While I generally find the profusion and milling-around of lay ministers of the Eucharist distracting and unnecessary, I found myself offering prayers of thanksgiving for one this past Sunday. We’ve recently moved and were attending a new and unfamiliar parish with a bewildering process for going forward to receive, including multiple lines of Eucharistic ministers standing back to back. In addition, our children are accustomed to receiving in the mouth, formed to do so at our previous parish, and they find receiving in hand from a lay minister a source of some anxiety. In the uncertainty, my seven-year old daughter went into the wrong line, then, seeing the rest of the family in another, darted back to join us, holding the Host in her hand.
Seeing this, the lay minister firmly, although not unkindly, but with sharp urgency, stopped dispensing to others and ordered my daughter to immediately halt and consume the Host. My daughter was a bit shocked to have a stranger issue her a command—I was enormously grateful. This woman, a stranger to me although a fellow Catholic, was so concerned for the respect and reverence due the Host—due to Jesus, true God from true God—that she instinctively acted in defense of that due reverence. My daughter was taught by her that the Host mattered, that sacred things were sacred, that our rites and customs were not merely customary but of the highest importance.
I was, I am, thankful for that lay minister. She was a faithful instructor.
We attended that parish because the week before, at another parish we were visiting—our home lying about halfway between each—the deacon taught my children that sacred things were not at all sacred. To be sure, he didn’t say this precisely, but he certainly taught it. He talked and joked with the lay ministers as they waited to receive, he turned his back to the altar during the consecration to speak to a server, he dumped—no other word suffices—hosts into the vessels before handing them nonchalantly to ministers, and he washed and dried the chalice in the most cursory way.
He taught that the Host did not matter, that sacred things were not sacred, that our rites and customs were merely customary and hardly of importance. I was, I am, not thankful for that faithless instructor; he taught my children that the Faith wasn’t true, or at least not true in the way the Faith claims itself to be true.
The bishops teach that “all ministers of Holy Communion should show the greatest reverence for the Most Holy Eucharist by their demeanor, their attire, and the manner in which they handle the consecrated bread or wine,” reminding that “vessels containing the Body or the Blood of the Lord” are to be handed over “reverently” to the extraordinary ministers, and that should “there be any mishap—as when, for example, the consecrated wine is spilled from the chalice—then the affected ‘area … should be washed and the water poured into the sacrarium.’” They teach this because the sacrament is Jesus himself, the Sacrament is God, and worthy of our worship and true reverence.
I’m a convert to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. Like many other converts, I was initially attracted by the depth of the intellectual tradition, the beauty of the architecture, church history, the truth of the moral teaching, but never found those to be sufficient reasons to enter the Church. For years I flirted with Rome; it was enough to read Aquinas and de Lubac on my own, to buy coffee table books of Gothic architecture, to consult the Catechism on any number of controverted ethical matters, but I could remain a Protestant and have those things sufficient to my needs. In the end, however, I heeded the rather stern advice of a priest who reminded me that St John and Our Lady were to be found with Jesus near the sacrifice of the cross while I was happy enough to look on from a safe distance. In other words, I entered the Church for the Eucharist. Not for the pope, not for the architecture, not for the theology, but to be with Jesus in the Tabernacle and on the Table. For my entire life I “had” Jesus in theory, in my thoughts and in my “heart,” but I no longer wanted my experience of him, I wanted him, and he was right there, right over there! (Shocking truth, a marvel!) I could see him, I could touch him; he sees me, he hears me, and I adore him (in and as the Host) with profound reverence.
That belief, which I try to impart to my children, was reinforced by the Eucharistic minister and proclaimed false by the deacon. I will not let that deacon instruct my children; I have a responsibility to not let that deacon instruct my children.
So why does the priest let him instruct? Why does the bishop? Why do the people? Why is he allowed to teach this way?
Faith is being lost and rejected in many places, and especially in the developed West, mostly through utter indifference. Yes, there are principled atheists who have thought the matter through and made a commitment against faith—I can respect them even as I disagree. Yes, there are those deeply wounded and alienated by someone or something in the Church—I can mourn for them and pray for their healing. But many, many more simply drift away because the faith doesn’t matter, they just don’t see it as alive or meaningful. They didn’t reject the faith, for the faith wasn’t offered with enough content to reject, so they simply ignored it—for them I am angry. Angry for them, not at them. It isn’t their fault. They were taught that the Host was empty, that sacred things were playthings, that rites and customs were merely customary, our moral duties mere suggestions, that God was not holy and to be feared—that none of it mattered.
The admirable J Budziszewski warns:
A good many parents decline to give their children any religious instruction, saying that they think it is better to “let them make up their own minds.” But declining to teach [religion] is itself a way of teaching … a very definite creed with eight articles: (1) It is not important for children to know anything about God. (2) The questions which children naturally ask about Him require no answers. (3) Parents know nothing about Him worth passing on. (4) To think about Him adequately, no preparation is needed. (5) What adults think about Him makes no difference. (6) By implication, He does not make any difference either; God is not to be treated as God. (7) If anything is to be treated as God, it will have to be something other than Him. (8) This is the true creed, and all other creeds are false.… [A person thus] raised to “make up his own mind”… [will have] the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment.
Many, too many, are teaching that important things need not be taken seriously. Many parents teach this; scandalously, some in holy orders teach this. And we oughn’t be surprised when the young do as they are taught, and simply walk away indifferently.
We must do better than this. For the Protestant I was, renewal would have begun with Scripture and study—and those are fine things to be encouraged—but for the Catholics we are, renewal must begin not with accounts about Jesus but with himself, with the Eucharist. So long as the Eucharist is treated indifferently, there can be no renewal.
For that lesson, I, on behalf of myself and my daughter, owe a debt of gratitude to a Eucharistic minister, a woman I do not know, but someone I am praying for today. If only there were more like her.