As the Synod on the Family continues, a number of Catholic writers are questioning whether it’s really nice to exclude the divorced and remarried from Communion. The people on the margins of the church, the people oppressed by sin and circumstance are the ones who can least weather being pushed away, so why not open the Eucharistic table to them?
They’re right about the dangers of isolation and exclusion, but wrong about the solution.
For most people, conversion comes after acceptance and welcoming. Eve Tushnet analogizes spiritual support to motivational interviewing (conversations designed to help people change their behavior):
When someone perceives that she’s not accepted, she’ll either reject the person who rejects her, or she’ll accept that person’s rejection of her, and fall into despair. Neither of these mindsets are conducive to change. By contrast, when someone is accepted . . .[t]he security of knowing oneself accepted helps provide the courage needed to step forward and make a change.
Communion is often the sign of acceptance that people seek—not just because it’s at the heart of the faith, but because it may be the only form of love that people know how to ask for or see offered at their parish.
In many parishes, it’s easy to attend church anonymously, without speaking to anyone else except for a quick “Have a nice day, Father” and without any contact with fellow parishioners beyond a quick handshake at the sign of peace. A “Hi” from a greeter at the door can be nice, but it doesn’t really give people a sense of being known in the “Jesus looked at him and loved him” sense. Communion is asked to do all the work of inclusion.
Instead of trying to drop barriers to the Eucharistic feast, it’s worth thinking about what to do to address the community famine. There isn’t any single fix to help all people who are, at present, prohibited from participating in communion, be known and loved, but here are a few small suggestions.
Priests, or other members of a parish, can sometimes act as friendship yentas. When I was being received into the church, a priest friend recommended a parish for RCIA, and then recommended a particular parishioner along with it. He told me and Sara a little about each other, we hung out in a (non-karaoke) bar singing Sondheim songs, and we’ve been close friends ever since.
One-to-one introductions are more intimate than the group scene at coffee hour or a bible study. They help us support each other as individuals, rather than as members of a particular demographic group (Singles! Mothers! Teens!).
Churches can include more “Winter Christian” themes in homilies and hymns. Winter Christians are both intensely engaged with their faith, but also intensely stymied by spiritual dryness, doubts, a persistent sin, or some other difficulty. (They’re unlike “Summer Christians” who are joyfully drawn to the faith, and completely unlike people who like or dislike the church, but don’t yearn for it). The psalms of lament sound familiar to them, but “his yoke is easy, and his burden is light” is a little closer to how cartoonist Allie Brosh describes attempts to jolly people out of depression: “Are you taunting me? Is this some weird game where you name all the things I can’t do?”
A hymn like “Conflict” from the Shenandoah Harmony collection of shape note songs is much closer to their experience. (“It's seldom I can ever see / Myself as I would wish to be / What I desire I can't attain / From what I hate, I can't refrain.”). It may not be the end of the Gospel story, but it’s part of most people’s experience of it over their lives. Leaving it out is like having Easter without Lent.
Parishes can make it easier to ask for any form of help (and for people besides the priest to provide it!) When I had a group of Christian friends over to discuss ways of providing Benedict Option-like support for each other, one part of our evening was spent just naming things people wished others would do for them. “I’d like to spend more, well, any, time around children.” “I wish I had someone who would go to adoration with me after work.” “I want to get to sing with other people.”
There wasn’t an obvious way for most of us to express these wishes at our parishes. In America, priests are stretched painfully thin, so it didn’t make much sense for us to just ask our parish priests to solve these problems for us. But there must be some ways to make it easier to ask things of each other, whether by parishes forming online groups as this Italian street did, or by having a physical bulletin board, or anything else that makes it easier to make the kind of small asks that become strong ties.
When parishioners have the chance to see, help, and love each other in our particularities, we benefit both from the immediate effects of the help we asked for, but also from making our neediness nakedly visible. In our hospital for sinners, illness isn’t aberration, and we should expect to depend on and offer a wide range of spiritual medicine alongside our fellow convalescents.
Leah Libresco is a blogger for Patheos and works as a statistician in Washington, DC. Her first, recently published book is called Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.