There were very few disciples closer to Jesus than His apostles. The bishops are successors to those apostles, and they hold a great privilege in carrying out Christ’s mission. As is usually the case with such distinguished honor, it comes with tremendous responsibility. This past week, at the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) fall meeting, American bishops approved a document on Holy Communion entitled The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. It embraces the seriousness of their role in helping us understand the gift that Christ offers through His body and blood and will also help us respond appropriately to such a sublime, sacred grace.
Ending a ten-month debate among these spiritual fathers about who is worthy to receive Holy Communion that began the day President Biden was inaugurated, some stated that he, along with other elected officials who are Catholic and who support abortion rights, should be denied. But cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed. As we all know, each of us is unworthy. We call attention to that unworthiness every time we receive communion while we also ask God to heal our soul. It is not just my individual soul, but our collective soul and the soul of our society, that needs continuous healing. Each of us is obligated to understand, to the best of our ability, the profundity of the gift that Christ is offering us, and each of us should respond in a manner that acts in union with Him—also, to the best of our ability. It is never my role to condemn another or determine his/her unworthiness, though I may, through self-examination, find myself to be unworthy. The same is true for all, with added responsibility given to leaders, elected or appointed.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, many of us remember how it was forty years ago when he and other ecclesial leaders provided a moral compass for politicians. In those days, the American bishops presented pastoral guidance regarding war, nuclear arms, economic justice, racism, and other hot button issues that challenged us. Much like Pope Francis, Bernardin (USCCB chair and promoter of the seamless garment ethic) and his colleagues called us to a culture of dialogue, culture of encounter, discussion and debate about differences, discernment with the Holy Spirit, and building upon common ground. I recall our local bishop at the time, John J. Sullivan, telling me that those bishops were the greatest group of guys he’d ever known. Like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, President and House Speaker at the time from opposing political parties, they were willing to listen to and respect those espousing different viewpoints while seeking the will of God for the common good.
Perhaps today’s bishops who succeed them and the apostles of long ago are arriving at a place where, like their predecessors, they seek to lead with a shepherd’s heart. Though a small step, their pastoral letter on the Eucharist could go a long way to reverse what many people see as their reflexive response to ban, bar, deny, correct, and condemn Catholics who do not fall in line with church teaching. Rather than wondering why they would ever dialogue with legislators who support laws that kill babies, they might now find value in dialoguing with them about what it means to be followers of Christ together in hopes of shaping a better society that cares for all citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Communion is achieved via communication—with one another and with God. Let us pray for our spiritual and political leaders, servant-leaders of government and church. Through compassionate dialogue and humble pastoral care, let us all treasure God’s gift and value the sanctity of our response to Him and to one another.