At a plenary session of the Synod of Bishops on Thursday, Fr. Manuel Dorantes recounted the following remarkable story (also here), first told by a bishop in one of the synod’s two Spanish-language discussion groups. According to the bishop, he was celebrating a first communion Mass at a parish in his diocese, and a boy, upon receiving the Host, instead of consuming it broke it into two and gave a piece each to his two parents. His parents were civilly remarried after a divorce and therefore unable to receive communion. At least according to one reporter, some participants at the synod broke into tears on hearing the story.
In a simple way, this boy’s intuition was a sensus fidei—a sense of the faith. He experienced his parents’ inability to fully participate in the Eucharist as a loss, and sensed that his own first participation in the Eucharist—although a joyous occasion—was incomplete without the participation of his parents. In his own way he understood that we are all called to a communion in which the sin that alienates us from one another and from God is overcome. The story illustrates the tragic situations that have made the question of how the church pastorally cares for the divorced and remarried such a central issue at the synod.
But an anonymous blogger at Rorate Caeli—the traditionalist Catholic blog that has been a persistent critic of Pope Francis and the proceedings of both this and last year’s synods—is having none of it. The incident was a “sacrilege,” the Host “treated either as a hostage to emotions or at best as a glorified cracker.” The bishops at the synod who were moved by the story have “truly lost all sense of shame.” Of course, the blogger is concerned that the Host may have been consumed unworthily by the two parents.
The boy, though, is too young to have an ecclesiastical agenda, and as far as we know the gesture was spontaneous. And the boy’s intuition is entirely consistent with the church’s current practice concerning the divorced and remarried. Those of us who—through God’s grace—are able to receive communion should long to welcome those who are excluded from the table, and should experience our own communion in the Body of Christ as in some way incomplete as long as they are alienated from that Body. It is this longing that leads us to encourage our brothers and sisters to repentance and metanoia.
I don't often find myself on the side of Rorate Caeli these days, but I find myself much more in agreement with that assessment of this incident than with Shadle's. Indeed, my reaction to this anecdote is very, very negative, and so I wanted to try to think through why that is and why I think that Shadle's argument here is wrong.
The boy's action itself, I would assume, was fairly unstudied. A seven year old can pick up some pretty strong opinions on religious issues due to hearing about them from parents and other figures of authority, but while young age sometimes creates a willingness to act dramatically when adults would not do so, someone that age isn't likely to have the forethought to put together his own plan of liturgical protest. So I would assume that the origin of this was something along the lines of the boy having been told repeatedly that the priest wouldn't give his parents communion because they were married outside the Church, and so he decided to take things into his own hands. However, the fact that things went down this way suggests some incredibly bad formation of this child. His parents' exclusion from communion was clearly presented to him as an injustice in need of solution. It's not a surprise that a seven year old boy would try to right and injustice when he thought it was in his hands to do so, but this means that the Church's teachings about marriage here were presented to him completely wrong -- probably a result of his parents and/or others themselves not at all agreeing with Church teaching. Further, that this boy thought it was okay to break a consecrated host in half and give it to others shows that there was a huge lack in training about the reverence due to the Eucharist. One thing that was very successfully conveyed to us as kids in preparation for First Communion was the importance to treating the host with reverence: You don't take it back to your pew. You don't break it or do anything to it that would cause crumbs to break off. If you receive it in the hand, you put it straight into your mouth. The idea of breaking up and re-distributing a host outrages everything I learned at that very young age. That a bishop related the story with the boy held up as an example, and that others were deeply moved by it, seems to me to suggest all sorts of things wrong with how children are being prepared to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.
Shadle's piece takes a more intellectual tack, one which although it is based on the idea that we should observe the wisdom of "the little children" is not actually much like how children think. While he doesn't actually make an argument that it is wrong for the Church to say that those living in unconfessed mortal sin should not receive communion, he argues that what the boy senses is that our communion is incomplete when not everyone is united in receiving it.
This strikes me as a problematic understanding.
What, after all, is the Eucharist? In the mass we participate in the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and we experience the real presence of Christ, coming to us in the Eucharist. This is why there is real benefit in being present at mass, or present before the Eucharist, even when we are not receiving. Even if I am not able to receive communion because I haven't observed the fast or because of consciousness of sin, going to mass puts me in the presence of Christ. Similarly, going to Eucharistic adoration puts me in the presence of Christ even though it is not a time for receiving the Eucharist.
The communion which we experience in receiving the Eucharist is primarily a communion with God through receiving His body and blood. It is not primarily a communion with those around us in the church or the world. When I receive the Eucharist, my communion is not incomplete because others are not at that particular mass, receiving at that particular time. Nor is it incomplete because some people are in a state of disunion with the Body of Christ because of sin or because they do not recognize the Church or recognize Christ as necessary for their salvation.
This doesn't mean that our union with Christ is perfect in our reception of the Eucharist. Our union is imperfect because of attachments to sin, because of imperfect faith, because we are not in the beatific vision which can come only after this world. And yet these imperfections do not defeat the Eucharist and Christ's real presence to us in it. Christ's presence is not made less because some people are living in sin or living in unbelief. If the Eucharist is incomplete until everyone can receive, then it will always be incomplete. Until the end of this world there will always be people who are in sin or who are not in the faith. If their absence defeats Christ than Christ is defeated.
In a sense this line of thinking is similar to the idea that unless we believe that every soul will one day be united with God in heaven, then Christ's work of salvation is defeated. But although Christ's grace makes it possible for us to be saved, it is not rendered imperfect when some souls refuse to accept that freely offered salvation. Heaven will not be incomplete because not every human soul is in it, because heaven is complete in God.