RonRolheiser,OMI

What Makes for Christian Communion?

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The question of intercommunion within our churches today is a big one, an important one, and a painful one. I’m old enough to remember another time, actually to remember two other times.

First, as a young boy growing up in the pre-Vatican II Church, intercommunion with other Christians, Non-Romans, was a taboo. It just didn’t happen. An individual maverick may have ventured it, but he or she would have been called out for doing it, were it known. Then things changed. In the early years of my ministry, I worked in dioceses where intercommunion, at least for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and inter-church gatherings, was common, even encouraged. As a priest presiding at a Eucharist at these gatherings, I was allowed to positively invite non Roman Catholics to receive the Eucharist, as their own faith and sensitivities allowed.

Those times came to an end.  Within the space of ten years, by the mid-1990s, those of us who presided at a Roman Catholic Eucharist were asked to positively disinvite non-Roman Catholics from receiving the Eucharist, irrespective of occasion. The rational given was that the Eucharist is the most intimate act that we, as Christians, can share with each other and that intimate sharing, analogous to the intimacy within a marriage, to be honest and meaningful, demands that we be in communion with each other and given our differences in doctrine, ecclesiology, and some issues of morality, we simply are not in sufficient communion. Further still, this argument suggests that accepting the pain of not being able to receive communion in each other’s churches should be the kick in the pants we need to stir us to make greater efforts to come together around dogma, church, and morality.

What’s to be said for this? First, it’s’ true and has its merits, save for the one, salient, idea that needs to be lifted out from this apologia and scrutinized more closely, namely, the notion that we are not in sufficient communion with each other to share the Eucharist because of our differences in dogma, ecclesiology, and some moral issues.

What does it mean to be in communion with each other, in faith, as Christians, at least in sufficient communion to receive the Eucharist from each other’s tables? What constitutes genuine intimacy in faith?

Theologically, it’s clear; baptism puts us into the family of faith. All Christians hold this and so too do the Gospels. St. Paul, admittedly, adds a qualification regarding receiving communion. However, beyond the theological issue involved there’s also an ecclesial one, namely, while we all share one Christian community through baptism, we do however belong to different faith families and families tend to eat in their own houses. True again. But then this question arises: When does eating in another family’s house make sense and when does it not?

The deeper question which needs to be asked regarding what constitutes intimacy inside the faith and what constitutes the kind of intimacy that justifies receiving the Eucharist together is not, first of all, one of doctrine or church affiliation but of oneness inside the Holy Spirit. What makes for oneness among us as Christians? When are we one family in faith?

Perhaps no text is clearer than St. Paul in the 5th Chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. He begins by telling us what does not constitute oneness inside the Holy Spirit. We’re not living inside the Holy Spirit or in communion with each other, he submits, if we’re living in strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factionalism, envy, idolatry, sorcery, or adultery. These are infallible signs that we’re not in communion with each other. We are however in genuine communion, in intimacy in faith, in one family, when we’re living in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. Living inside of these is what makes for Christian communion, oneness, for intimacy with each other. Differences on select issues of dogma, church, and morals are, in fact, secondary. More important is whether our heart is full of charity or anger, goodness or factionalism, peace or strife, impatience or chastity. We are more in communion, in a communion of faith, with someone of another ecclesial denomination whose heart is fueled by charity, patience, and goodness than with someone of our own church whose heart is angry, envious, and judgmental.  Ecclesial difference isn’t the real criterion.

What constitutes the kind of intimacy that justifies intercommunion? I’m not a bishop and so the pastoral decision on that question is not mine to make. As a loyal son of the church, I need to trust that the Holy Spirit will work through the persons and offices entrusted to make that decision. As a theologian, however, I’ve also a task. My job is to look at issues like this and bring various theological and biblical perspectives to bear on them, accepting that the pastoral decision won’t be mine.

So I offer this perspective to those entrusted with making the pastoral decisions about what justifies and what does not justify intercommunion.

Rachel Held Evans, 1981-2019

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No community should botch its deaths. Mircea Eliade wrote those words and they’re a warning: If we do not properly celebrate the life of someone who has left us we do an injustice to that person and cheat ourselves of some of the gift that he or she left behind.

With this in mind, I want to underscore the loss that we, the Christian community, irrespective of denomination, suffered with the death of Rachel Held Evans who died, at age 37, on May the 4th.

Who was Rachel Held Evans? She defies simple definition, beyond saying that she was a young religious writer who wrote with a depth and balance beyond her years as she chronicled her struggles to move from the deep, sincere, childlike faith she was raised in to eventually arrive at a questioning, but more mature, faith that was now willing to face all the hard questions within faith, religion, and church. And in this journey, she was beset with opposition from within (it’s hard to courageously scrutinize your own roots) and from without (churches generally don’t like being pressed by hard questions, especially from their own young). But the journey she made and articulates (with rare honesty and wit) is a journey that, in some way, all of us, young and old, have to make to come to a faith that can stand up to the hard questions coming from our world and the even harder ones coming from inside of us.

Carl Rogers once famously said: “What is most personal is also most universal.” The journey Rachel Held Evans traces out from her own life is, I submit, by and large, the universal one today, that is, the naïve faith of our childhood inevitably meets challenges, questions, and ridicule in adulthood and that demands of us a response beyond the Sunday School and catechism of our youth. Not least among these questions and challenges is the one of church, of justifying belonging to one, given the propensity within our churches for infidelity, narrowness, judgmental attitudes, reluctance to face doubt, and the perennial temptation to wed the Gospels to their favored political ideology. 

