Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass.
They believe god to be there, and they adore him.
~ Samuel Johnson
First Holy Communion season is upon us, and it was a topic of conversation in Nicky’s Atrium last week.
Atrium is the preferred term for the specially constructed classroom utilized in the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or “COGS” as we call it, includes a measure of didactic instruction, but hands-on activities are emphasized, and there’s a great deal of latitude with regards to pace and trajectory. There’s order, to be sure, and structure, although the kids are given lots of room to explore on their own and at their own speed. Frequently that freedom, coupled with the natural cognitive pliability of youth, gives rise to profoundly peculiar insights.
Case in point.
Nicky’s catechist in the Atrium is Cathy, our good friend, and she tracked me down last week before departing the Parish Center. “I have to tell you the latest from your son,” she said. Apparently Nick, an experienced communicant, had been describing the Sacrament for his classmates who had yet to receive it themselves. “Nicky told them it was a lot like Halloween,” Cathy told me.
“Halloween?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, quoting Nick. “At Halloween, you go up to grown-ups and you say ‘Trick or treat,’ and they give you candy. Holy Communion is the same. You put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.” Only this is better than candy. It is God we receive, the source of all life and joy.
This is sage and eminently accessible wisdom. Virtually every child has a grasp of what Halloween is about, and Nicky instinctively drew on that common experience in order to capture a heady reality: The gift of Holy Communion is utterly unprecedented – like the grand American tradition each October of children approaching perfect strangers who cheerfully fork over seemingly limitless sweets! And in both cases, there’s no catch: Just put out your hands, acknowledge the giver, and receive. What could be more innocent or childlike?
That was what Pope St. Pius X had in mind when he signed and promulgated the curial decree Quam Singulari in 1910. Responding to various voices in the Church who argued that Eucharistic Communion was properly reserved to those with an adult faith, St. Pius insisted that the bar be set much lower. “The age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread,” he wrote. “Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required.” As the Pope observed, this is in keeping with the Lord’s own directive. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”
We might forget just how radical this all is because we’re so used to it. Every spring, we rightly enjoy the sweet spectacle of row upon row of second-graders, dressed in all their finery, approaching the altar and the priest, and receiving the Blessed Sacrament for the first time – wonderful. Yet, consider how wild that is! A touching ceremony, yes, “but it’s God.” Mere youths, seven or eight years old, being handed the Divine Essence in the guise of a cracker – scandalous! Those youngsters can’t possibly know what it’s all about, can they? Moreover, all their friends are likewise receiving, as are all the gathered family and friends. It’s a free-for-all, it seems, like a neighborhood bash, and everyone is invited to partake – “but it’s God!”
That clamorous image is reinforced by St. John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand – a “mess,” in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet so clearly connected to the Eucharistic feast of which it was a prelude. All those hungry people, no doubt tempers flaring – like they do around those relief trucks that hand out bags of rice after disasters. It’s a scene that seems to have appealed to Tolkien in the eucharistic context:
Make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children. It will be just the same (or better than that) as a Mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.
Never mind the crowds, in other words. There’s never a shortage when Jesus is the distributor as well as the distributed – there’s lots! – and he’s not all that particular: Just “put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.” What’s more, everybody who approaches is guaranteed some God; nobody need fear getting a Charlie-Brownesque rock or its equivalent.
And the messiness is all part of the package. Unlike First Holy Communion day – when most everyone is attentive and orderly and spruced up; when communicants and their parents are enraptured and enthusiastic and maybe even pious – we all of us frequently approach the Eucharist distracted and broken and still pretty darn sinful. Here’s the crazy thing though: Jesus bids us come anyway! Our distraction? Mitigated. Our brokenness? Ameliorated. And our venial sins? Forgiven! Only intentional, serious sin can really keep us away, and even then, only until we receive absolution – something else that the Church divvies out indiscriminately and freely.
Nicky displayed complete confidence in the reality of God in the Eucharist, but also a glorious juvenile disregard for propriety in making his analogy. Halloween, a bacchanal of gluttony and tooth decay, is a terrific exercise in wanton self-interest: People are giving away free treats? Then, heck yeah, I’m going to get me some! That being the case, oughtn’t we wince at the suggestion that receiving the Eucharist is in any way comparable?
Maybe, but before we do, let’s mull over these words from the Pope Pius’s decree and how they throw in relief a most startling divine assertion:
It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
There’s no question that we should strive to be properly disposed and “prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment” (CCC 1385). However, on those occasions when we might not be as disposed and prepared as we could be, we do well to put aside overwrought grown-up scruples. Instead, call to mind the grubby candy-grabbers we’ll see in October, and err on the side of guileless spontaneity: He beckons, and all we need do is put out our hands, say “Amen,” and get our God.