By Elizabeth Gillson
Reception of Holy Communion has become a hot topic, in both Church and secular circles as Americans recently elected a self-proclaimed Catholic and regular communicant, who has been unwavering in his support for legalized abortion, even though the Catholic Church has repeatedly and clearly condemned the evil of abortion. Many wonder how the President can receive the “sign of unity and bond of charity” while obstinately rejecting Church teaching on grave moral evils. President Biden’s persistence in promoting abortion, has caused several members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to advocate for a discussion of “Eucharistic coherence” at their annual June meeting. There are other bishops, however, who want the topic removed from the agenda and pushed to a later date. As both secular and Church media outlets report on the debate among the bishops, it is good for the faithful to recall the nature of the Church, the role of the clergy, and the doctrine of the Eucharist.
Many frame this as a political issue. However, the Church is the Kingdom of Christ present in mystery. As our Lord told Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. The Son established the Kingdom of God on earth by becoming man, offering himself on the cross, and rising to new life. He reconciled the world to God and through the Kingdom, he offers salvation to all who believe in him and accept his reign. After Jesus ascended to Heaven to reign with the Father, the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church to remain with it and to advance God’s Kingdom through time and space. Established by Christ, and vivified by the Spirit, the Church has a divine nature. The “isms” of this world, conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, etc., can never provide the proper lens through which to view the Church.
Like the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Church is not only divine, it also has a visible human structure. Laity, clergy and religious are the members of the Kingdom of God. In St. Paul’s theology, the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. All the baptized are members of the Body by the power of the Spirit, and Christ is the Head. While on earth, Jesus gathered the Apostles around him, taught them and commissioned them to preside over his mystical Body until the consummation of the world.
The pope and the bishops are the successors to the Apostles through whom Christ continues to rule his Church. While the pope is Supreme Pontiff, in the sacrament of Holy Orders, each bishop is consecrated “high priest,” and takes the place of “Christ himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and acts as [Christ’s] representative.” The bishop is also a member of the collegial body that governs the entire Church in communion with the pope.
Receiving and handing on the Tradition of the Church is fundamental to the bishop’s mission. Preeminent in the Tradition of the Church is the teaching, reverencing, and offering of the Eucharist. On the night before he died, in anticipation of his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus took the bread, thanked his Father, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” He did likewise with the chalice of wine, offering it as “the Blood of the new and eternal covenant.” In doing so, the Lord made himself the lamb of sacrifice, which once and for all, atoned for the sins of the world. By giving his body and blood to his disciples he sacramentally drew them into the divine life which he shares with the Father and the Spirit.
The Lord instructed the Apostles, “Do this in memory of me.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon them at Pentecost, they could fulfill his sacred command. At priestly ordination, through the imposition of hands, that same Spirit is bestowed and a man becomes a successor to the Apostles. Empowered by the Spirit, the priest, in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), offers Christ’s sacrifice in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is “truly, really, and substantially” Jesus Christ contained under the appearance of bread and wine. Every time a communicant receives the precious Body and Blood of Jesus he or she is united with the Divine Savior and with his mystical Body, the Church. The Eucharist is both a sign and the source of the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body. Through it, God builds up the Church, overcoming the division and death that result from sin and restoring humanity to communion with himself and with each other.
As the media swarms with speculation about the upcoming USCCB meeting, Catholics must keep a clear understanding of our sacred Tradition. Though some might try to drag the Church into the mire of partisan bickering, the everlasting Kingdom of God transcends petty politics. The bishop is not a lobbyist or political henchman. He is a successor to the Apostles. The Eucharist is not his to manipulate, rather it is the “sacred treasure of the Church.” It is his great and terrible mission to guard and hand on what he has received from Jesus Christ through the Apostles. While it is never a bad time for bishops to clarify and promote the doctrine of the Eucharist, now that media is portraying reception of Holy Communion as political weapon, a Catholic bona fides, or a private entitlement, it is a particularly good time for the shepherds of the Church in the United States to dispel these errors.
Elizabeth Gillson recently received a Masters in Theology from Catholic Distance University. Elizabeth and her husband of 25 years live in the Diocese of Arlington, VA with their ten children. Elizabeth is a stay at home mother hoping to continue her Theological research and writing.