translation; my good (Protestant) study bible is ESV. One of these days I’m going to write about Bible translations here. The ESV wasn’t originally translated with the Apocrypha (including the Catholic Deuterocanon), and its absence was one of the main things that gave me pause about keeping the ESV my primary translation. Now (well, 2009) Oxford University Press has organized and published an ESV translation of the Apocrypha, and my translation is complete.

Thrifting Harvest, Christmas Eve 2011

My Christmas Eve thrifting harvest (zoomable)!

I also had a glorious thrifting harvest yesterday! One of the local Catholic parishes, I’ve discovered, clears out their “dated” books fairly often and brings them to one particular store. And apparently there is a paucity of Catholic nerds who frequent that store: I always rack up. Among my acquisitions this time: a four-volume set of The Liturgy of the Mass by Fr. Pius Parsch, a leading figure of the Liturgical Movement; a cool illustrated catechism; a Challoner-Rheims New Testament; a pretty picture book about Fatima; a scholarly examination of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; a collection of St. Paulinus of Nola‘s poems; and books by St. Augustine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, Cardinal Newman, Fr. Merton, and more. Also, some pretty great Protestant books: a synopsis of the Gospels by Kurt Aland; a survey of Protestant thought and writings by Alister McGrath; and a defense of the Resurrection by Norman Geisler. Whew!

This parish, in my hometown, is only the second one I’ve been to as a nascent Catholic; I visited here once before a few months ago. I am not here to be critical, but I much prefer my spiritual home at school. The music here was a mess. But the Mass is still the Mass. The words of the liturgy are powerful, no matter who intones them; Christ visits us in the Eucharist, no matter what priest celebrates it and no matter where we ourselves may be visiting. This is one of the things I love about Catholicism most of all: it is not about the man at the front of the church; it’s about the Man at the Head of the Church. I go to Mass not to hear a likable preacher or enjoyable music; I go to partake in Holy Communion with Jesus Christ.

May you all have a blessed Christmas.

A Musical Journey

I’ve already written a little about my first flirtations with liturgy: how I began listening to Mozart’s Requiem as “mood music,” at a time when I was feeling morbidly depressed. I listened to it repeatedly, reflecting on failure and death and loss; recalling the sad end of Mozart’s life, and the idea that he was writing music for his own funeral — it seemed the most pained, desperate thing I could manifest. I had little concept of liturgy or what that even meant, only the sense that these words in Latin were somehow sacred and powerful. I downloaded their text; I memorized it. This fascination was one of the motives that brought me to study Latin.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran, but someone who knew how to worship God.

My next contact with liturgy was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, a recording of it that came highly recommended. Honestly, at the time, I’m not sure I could have even told you what a “Mass” was, other than “something Catholics did.” At the time, it was just beautiful music to me; or so I thought.

But then, some four or five years later, something remarkable happened. It was after I had graduated with my bachelor’s. I was teaching at a small, Christian school. Preparing for class was one of the most stressful things I’d ever done. Peace was more a premium than it ever had been before. I had discovered; I was listening, I think, to the J.S. Bach radio. And then, like a breath of fresh air, I heard this:

(The English translation on the first slide should read, “Hail, O sweetest Mary”)

Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.

Voices so worshipful, so longing, so mournful, so penitent — the music pierced right to my soul. The composer was Carlo Gesualdo, Italian nobleman, musician, composer — and murderer. As a young man, he had murdered his wife and her lover. Later in life, wracked with depression and guilt and fearful for the fate of his eternal soul, he wrote some of his most expressive music in penance. The story of the man, and especially his music, immediately captured my heart.

And listening to Gesualdo on led, soon, to Dufay, and Josquin, and Tallis, and Byrd, and others — my collection of early, sacred music quickly mushroomed in a matter of a few weeks. As did my obsession with it. Very soon, it was all I was listening to. It had burrowed into my soul — these sounds of so long ago, carrying such order and peace; this worship — for I understood immediately that it was worship, and worshiped God with it — so clean and bright and pure and heavenly. What affected me more than anything was the Mass settings. I felt the sense, very early, that the Mass was spiritual food.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, my current favorite composer (this frequently changes).

Prompted by the feelings of worship that the music stirred in me, I soon was devoting time every morning to daily Bible study, something I hadn’t done consistently for a very long time. I made my way through the whole New Testament in a matter of a month or two; there had been books, up until that time in my life, that I’d never read before. I played the music while I worshiped and prayed. I told myself that it “made me feel like a monk” — prayerful and contemplative and ascetic — this was a good thing. I felt I was drawing on some ancient, powerful store of spiritual power.

And I was. That store was liturgy. I was hearing the Mass every day. The music of the Mass was piercing my heart and drawing me to worship. The words of the Mass were pouring into my soul — even before I understood them or knew what was happening; though by this time my Latin was good enough that I understood them quickly. On a number of occasions I found the Roman Missal online, in Latin, and followed along. I began to practice the prayers of the Mass in my private spirituality. I had little inkling at this time that I was on the road to Catholicism; I had no intention, starting out, of ever attending an actual Mass. But the Holy Spirit was drawing me to the Church through the Mass, through liturgy.

Authority and the Magisterium

I just read a wonderful piece by Bryan Cross that Kristen shared from Called to Communion (a blog I have never read before, but which I think will now become a favorite), addressing the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium and its authority through all the ages of Christian history. It very much underscores everything I believe and why I’m so drawn to the Church, and aligns with some other trains of thought I’ve been following lately.

As I addressed a few weeks ago, one of my primary reasons for being drawn to the Catholic Church is the profound frustration, uncertainty, and confusion I’ve experienced all my life in trying to discern the correct doctrine of Christianity, the correct interpretation of Scripture, among so many competing views. The authority of the Catholic Magisterium alone has the power to definitively settle such doctrinal disputes, to dictate correct doctrine. Now, anybody can claim to have authority, but in order for that authority to have any force, it must be based on something. I am pursuing the Catholic Church not just because she claims to have authority, but because her authority was established by Christ himself.

Coming from a Pentecostal background, I have written about the disorder and confusion inherent in that tradition. The author of this piece, Bryan Cross, was also raised Pentecostal. He rejects the claim, by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, that early Christianity, from the day of Pentecost, was marked by “massive confusion.” I was particularly compelled by his assertion of the inherent order of Pentecost and the ministry of the Holy Spirit: to eliminate disorder and confusion, not to foster it.

Cross demonstrates convincingly the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium, and the fallacy of rejecting its authority while affirming the orthodoxy that it established. Without the authority of the Magisterium, we orthodox Christians today — including evangelical Protestants under that umbrella — would have no standing at all to insist that our Christological views are any more correct than those of the Arians or Monophysites or any of the other ancient heresies that have fallen by the wayside, having been rejected by the Church — or for that matter, than those of modern Christological heresies such as those of the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without an established, ultimate authority, to claim the definitive guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is only the relativistic claim that a few people agree with each other, against everyone else — and there is enough of that in the world already.