Early in my priesthood, I knew a family whose oldest child was physically healthy, strong, well-adjusted, and popular, and whose second child was scrawny and suffered a birth defect that made his life quite different from his older brother’s. The younger boy had five or six surgeries in his early years of life. While the other kids were playing outdoors in a hugely kid-populated neighborhood, he had to remain inside, take medicine, and try to gain strength and health. He was a beautiful boy with a gentle spirit and kind heart, like his older brother who looked out for him. The younger child had good insight into others, including the plethora of children growing up around him. Though they all seemed happy on the outside, some of them were sad on the inside because of family or school situations—they would, periodically and individually, take a break from outdoor play to visit him, sometimes sharing their own young pain as did his older brother. When preparing for First Holy Communion in the second grade, the younger child told me: “Father, I think I know what is in that communion. God puts a special medicine inside each host because he knows which medicine each one of us needs.”
In all my years of priesthood, I have not heard better commentary on Holy Communion than that. While some Catholics want to reserve Eucharist to those who comply with certain church teachings, we would do well to remember Christ’s invitation to us all, starting with those whom society labels as sinners, to come to the table of love. This table of plenty is a place of fellowship where we get nourished and, as my young friend reminds us, we receive healing medicine to help us be more like Jesus. As many saints have taught: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Christ is the divine physician who heals and nourishes us.
Kansas City native Senator Tim Kaine points out in a recent National Catholic Reporter article that we are each unworthy to receive holy communion, which we all humbly admit before approaching the altar during Mass. If a qualifier is put upon this divine invitation, we should not limit it to politicians who vote according to conscience or according to those they represent, but also upon those who take advantage of the poor, lowly, vulnerable, or marginalized in our world; as well, we should impose it upon all who are arrogant, condemnatory, or who place institutional thinking ahead of God. As the late Australian bishop John Heap stated: “What happens in religions is often what Jesus warned against: turning His teachings into a structure of rules for which He scolded the scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees. When religion becomes an end in itself, gathering political power so as to have its own way, it becomes a force not for full life and freedom, but for the enslaving of minds and even bodies.” When people realize that church leaders are more interested in judging others than healing suffering souls, they become frustrated with ecclesial institutions and find other ways to commune with the Lord. Twentieth century satirist, Lenny Bruce, said it succinctly: “Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”
Let us pray that we, the church, the People of God, will follow Christ’s example that welcomes, heals, and unites.