The other day, I listened to two Lutheran women talking about a Catholic wedding one woman went to. When it came time for communion, she wasn’t sure if she should go up. She saw other non-Catholics go, so she did, too. She took the wafer and dipped it in the chalice, as is the custom at her church. When she got back to her pew, a young man reprimanded her for how she took communion. “Are you even Catholic?” he asked.
She was taken aback and explained that she, too, is a child of God who believes in the practice of holy communion. He apologized, but clearly the moment left her confused and a bit hurt. Catholics do have a lot of rules around communion, including what the chalice should be made of and who can receive it. At times, we get so wrapped up in the rules that we forget the spirit of Jesus offering his body and blood to us. Christians have struggled with this tension between rules and grace since the beginning of the church. Take, for example, the Corinthians Paul writes to:
Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! –1 Corinthians:19-22
Paul reminds them that church is supposed to be different than home. It is supposed to be a sacred place where people are radically equal. The church meal is trying transcend and be different than meals society. The Corinthians, so soon after Jesus’ death, have forgotten and slipped back into their old ways.
Thousands of years later, at the Catholic wedding, this women did not feel love and inclusion during communion. She did not feel welcome, and was scolded for not following the human made rules of how to eat the meal. She was so hurt, in fact, that she made a disparaging comment about all Catholics in general.
The woman listening jumped in right away. “But have you read about the Pope’s last statement? I get so excited for what this Pope’s love means for the whole world, Catholic or otherwise. He touches people and says that the church is for all people, all sinners.”
Pope Francis’ statement on marriage and family life does make a clear turn in tone. He urges priests to be more compassionate and empathetic, building a more compassionate and empathetic church that meets people where they are at. For example, he asks priests to take a kinder approach to folks who have gone through divorce:
It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.
Like Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, Pope Francis is calling us back to a church where Jesus’ broken body is at the center of things. Where, in the midst of rules, love abides.