Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Good Is Mercy If Nobody Needs It?

The Publican and the Pharisee--He Who Humbles Himself Will Be Exalted
And He Who Exalts Himself Will Be Humbled
Although I had what I'd consider a fairly good upbringing in the Catholic Faith, as I got older I recognized one glaring and substantial hole in my formation.  The recent debates about the possibility of admitting to Holy Communion those who have divorced and entered into a second union have once again reminded me of this almost entirely missing 

plank in my religious upbringing.  

While growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, I attended Mass every Sunday and frequently served daily Mass as an altar boy.  The Sacrament of Confession happened a few times a year, probably.  It mostly happened when, before Christmas and Easter, the nuns lined us up and the whole class would go to confession.  The other time when confession occurred is when some sin was particularly weighing on the conscience of this 10 year old.  Sin was bad.  I understood that.  But, what I had no grasp of was that there was some connection between sin and the reception of Holy Communion.  This was reinforced by the fact that I lived during the experimentation period when we received our First Holy Communion in Second Grade and didn't make our First Confession until Fourth Grade.  This reinforced a notion that the two sacraments had little to do with one another.

For a good part of my youth, the thought of attending Mass and not receiving Holy Communion never would have occurred to me.  If you went to Mass, you received Communion.  Going to Mass was ultimately about getting Communion.  If the obligation was to go to Mass on Sunday, an essential component of that would be to receive the Eucharist.  If someone had ever suggested that there may be times when one would attend Mass but not receive the Eucharist, I would have been genuinely perplexed.  Attending Mass without receiving the Eucharist would have been like attending Mass and omitting the Gospel or the Consecration.  

I have often heard it said that a person who goes to Mass and doesn't receive Holy Communion would be made to feel self-conscious.  He'd feel as though everyone were staring at him and judging him.  (I think this in part could be solved practically by not making communion time a "row by row" event whereby the entire church is dependent upon you getting up from your pew and filing towards the Eucharist in an orderly fashion.)  But, I would like to propose a different perspective on what someone might think when seeing a person not approach for Holy Communion.  

Fairly often when I offer Mass at Boston University, I notice students who either do not approach for Holy Communion or who approach with arms crossed and request a blessing.  (I know there are those who question whether people should approach for a blessing at this moment in the Mass, but I think this is a minor issue).  When I see these young people attend Mass but--for whatever reason--opt not to receive the Eucharist on a particular day, I am moved by their Faith.  I suppose I am judging them. But it is a positive judgment.  What I see is a beautiful act of Faith in the Eucharist.  It says to me that this person loves the Eucharist so much that they only want to receive it after serious discernment.    I have no idea what is at the basis of their discernment.  Perhaps it is a sin or perhaps they have not observed the Eucharistic Fast.  I don't spend anytime thinking about what the reason is.  All I think about is how beautiful it is that this person believes in and loves the Eucharist.  

When I see brothers and sisters in the Faith who sometimes abstain from the Eucharist, it only serves to remind me again of the awesomeness of the Mysteries which I handle.  It provokes in me a reminder that I too must always deepen my own discernment in approaching the Sacred Mysteries.  The young person who on their way into Mass asks, "Father, do you have time for a quick confession?" is a witness to the Eucharist.  I am impressed that so many of the students who attend Mass at Boston University received such solid Eucharistic formation in their youth.  Their witness is inspiring.

The presumption is often made that when others see a person not approach for Holy Communion, they are judging that person.  I think it is just the opposite.  When I see a person refrain from the Eucharist, it awakens in me a more serious examination of my own soul.  It is not them that I am judging, but myself.  It is a reminder to me to take my own approach to the Eucharist more seriously and to remember more clearly who it is that I am receiving in Holy Communion.  

Years ago a friend of mine who grew up with me came for Sunday Mass at the seminary.  During the Lamb of God, he turned to me and whispered, "Dave, is it okay if I don't go to Communion?"  (I think he was nervous that my friend not going to Communion was somehow going to embarrass me).  I was profoundly moved by his Eucharistic Faith.  At the time, he probably was embarrassed about asking me that question, but for me it was a beautiful witness to the truth of the Eucharist.

Sometimes people feel pressured into receiving the Eucharist because they don't want to be the only person in the church who doesn't receive.  I just want to encourage people in that position by telling them that sometimes your witness of not receiving is a powerful reminder to others not to feel entitled to the Eucharist and not to approach the Eucharist without making a serious discernment.  While frequent--even daily communion--is an awesome gift, we all could use a reminder now and again that it is a gift that must be approached with reverence and awe.  

One of the beautiful things about Catholic life is that there is a calm and realistic approach to life.  It does not shock us that we are a bunch of sinners in need of mercy.  The other day one of the students at Boston University and I had lunch together and afterwards I popped into a local chapel and went to confession while he prayed in the church.  Sometimes while going to confession at a local shrine, I bump into lay men and women whom I know.  There we are--all sinners in need of God's mercy.  No shock there.  It is beautiful to see parents who come to confession along with their children.  This teaches their children that their parent's too are sinners in need of mercy and that mercy is found in the confessional.  This acknowledgment of our own need for mercy and our confidence in God's grace is of mutual encouragement.  

When I see someone go to confession or opt to refrain from the Eucharist, I see them humbly acknowledging before God that they are a sinner in need of God's mercy.  They are like the publican who bows his head and says, "Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner."  Their witness reminds me of my own need for God's mercy and encourages me to imitate them rather than to be like the Pharisee who stood before God and praised himself and who either pretended or really thought that he had no need of God's mercy.  Their humility makes me love and trust God's mercy more.  When we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of God's mercy, we help one another grow closer to God.  When we believe or pretend that we are not sinners in need of God's mercy, we help one another to deceive ourselves.

The only way that I can truly appreciate and accept God's mercy is if I acknowledge that I am a man in need of that mercy.  We only value God's mercy when we understand that we need it.  What good would mercy be if nobody needed it?  When I see my brothers and sisters in the Faith humbly acknowledge their need for mercy, it encourages me to do the same.  So, to all of you publicans out there, keep up the good work.


  1. Great post!

    It occurs to me that for many of us nowadays, the priorities are reversed: receiving Holy Communion is seen as more important than offering the Sacrifice of the Mass in union with the Church.

  2. Thanks Father. You've opened my eyes, a bit. My husband is one of the "C" and "E" Catholics. He doesn't believe, anymore. Christmas and Easter, when he does attend, he doesn't go to Communion. He often is the only person who doesn't. He said he doesn't believe what we believe, so he's not in communion with us, so he doesn't receive. But after reading your post, I look at his actions differently. Unknowingly, he's actually giving witness to the True Presence.