Communion of Desire
As the “Make America Construct Again” bill has ground to a halt, it’s easy to imagine one of our 535 Congressional representatives showing up to observe the jobsite. Reporting for another shift, they’d take everyone’s favorite construction job: the sign holder.
“Slow” and its flip-side “Stop” offer the legislative reminder: it’s hard for a bill to get out of the Beltway.
Perhaps President Biden’s agenda piece eventually will move more dirt than talking points. Perhaps not. But the whole charade of choosing between capital improvements and fiscal implosion seems like a storyline only good for cable news sweeps.
Politicians enjoy wearing hardhats before cameras, but they really prefer suits, right?
I do believe elected officials desire societal improvement. But it’s improvement of a certain type, as their party sees it or their poll numbers encourage it. Senator Biden votes against raising the debt ceiling for a Republican president, but President Biden sees a raise as common sense.
Between political position and life conviction, a chasm extends. No one really will risk death over the filibuster or budget reconciliation.
And, to a great extent, thank goodness for that. Could you imagine Joe Manchin negotiating death terms?
In other words, partisan fervor falls short of the religious type.
Extreme religious commitment lends to extreme mental images. The IED-detonating Muslim. The crusading Christian. The self-immolating Hindu.
None of these actions is redeemable (though we can hold out redemptive hope even for those actors). Violence is not religion. Yet a grappling with death is.
In my Catholic tradition, the calendar of saints tells the story. For a woman or man or group to become capital-s Saints, the dust must settle before the relics can scatter. Decades or even centuries pass as a life is examined for heroic charity and outstanding virtue. And then a miracle or two. (C’mon, Henriette DeLille, move that reliquary past the altar rail! Push-push-push!)
Do we still celebrate folks involved in a few crusades? Yeah…but Louis King of France had a lot of good going for him, too! Do we still celebrate folks fixated with military campaigning? Yes…but Joan of Arc was more than a lover of cannonballs!
More consistently, the day-by-day calendar blocks canonize a surrender to death rather than a waging of war. The faith of the martyr.
When Archbishop Philip Hannan was asked to measure the sacrilege of naming the local football team “Saints,” he famously (and prophetically) replied, “That would be fine. But remember: most of the saints were martyrs.”
These red vestment celebrations bleed all over the Catholic calendar. And it began from the start: 11 out of 12 apostles suffered the fate, tradition holds.
The Eucharist is often at the heart of the witness. Ancestors of faith stretch long down the Communion line, willing to give their lives rather than disrespect the Body and Blood of Christ. Underground Masses in ancient Rome and closer day China. Smuggled bread and wine in Nazi concentration camps. Oscar Romero stooping under the gun barrels of Salvadoran junta to collect the scattered tabernacle hosts.
No matter what public polling might suggest, Catholics understand the actions at Mass to be more than period-dress reenactments or extended PTA meetings. Call it intuition, call it black-and-white catechesis, call it halfway paying attention at any point during a religious ed or a class Mass or a stumble through Jackson Square and into the cathedral. A Catholic would have to purposefully avert eyes and ears and senses to fail to grasp the Church’s presentation of something significant.
With her convert fervor still fresh forty years in, my mother expresses it succinctly, scripturally, “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you.” Communion-line Catholics feel a weight of literalness with each little wafer received.
The divine touching down on earth: the great Catholic proposition at every 25-minute daily Mass (20 minutes if your presider has perfected all his sanctuary steps).
So if Communion is that, what to do with those outside the line, outside of communion, as it were? I won’t pretend this isn’t a personal question, knowing what life choices keep Catholics in place in their pews.
Of course, that’s if they even get into their pews at all. Recent data suggests Catholics are the single largest religious denomination in the United States at 20% of the population. Of those, 39% attend Sunday Mass. By that measure, non-practicing and practicing Catholics take slots 1 and 3 of denomination. (Thanks a lot Evangelical Baptists…)
Non-practicing Catholics, of course, are outside the communion line in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense: without a good reason (read: health concern) missing a Sunday prohibits the taking of Communion. Go to Confession and get it cleaned up.
But what of states that can’t be “fixed?” Practically, this deals less with counseling Serial Killers Anonymous, more with people who have contracted marriages outside the Church. (As a sidenote: Annulments are easier and more healing than they might sound.)
I keep thinking back to a conversation with a married woman, unable to convince a spouse to go through the annulment process. She understood this placed her out of the communion line. Yet she kept showing up to church, finding her pew even while hoping for more. She explained what she did while others processed up and walked back and knelt down beside her.
“I breathe it in. I know I can’t go to Communion, but all these other people do. People who sit next to me, who exchange a greeting and sign of peace with me, who walk a few feet away from me and even rub against me on their way to their pew. I think how close I am to God, through them, through Mass.”
Communion of desire.
It might fall short of Communion in completion, but it’s worth getting a seat for.
How close we are to God.
I mentioned parenthetically Henriette Delille, a remarkable Black Catholic New Orleanian, whose cause is slowly progressing through the canonization stages. Dr. Ansel Augustine offers a beautiful introduction to a figure who should be a household name.