Returning to Mass after a long separation can be an emotional experience. Or not.

It’s been a long, dry spell. Many Catholics have never gone this long without receiving the Eucharist since before their first communion.

Now that more and more parishes are finding ways to safely offer public Mass or some form of communion service, many Catholics are taking to social media to describe what an overwhelming emotional experience it has been for them. Some are even sharing photos of themselves with tear-stained cheeks, overcome with emotion after receiving communion again.

Much of this emotional response is surely sincere, a spontaneous outpouring of joy and gratitude after a time of trial and deprivation. It’s understandable to want to share our delight in the Lord with people who will understand.

So let’s set aside the question of how spiritually healthy it is to take and share selfies of pious displays, and look instead to Catholics who aren’t coming to pieces over the opening of churches.

There are a lot of them. There are a lot of Catholics who most certainly want to return to the sacraments, but they aren’t feeling wracking pangs of longing as their separation continues.

They aren’t spending their days in misery and distress, ceaselessly imploring the Holy Spirit to open the church doors again. And when they do receive the Eucharist again after a long time away, they aren’t going boneless with spiritual bliss. They believe in the saving power of God with all their hearts, but they’re not getting very emotional about it.

I’m here to tell you that if that’s how it is for you, it’s okay. It doesn’t prove there’s something inferior about your faith. It doesn’t mean you’re lukewarm or spiritually mediocre. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the sacraments, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand how precious they are. It might mean any number of things, but it’s certainly not automatically a sign that you’re the wrong kind of Catholic.

Emotions are just emotions. They are not nothing, but they are not the same as faith. Sometimes emotions come to us unbidden from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they are given to us as a gift. But sometimes…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Precious Blood in the time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 spreading, more parishes are cautiously telling the congregation to skip or modify the sign of peace, and announcing that the Eucharist will only be distributed under the species of bread, not wine. 

This has happened in other years, when other sicknesses were circulating, and every year, there are complaints. Some Catholics claim we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood, because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick. Only those approaching the altar with a poor and feeble faith would be afraid to drink from the cup. How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

The answer is that faith might trump science, but it’s presumptuous to assume that it will. So let’s be clear: If I say that I know I’ll be preserved from transmission of disease because it’s Jesus, I’m saying that I know I’ll receive a miracle. 

But let’s set aside this faith-based argument for a moment and address a the second argument I often hear, which is that there’s also no scientific reason to skip the Precious Blood, because the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs anyway. I was surprised to learn that there is a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, low risk is some risk, and some diseases carry more of a threat than others. I decided several years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

Let’s talk about what is actually in that cup. We know that it is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But we also know it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

But this is pride disguised as piety. Unlike the unprecedented house call described above, the Eucharist is offered frequently, every day or at least every week; and it’s offered under both kinds. One reason for this is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating.

If we’re going to call the integrity of our fellow Catholics into question, then here’s a better question: How can we say we love and cherish the Church while sneering at the accommodations she offers us? You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now, and happy to know that you take the health and safety of your brethren seriously. 

Because there’s the more pressing concern. If we do get sick, we risk passing along our sickness to others, to the elderly, to people with compromised immune systems, to babies. When we make willing sacrifices, we must be sure that we’re the ones who will suffer, not other people. Deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees.

So maybe you’re convinced that, for practical and ethical reasons, it does make more sense to avoid drinking from a communal cup. But something about it still feels off. It’s very hard to shake the feeling that, even as we acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, surely it’s still somehow more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the sacrament.

But it’s really not. Here is why:

If the Eucharist were only spiritual and edifying, then Christ would be a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat that is us – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is really us. Jesus’ body was really Jesus. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood can have germs. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a magic trick.

But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Maybe God really will protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He will reward their trust with good health. Miracles like this are possible. Saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by taking germs seriously. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: Jesus is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

 

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Image: Detail of photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

Those people who leave the Church over little things

People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Usually it’s more than one reason; but sometimes people will be able to point to the one thing that tipped them over the edge. Very often, it’s the sex abuse scandal. But also fairly often, it’s something that sounds less serious. It sounds like something that people should be able to get past:

“I was going through a rough time in my marriage and a priest gave a jerky sermon about divorce, so I walked out and never came back.”

“I was trying to organize my grandmother’s funeral, and the parish secretary was so rude, and even mocked the music I chose. That was the last time I set foot in a church.”

“I was in the back with my crying baby, and an usher angrily told me to control my kid. I decided if they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either, and that was that.”

These things are upsetting and demoralizing, and can legitimately make us angry. But are they worth leaving the Church over?

When someone tells stories like these, other Catholics will often respond: Well, if you’d leave Jesus and the sacraments for something small like that, it shows that your faith was weak and shallow to begin with. If you leave the Church because of sinners, your faith was in man, not God.

I used to believe this. I no longer do. Or at least, I see a bigger picture of why humans — including me — do what they do.

