Holy Communion at St. Thomas was always an unholy mess, and I loved it.
Back then, it was a hodgepodge parish comprising every conceivable socioeconomic sector of Chicago. There was Mass in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) every weekend, plus an Eritrean priest would come by once a month to celebrate a Ge’ez liturgy for the Ethiopians. Sunday mornings were always chaotic, with kids in the aisles and people milling around here and there, the Korean grandmothers telling their beads all through Mass, and men occasionally ducking out for a smoke. It was like a big messy family reunion.
Then came Holy Communion. Unlike most American parishes, St. Thomas of Canterbury didn’t dismiss for Communion by rows. We had ushers, to be sure, but their main role was to take up and safeguard the collection, and then to intervene in case an inebriated or otherwise unruly worshiper got out of hand.
Instead of a nice, tidy, orderly march forward, the distribution of Communion at St. Thomas was more like a crush of surging humanity – like what you see on CNN after a natural disaster, and folks are crowding around those trucks handing out aid. The crowd is scared, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they’re not going to wait in a queue.
I get that. I’d be the same way.
There’s something seriously wrong with how we’ve applied principles of efficiency and uniformity to the Mass, especially when it comes to Communion. What is Holy Communion after all? Matthew Lickona plays it straight: “I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.” Seriously, the Church is handing out God to anybody who shows up – for free! But we sit there, ho-hum, like we’re waiting for our number to be called at the BMV. “Free God, here!” we should be shouting from the street corners. “Come and get your free God!” If we did that, and folks could recognize their hunger for God, and they believed us, wouldn’t they come crowding the aisles to get some? And would we blame them?
That being the case, what’s our problem? Sedately we sit there in our pews until the ushers allow us to get in line – no cutting! Considering what’s up at the front of church, you’d think it would be more like midnight before Black Friday at Walmart – some urgency, possibly some anxiety that the priest might run out.
On the other hand, if we do happen to dillydally – maybe pause to pray a bit more than we should – what then? Nudges, nods, and then clumsy encounters as our neighbors dutifully follow the ushers’ directives, clambering over us non-conformists and troublemakers.
I can think of at least three reasons why the messiness of my old parish in Uptown was preferable to the standard orderly Communion seen in most churches today, and I discovered that the first two had already been adeptly delineated by one Rev. Paul F. Bosch, a retired Lutheran pastor and liturgy professor from Canada.
To begin with, dismissal for Communion by rows is a distraction – as Bosch writes:
It can shatter your revery. It can intrude on your meditation. Those hymns we sing in many churches as people commune: They’re intended to be aids to prayer.
The Mass is a prayer. Hence, those who participate in Mass ought to be invited to…well, pray! And what better time to be communing with God than immediately prior to receiving Him in Holy Communion. Again, Bosch:
Surely during the distribution of Bread and Cup it would be appropriate for worshippers to be encouraged to reflect, to meditate on the Day’s Prayers, on its Readings, on its Sermon, on its Hymn tunes and texts. And not dissuaded or violated in that attempt!
Perhaps some would protest that the confusion and disorder accompanying a random rush toward Communion would itself be a distraction, but consider that there is nothing in the rubrics themselves that justify the pew-by-pew approach. Nothing in the General Instruction, and certainly not in Canon Law. Not a peep, at least as far as I could find.
Instead, we have the Catechism instructing us this way:
To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.
OK, bodily demeanor conveying respect and solemnity, but at “this moment” – i.e., at the moment one actually receives Communion. And, lest we forget, the Catechism also advises “joy.” When I think of somebody joyfully anticipating an honored, looked-for guest, I think of my kids: Out in the front yard, craning their necks to watch for vehicles coming up or down the street in our direction, running around in excitement because they know the guest is almost here, almost here! But standing in a line and waiting their turn? Not a chance.
So, there’s distraction, but here’s a second objection to orderly Communion – again, in Bosch’s words:
Ushers at communion, escorting worshippers to the Table row by row, present an unnecessary and unseemly social pressure to worshippers sitting in those rows.
Dismissing the faithful in neat, tidy rows means that anybody who stays behind will be noticed! Thus, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to go ahead and get in line with everybody else, regardless of ones disposition, preparedness, or even beliefs.
I remember this pressure myself back when I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a Protestant teen. Now, the Europeans don’t normally dismiss for Communion in rows, but when everyone else went forward, I just got up with them – I thought it would be too awkward to be the only one left behind. When the priest handed me the Host, I took it back with me to my seat, heedless of the intense glares and raised eyebrows of surrounding clergy and congregants. Finally, my Catholic friends motioned to me to consume the Host – my controversial First Communion! It was an innocent mistake that I’m sure is repeated often in this country, but it is one that could easily be avoided by adopting an unregimented Eucharistic distribution.
Distraction and social pressure – two good arguments in favor of chaotic Communion. And here’s a third: The Sacraments by their very nature are meant to be messy, all sensory and corporeal and bodily and all that – water splashing about, and flame and fragrant oils, and spit and salt, wine and bread, breath and utterance and God made present. It’s crazy stuff, like the Church herself, and family life, and marriage and sex and having babies, and birth and death. Nothing neat and tidy about any of that. And nothing neat and tidy about eating God’s Body and drinking His Blood, that’s for sure.
All this calls to mind those unnerving lines in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver describes the lion Aslan in this way:
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion,” Mr. Beaver adds later on. Dangerous lions were also in the forefront of St. Ignatius’ mind when he wrote these words about martyrdom and the Eucharist: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
This is the very One we receive in Holy Communion: Wild, not tame, not safe; dangerous, in other words. That being the case, there is something strange about approaching Him like we’d approach a teller at the bank. It seems more fitting that Holy Communion would resemble a riot rather than a rank.
So, away with orderly Communion! Bring on the chaos. Of course, lest there be any doubt, we’d still need the ushers! Somebody will still need to take up the collection and intervene when there are disorderlies. But instead of policing the Communion lines, I’d recommend that they stand at the exits and remind Communicants Whom they’re carrying when they leave. And what that means – namely, this:
As then in the sad and anxious times through which we are passing there are many who cling so firmly to Christ the Lord hidden beneath the Eucharistic veils that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor danger, nor persecution, nor the sword can separate them from His love, surely no doubt can remain that Holy Communion…may become a source of that fortitude which not infrequently makes Christians into heroes.
Christian heroes? Think: Ignatius of Antioch. Think: Martyrs. Really, maybe the ushers should be warning folks about the Communion line. It’s not only messy; it can cost you your life!
Editor’s note: a version of this article appeared at Oblation: A Blog of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and is reprinted here with kind permission.