Eucharistic hospitality: are ALL really welcome?
Posted: Thu, 10 Jun 2021 00:27
In a longer read, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB reflects on the radical hospitality of Jesus, and challenges us to consider how far we are truly extending this to all of our brothers and sisters in the Eucharist today. (Photo: Thays Orrico on Unsplash)
You may know the Marty Haugen song where he talks of building an inclusive Church 'where love can dwell'—a safe place where we can listen to prophets and learn to forgive. The message he offers is straight from the Gospel and is crystal clear: 'all are welcome in this place!' Pope Francis constantly reminds us that the Eucharist is not some sort of merit badge for the worthy—thankfully, as a Church, we have moved from the Jansenists' idea that one could only receive communion if one had been to confession just before. I still remember long queues outside the confessional on a Saturday, as we made our weekly penance so that we were in a state of grace before Sunday Mass. In 'The Joy of the Gospel' the Holy Father makes it clear that all of us, no matter what our state, need the Eucharist—it is the food for our journey of life; he is uncompromising in his plea for an open, hospitable community of faith:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself "the door": baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 47
Pastors need to take these words to heart and not act as judge and jury as people approach the Sacraments; I remember well being told by fellow priests at a deanery meeting that I had 'lowered the bar'. My crime? I simply discovered that we had a cohort of children in the parish preparing for First Holy Communion whose fathers were spending time 'at her majesty's pleasure'—in prison. The only family visiting day was on a Sunday; the rule for admittance into the First Communion Programme was regular attendance at Sunday Mass—some parishes even opted to have something akin to a 'Costa Coffee' loyalty card that had to be signed by the priest every week. In discussion with the parish catechists, I realised that we could not put these children into such a position: by coming to Sunday Mass, they would be unable to have their weekly, and needed, encounter with their dads. We offered a mass on a Wednesday, straight after school finished, using the readings for the following Sunday. One would think it was a creative solution to a difficult pastoral problem; it was a genuine attempt to solve a pressing issue; however, some of my colleagues saw it as a way of making things too easy, as if our lived faith was something akin to an obstacle course, with hoops and hurdles to go through.
One wonders what sort of Church we really want. Do we fully share the urgent compassion of Pope Francis in his plea to the clergy of the world to 'smell like the sheep'?
Evangelisers thus take on the 'smell of the sheep' and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.
Evangelii Gaudium 24
We are invited to fully share the lives of those we minister to: one good thing about the global Covid-19 pandemic is that it forced so many of us to calm down and take life at a slower pace. Many of us involved in busy pastoral ministry were able to stop the plate-spinning as we tried to multitask, usually, in my case, very badly. I offer a few reflections, based on my own experience of time spent in lockdown, for all of us caught up in busy ministry—that ministry can be with your family, school, care home, hospital, SVP group of parish family. For me, I came to appreciate the wisdom of Fr Gerard, director of the St Luke's Institute in Manchester, who reminds us that 'none of us are the Messiah—we simply work for him':
- Check your pace of life. If your life is going at a crazy rate, slow down and match the pace of someone who travels life more slowly: while this person can act as a needed mentor and friend, you can come to appreciate life in the slow lane.
- Listen a little more deeply. One of the good things, for me, of having to mask-up during the pandemic was that it forced me to look into the EYES of others that I met. As we look into another's eyes, we can see more than just the words that they are trying to speak. It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul; take time to 'listen' fully, as sometimes we hear far more from what a person does not actually say.
- Surrender the need for perfection in order to focus on the people and values that really matter. The pandemic forced us to realise that we can change urgent deadlines—life can be lived for the good of others.
- Walk around your neighbourhood rather than drive. As a former parish priest of two adjoining inner-city parish families, I was grateful for the walk between churches, schools, and home visitations: I always met someone for a chat, and I loved 'school gate' ministry when you could meet parents and families as children were dropped off for the school day. I often felt I did my best pastoral work over the frozen peas in Aldi rather than in the comfort of the presbytery or parish office. It is in these informal and chance meetings, that we meet the community where they happen to be, living a reality from which we must not isolate ourselves.
- • As you make important decisions in life, review them in terms of the possible impact on your relationships and your community, rather than financial gain and professional status. Pope Francis constantly reminds his clergy that they must not fall into the trap of 'clericalism', thinking that their Roman collar or title allows them to feel superior or more important:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
Pope Francis' Address to the Synod Fathers at Opening of Synod 2018 on Young People
We all like to be respected and to share the love of others, but when this becomes a perversion of power, then all will suffer. However, this sin is not reserved only to clergy, as we are all too well aware of those in our families, schools and parishes who share that narcissism and feel that they, too, do not need to listen or learn.