Don’t get me wrong. When someone decides to leave the Faith, there couldn’t be more at stake. It’s one thing if someone decides they’re quitting their tech job and taking up weaving, or they’re tired of Twitter and they’re giving up social media. I may think they’re making a mistake, but they can live with the consequences.

But when you hear that someone has had enough of the Church, it’s so hard not to say, “Yes, but . . . don’t you want Jesus? I know that one Catholic you met was so cruel and awful, and I’m so sorry that happened, but are you really prepared to give up Jesus, just because of that? This is your immortal soul we’re talking about! Eyes on the prize! Get over it!”

But it occurs to me that everyone’s priorities are skewed — people who leave the Church because of the sins of other humans, but also people who stay in the Church because of the goodness of other humans.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Piqsels (Creative Commons)

Catholicism without Christ

Is there any return from being cancelled? We’re not really sure. But there is wailing and gnashing of teeth until the 24-hour news cycle moves along and you are forgotten.
This is what comes of religious practice without faith, of Catholicism without Christ: At best, you enjoy some faint mimicry of the riches the faith has to offer; at worst, you suffer immensely, without any hope of redemption.

It is sad to live this way. It is ridiculous. But at least there is some excuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image via https://fshoq.com/ (Creative Commons)

Fr. Fournier performed benediction inside burning Notre Dame

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. He went into Notre Dame as it burned — standing there below a cascade de feu— and saved the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns.

“[W]e had a vision of what hell may be: like waterfalls of fire pouring down from the openings in the roof, due to the downfall not only of the spire but also of other smaller debris in the choir,” he said. (Video in French below; image is a screenshot.)

“Everybody understands that the Crown of Thorns is an absolutely unique and extraordinary relic, but the Blessed Sacrament is our Lord, really present in his body, soul, divinity and humanity and you understand that it is hard to see someone you love perish in the blaze. As firefighters we often see casualties from fire and we know its effects, this is why I sought to preserve above all the real presence of our Lord Jesus-Christ … “

And then here is the part that gave me chills (italics mine):

“The time when the fire attacked the northern bell tower and we started to fear losing it, was exactly the time when I rescued the Blessed Sacrament. And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.

“Here I am completely alone in the cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home.

It was probably both this and the excellent general maneuver of the firefighters that led to the stopping of the fire, the ultimate rescuing of the northern tower and subsequently of the other one.”

Makes me think of St. Clare, standing on the parapets of her convent and holding up the Host, and the invading saracens turned away in terror. (Note: I believe reports which say the Notre Dame fire was not intentionally set, so please don’t make any rash assumptions about the kind of threat Notre Dame faced.) He believed so firmly in the Real Presence, he not only had to rescue the host, but He called on its power and blessed the burning church. WHAT A PRIEST. 

Fr. Fournier was ordained in the FSSP, and survived an ambush during his seven years as a French army chaplain Afghanistan; and he was the priest who came to the aid of the dead and dying in the terrorist attack on a heavy metal concert in 2015. According to Newsweek:

In November 2015 he prayed over the dead and comforted the wounded at the Bataclan music club where 89 people were killed in attacks by the Islamic State militant group.

“I gave collective absolution, as the Catholic Church authorizes me,” Fournier said in the aftermath of the attacks.

Because he knows that Jesus saves.

I want to remember Fr. Fournier and his unflinching faith next time I receive Jesus. 

 

 

Venting is healthy, but the cross purifies

Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.

This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine here.

Image by faungg’s photos via Flickr . (Creative Commons)

What is your weak link?

So many people had lost beloved medals or crucifixes because the one little link that attached them to the chain just wasn’t strong enough. What a shame! And how baffling that Catholic jewelry companies so often make this mistake. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the medal is, how well-made, how expensive, how meaningful. It will only be with you if that one little link is strong enough.

It’s hard to resist the metaphor here.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Sean McGrath via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Say it again

She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.

But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo via MaxPixel (public domain)

Finding the Church-Within-the-Church

I don’t mean that we are allowed to pick and choose which beliefs suit us, and discard the rest. I do mean that we should focus on the doctrine that makes sense to us, nourishes us, draws us closer to the heart of God, and we should cling to them as hard as we can. When we find doctrines that disturb or disconcert or baffle us, we’re not free to ignore them; but we can at least acknowledge that they do belong in the Church, as much as the easier and more intelligible doctrines belong. When we focus on what makes sense to us, it makes the less pleasant parts easier to endure.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

And why are you at Mass?

The elderly gentleman thinks Pope Francis is some kind of pinko hippie, and there hasn’t been a real Pope in Rome since Giuseppe Siri, and he will tell you alllllll about it if he can get you cornered in the foyer.

The nun next to him is headed to a pro-choice rally after Mass, and is chilling some champagne for the day when women priests will finally be approved.

So … why are they at Mass?

Because Jesus is here, and He’s giving Himself away.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

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Image: Christ revealed in the breaking of the bread, photo by Ted via Flickr (Creative Commons)