Rachel Held Evans struggled to make the journey from the naiveté of childhood, with all its innocence and magic, where one can believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny and take biblical stories literally, to what Paul Ricouer calls “second naiveté”, where, through a painful interplay between doubt and faith, one has been able to work through the conscriptive sophistication that comes with adulthood so as to reground the innocence and magic (and faith) of childhood on a foundation that has already taken seriously the doubt and disillusionment that beset us in the face of adulthood.

The Irish philosopher, John Moriarty, whose religious story plays out along similar lines as Rachel’s, coins an interesting expression to describe what happened to him. At one point in his religious journey, he tells us, “I fell out of my story”. The Roman Catholicism he had been raised into was no longer the story out of which he could live his life. Eventually, after sorting through some hard questions and realizing that the faith of his youth was, in the end, his “mother tongue”, he found his way back into his religious story.

Rachel Held Evans’ story is similar. Raised in the Southern USA Bible Belt inside a robust Evangelical Christianity she too, as she faced the questions of her own adulthood, fell out of her story and, like Moriarty, eventually found her way back into it, at least in essence.

In the end, she found her way back to a mature faith (which now can handle doubt), found a church (Episcopalian) within which she could worship, and, in effect, found her way back to her mother tongue. The church and faith of her youth, she writes, remain in her life like an old boyfriend. … Where, while not together anymore in the old way, you still end up checking Facebook each day to see what’s happening in his life.     

Many Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, I suspect, may not be very familiar with Rachel Held Evans or have read her works. She wrote four best-selling books, Inspired, Searching for Sunday, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Faith Unraveled. The purpose of this column is therefore pretty straightforward: Read her!  Even more important, plant her books in the path of anyone struggling with faith or church:loved ones, children, spouses, family members, friends, colleagues.

Rachel Held Evans arose out of an Evangelical ecclesial tradition and out of the particular approach to Christian discipleship that generally flows from there. She and I come from very different ecclesial worlds. But, as Roman Catholic priest, solidly committed to the tradition I was raised in, and as a theologian and spiritual writer for more than 40 years, reading this young woman, I haven’t found a single line with which to disagree. She’s trusted food for the soul. She’s also a special person that we lost far too soon.

Faith, Fear and Death

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A common soldier dies without fear; Jesus died afraid. Iris Murdoch wrote those words which, I believe, help expose an over-simplistic notion we have of how faith reacts in the face of death.

There’s a popular notion that believes that if we have strong faith we should not suffer any undue fear in the face of death, but rather face it with calm, peace, and even gratitude because we have nothing to fear from God or the afterlife.  Christ has overcome death. Death sends us to heaven. So why be afraid?

This is, in fact, the case for many women and men, some with faith and some without it. Many people face death with very little fear. The biographies of the saints give ample testimony to this and many of us have stood at the deathbed of people who will never be canonized but who faced their death calm and unafraid.

So why was Jesus afraid? And it appears he was. Three of the Gospels describe Jesus as far from calm and peaceful, as sweating blood, during the hours leading up to this death. Mark’s Gospel describes him as particularly distressed as he is dying: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! What’s to be said about this?

Michael Buckley, the California Jesuit, once gave a famous homily within which he set up a contrast between the way Socrates faced his death and the way Jesus faced his. Buckley’s conclusion can leave us perplexed. Socrates seems to face death more courageously than Jesus does.

For example, like Jesus, Socrates was also unjustly condemned to death. But he faced his death with calm, completely unafraid, convinced that the just man has nothing to fear either from human judgment or from death. He discoursed very calmly with his disciples, assured them that he wasn’t afraid, imparted his blessing, drank the poison, and died.

And Jesus, how much to the contrary: In the hours leading up to his death he felt deeply the betrayal of his disciples, sweated blood in agony, and just minutes before dying cried out in anguish as he felt himself abandoned.  We know, of course, that his cry of abandonment wasn’t his final moment. After that moment of anguish and fear, he was able to hand his spirit over to his Father. In the end, there was calm; but, in the moments before, there was a time of awful anguish within which he felt himself abandoned by God.

If one does not consider the inner complexities of faith, the paradoxes it contains, it makes no sense that Jesus, sinless and faithful, should sweat blood and cry out in inner anguish as he faced his death. But real faith isn’t always what it looks like from the outside. Many persons, and often times particularly those who are the most faithful, have to undergo a trial that the mystics call a dark night of the soul.

What’s a dark night of soul? It’s a God-given trial in life wherein we, much to our own surprise and anguish, can no longer imagine God’s existence or feel God in any affective way in our lives. In terms of inner feeling, this is felt as doubt, as atheism. Try as we might, we can no longer imagine that God exists, much less that God loves us. However, as the mystics point out and as Jesus’ himself gives witness to, this isn’t a loss of faith but actually a deeper modality of faith itself.

Up to this point in our faith, we have been relating to God mainly through images and feelings. But our images and feelings about God are not God. So, at some point, for some people, though not for everybody, God takes away the images and the feelings and leaves us conceptually empty and affectively dry, stripped of all the images we have created about God. While in reality this is actually an overpowering light, it is felt as darkness, anguish, fear, and doubt.

And so we might expect that our journey towards death and our face-to-face encounter with God might also involve the breaking down of many of the ways we have always thought about and felt about God. And that will bring doubt, darkness, and fear in our lives.

Henri Nouwen gives a powerful testimony to this in speaking about his mother’s death. His mother had been a woman of deep faith and had each day prayed to Jesus: Let me live like you, and let me die like you. Knowing his mother’s radical faith, Nouwen expected that the scene around her deathbed would be serene and a paradigm of how faith meets death without fear. But his mother suffered deep anguish and fear before she died and that left Nouwen perplexed, until he came to see that his mother’s lifelong prayer had indeed been answered. She had prayed to die like Jesus – and she did.

A common soldier dies without fear; Jesus died afraid. And so, paradoxically, do many women and men of faith.