- Expand your circle of 'advisors'. As an educationalist, I have been delighted to see the rise of school councils and using students on interview panels for key roles in schools such as year heads, chaplains, pastoral leaders and, most importantly, headteachers. We need advice from all those who serve our community, but there is a danger that we only consult the 'experts'. I strongly advise that you search out the opinion of the youngest or the 'least' in your midst. I have concluded, after over forty years of pastoral ministry, that children and the so-called 'least' need to be on our parish councils and play an active part in upcoming synods: they have something very valuable to share with us.
- Be aware of the gift of PRESENCE—Don Bosco reminded the Church of the importance of just being available. As a student in Salesian schools, I was always struck by the way that the members of the local SDB community were always available in our free time. They offered a friendly, non-threatening presence in the yard or in lunchtime clubs. I have learnt that these playground conversations, about seemingly unimportant things, can lead to something more profound. By just being around and available, you can be there when more serious issues need to be explored—people, of whatever age, need to feel that they can trust you in ministry.
- Review the way you communicate. I have heard far too many tales of people being destroyed by being spoken down to—they are not 'snowflakes', as users of a certain brand of modern slang label those they deem unable to face any criticism. We all have feelings, some are more sensitive than others, but we do not have the right to hurt anyone verbally, in writing, or in our body language
Covid-19, with all its restrictions, forced so many of us to put the pause button on busy lives and we were reminded constantly that in the rush to return to 'normal', we had to ask: what do we actually want? What is NORMAL? While each of us will have our own definition, it is the normality of life that we are called to share in the invitation of Jesus to 'go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News to all creation' (Mk 16:15). It is invitation to ministry and hospitality in the style of Jesus; this is why I love to reflect on our communion of saints; the Church is rich in heroes who lived the Beatitudes that we associate with the Evangelical Discourse of Jesus (Matt 5:1-12). You will all have your own favourite saint—officially canonised or not; probably, like me, you will pray with people who have impacted your own lives— in my case, that includes Frances and Eddie, my parents.
I love the work of the children's writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and especially his Carnegie Medal winning, 'Millions' (Pan Macmillan 2004). It is the tale of a botched train robbery and greed, but in the middle of it all is the hero, Damian, desperately wanting to make his world a kinder place, and desperately looking for his deceased mum, Maureen. In the course of the book, Damian has encounters with saints as diverse as Peter, Clare of Assisi, and the Ugandan Martyrs, as he looks for 'St Maureen', who eventually does appear to tell him that she is safe and happy; she urges him to do his very best. The book was turned into a highly recommended film by Danny Boyle, who later worked with Boyce on the fabulous opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Damian discovers that the way to true happiness lies in thinking of others, and the tale ends with his family providing a clean water supply for a remote African village. The movie shows the sheer delight of Damian and the villagers who are enjoying pure, clean water for the first time, as 'Nirvana' is sung by the Children's Choir of Elbosco, a Spanish boys' choir that sings in the style of British choir, 'Libera'. In 'Millions', it is Damian, a child, who understands the radical depth of the hospitality and care offered by Jesus—a care that will make demands, and our communion of saints points to a greater reality than self-interest.
We need to be grateful for the witness of people like Blessed Sára Salkaházi, a Hungarian national born in Kosice in modern day Slovakia. By her own admission, she was a tomboy who loved to smoke and play rough games. Given the geo-politics of her region, she grew up in a cosmopolitan environment with Hungarians, Slovaks, Yiddish-speaking Jews, and Germans as close neighbours. She was a woman whose experience of the horrendous First World War led her to embrace radical politics; although a teacher by training, she moved to journalism and saw publication media as a means of getting her message across. The treaty of Trianon in 1920 officially ended the hostilities of the Great War and led to the creation of a new Czechoslovak state; Sára's strong political stance would not allow her to swear an oath of allegiance to the state, as government workers, such as teachers, were expected to do.
