Yesterday, we published an essay titled A Gathering of Different Lights by Mary Lane Potter about the importance of making room in our religious practices for others to be fully present and welcomed. Today and tomorrow, two writers will respond to that essay on Bearings Online. Below is the first response by Collegeville Institute board member and former Resident Scholar Mary Farrell Bednarowski.
When I read Mary Lane Potter’s gracious essay about receiving as a gift rather than a crumb the blessing offered at Mass as an alternative to the Eucharist, I was moved at first by a strong desire to make an argument for open communion in the Catholic Church. But “argument” does not seem like a very irenic response to the spirit of Mary’s essay. Telling stories seems like a better idea.
I have sat in anxiety through many, many Masses, weddings, and funerals, waiting to see what kind of invitation would be extended or withheld or qualified at communion time. Mary’s powerfully conveyed sense of her own identity as a Jew, her deep understanding of Christian traditions and histories, and her compassion for the internal integrity of this particular setting compelled me to recognize that I’d been projecting onto another person, this much-loved friend, the feelings I thought she would have had at what feels to me like exclusion.
At the wedding of my niece to her Southern Baptist husband, I cringed when the priest said bluntly, and, to my heart, inhospitably, “Only Catholics can receive communion.” I winced with sorrow at the more nuanced words I heard at another wedding: “It gives me great pain to invite only Catholics to receive communion, but if you want a blessing, come forward and place your hand over your heart.” If I were Mary, I might have thought, “You can keep your blessing!” At yet another wedding, the priest said nothing at all, and people in the pews around me asked, “Is it all right if we take communion? Can we? Should we? Are we supposed to?”
As one Catholic laywoman, with only the authority of my baptism and a conscience formed through my own particular history, I find myself incapable of saying, “No, there’s a rule about that.” I can only say, if asked, “Of course, if you want to, you are welcome to receive communion.” Let me add that I have endless compassion for those who have the burden of navigating these theologically and communally stormy seas in an official capacity. I extend the invitation not as an act of rebellion or defiance. Given the way my own faith and my devotion to the Eucharist have evolved over the many years of my life, truly, I can do no other.
I offer these thoughts and feelings as a woman of a transitional generation: “a Christian with a Catholic center of gravity,” as theologian David Tracy describes himself. The experiences I bring to a discussion of sacred things have their beginnings in the early religious formation particular to a generation born almost twenty years before the beginning of Vatican II. I encountered what one of my Protestant colleagues called “the metaphysically difficult Jesus” at seven, what we called in those years “the age of reason.” The struggle to accept what I knew at some level could not possibly be true in a literal sense shaped me profoundly, I suspect, because I had to work so hard to understand how it might be true in other ways that I could grasp. In some mysterious way it instilled in me a sense of sacred presence in the world that has never left me.
Further, there was a countervailing influence in my life to what would otherwise have been a closed system. My parents’ long-ago marriage brought together two families, Roman Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran, who chose to love and respect each other and to interpret each other to their own communities. “My Catholic brother-in-law says he accepts Jesus as his savior and that’s good enough for me,” my Lutheran uncle told his pastor. I don’t know where those theologically and politically conservative families, those very unlikely rebels, found the courage to participate in each other’s religious services against the dictates of both traditions. They must have known in some deep sense what ultimately mattered. In my young world, “the other” was family.
It has fostered in me a confidence that we do not have to be so fearful that what we love most deeply in our traditions—the Eucharist, for example—will be diminished by sharing it fully with those who desire it.
I identify with Sarah Schulman’s description of the novelist and poet Fanny Howe: that “she likes Catholicism for its contradictions.” And I can find no better evocation of the ways I experienced my early life than the words of Lisa Sowle Cahill: “at once parochial, romantic, prayerful, stifling, uplifting, fear-inducing, identity-forming, spiritual, hopeful, and sexist.” The stuff of contradiction, of course, but also for many of us what turned out to be the raw material for a life of studying and teaching religion and theology. And it has fostered in me a confidence that we do not have to be so fearful that what we love most deeply in our traditions—the Eucharist, for example—will be diminished by sharing it fully with those who desire it.
In the nearly thirty years I spent teaching courses on religion in American culture in a progressive Protestant theological seminary, I participated in hundreds of communion services of different denominations, preaching at some of them. Like Mary Potter, I felt more fellow traveler than stranger. The light of divine presence, diffused and refracted in beautifully different ways, shone on me, too.
When our son was getting ready to receive his First Communion, parents were expected to participate in their children’s preparation—to instruct them at home. “What do they have to know to be ready?” asked one parent with what sounded to me like apprehension. I think we were all expecting to hear what we ourselves had been taught: the church’s doctrine of Real Presence and the mysteries of transubstantiation. “They have to know that the bread and wine are special, and they have to want to receive them,” said our loving and learned pastor. I still get a lump in my throat when I remember the powerful simplicity of that statement.
“Special” does not sound like a very sophisticated theological category, but for a person of my age it encompasses a lifetime of communions and community, of questioning and critique and re-commitment. It is powerful in its simplicity. Oliver Holmes, Jr., once said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” For me this simplicity lies in saying of my own tradition, “These are my people. This is the community within which I choose to struggle with the mysteries of how divine presence is made manifest in the world.” It is, of course, a very complicated simplicity, but, really, who would want any other kind?