This chain-smoking political firebrand was attracted to religious life and joined the Community of the 'Sisters of Social Service', founded in 1923 by the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian Parliament, Margit Slachta. In this congregation, dedicated to helping marginalised women, Sára found her true home and happiness. Even though this was a very modern order of nuns with far-reaching goals and ideals, she had to work very hard to be accepted; she conceded that having to give up smoking was harder than keeping to her vows when she was eventually professed in 1930! She missed out on a missionary experience to Brazil as the Second World War began in 1939 and she could not travel. True to her congregation's prophetic roots, Sára became the director of the 'Hungarian Working Women's Movement'—an organisation dedicated to direct social care among the poorest of the poor. It became obvious that the War was impacting greatly on the lives of Jewish women in the Slovak Republic, a Nazi client-state. In its leader, the anti-Semitic Josef Tiso, Hitler found a natural ally—the fact that Tiso was an ordained Roman Catholic priest was obviously not an issue. This overtly political stance might seem alien to many of us today, but he was an active member of the 'Slovak People's Party' founded by another Catholic priest, Andrej Hlinka. Under his totalitarian regime, Tiso oversaw the deportation of Jews who were sent to the death camps. It took another Roman Catholic, Sr Sára, to stand up to this brute who shared her faith: on a regular basis, she was able to smuggle Jewish women, dressed as nuns, out of Slovakia and into the relative security of Hungary. She personally saved one hundred Jews from the gas chambers, while the Sisters of Social Service were responsible for liberating another nine hundred. To this day they are rightly honoured at the Israeli Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem, along with so many other 'righteous men and women' who were prepared to stand up and be counted. Like the Good Samaritan, Sára made a conscious decision not to stand on the side-lines in this conflict: the radical hospitality of Jesus made a deep demand on her—she made a pledge to God that she would offer herself to the Gestapo in order to protect her Sisters. That demand was realised when she was arrested by the pro-Nazi 'Arrow Cross Party' after being betrayed by a worker in the Budapest House of the Sisters of Social Service. Along with four Jewish women, she was taken to the banks of the Danube and shot; their bodies were thrown into the river by these fanatical thugs, and have never been recovered.
In the fractured political world that we see with Brexit and the seeming breakdown of democracy in 'the land of the free and the home of the brave', Sr Sára stands as a voice of moderation and needed unity. During the mass for her beatification in St Stephen's Basilica, Rabbi Jozcef Schwitzer could say of her:
I know from personal experience … how dangerous and heroic it was in those times to help Jews and safe them from death. Originating in her faith, she kept the commandment of love until death.
Sára Salkaházi stands as the needed antidote to a Catholic like Fr Joseph Tiso: racism has NO place in the Catholic community, as it is the very antithesis of the radical hospitality offered by Jesus. His table-fellowship was inclusive—there were no black-suited bouncers at the 'Feeding of the 5000' or the home of Simon the Leper, with clipboards proclaiming, 'if your name's not on the list, you can't come in!' Attempts to use the gift of the Eucharist, as some sort of political bargaining tool should be condemned, as we need to learn more empathy. For me, the beauty of the Roman Catholic Church is its very 'catholicity': it is universal, and it tolerates so many shades of opinion—conservative or liberal. Pope Francis, through Cardinal Ladaria, Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, urged the US Conference of Bishops to slow down their rush to adopt a document about pro-choice politicians being barred from sharing the Eucharist: he wants them to dialogue with each other and consult other Episcopal Conferences. This is not done to undermine the Church's strong stance on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death—it is an attempt by the Vatican to keep the Church out of divisive political conflict, which the 2020 Presidential election only helped to magnify. When the Irish referendum of 2018 repealed the constitutional ban on abortion, it was rightly seen as a blow to Catholic Ireland—lovingly referred to as 'semper fidelis: always faithful' by St john Paul II at the end of his historic visit (Shannon Airport 1/10/1979). However, while some Bishops might have thought it, the Conference of Irish Bishops have not enacted any sort of ban against politicians who lobbied in favour of over-turning the Constitution. In the same way, no such ban was demanded by the Episcopal Conferences of Scotland and England & Wales when same sex marriage legislation was passed by the British Parliament in 2013. Indeed the Mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli received the Eucharist from St John Paul II in 2001 after his political party campaigned for a more liberal abortion law in Italy, while leading pro-choice US politicians, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, received communion at the papal Masses during the 2008 visit of Benedict XVI to the United States.
Sr Sára saw a need to help Jewish women oppressed by a totalitarian regime that wanted to murder them—she did not have the time to stop and discuss the theological issues at hand. She saw a wrong and she responded to it quickly. She would, I feel concur with the great mystic, Thomas Merton when he identified the real 'job' of a Christian:
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.
Letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in Catholic Voices in a World on Fire (2005) by Stephen Hand, p 180
In reality, none of us are 'worthy' enough to receive the divine and sacred presence of Jesus within us: this is the beauty of the God we worship; we are accepted with all our frailties and problems.
I see now why Don Bosco encouraged regular and frequent communion; now I see the beauty of the simple visit to the Blessed Sacrament at lunchtime; I see the power of this needed sacrament in our lives—essential food for the journey of life. As our bishops rightly offer support, advice, and a solid theological grounding, it is hoped that they might listen to the theologian Ann Rowlands of Durham University when she warns:
Communion becomes a reward for individual virtue, but virtue narrowed without attention to moral complexity.
Interview with NCR 24/05/2021
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB