Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
St. Paul tells us, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). But American piety tends to have a strong isolationist streak. And the funny thing is: it affects both Protestants and Catholics in their own ways. The proof of this is that, broadly speaking, there are two ways in which Catholics and Protestants place emphasis on the wrong syllables in this verse and fail to receive its meaning in its fullness.
Catholics are fond of making fun of Evangelical Protestant individualism, with its “Me n’ Jesus” tendency to conceive of the Church as a mere aggregation of like-minded individuals who all happen to be praying in the same room on Sundays. And, to be sure, there is something to this. Evangelicalism does not conceive of the Church as part of the mysterious revelation of Christ to the world, but as a group of people who have “made a decision for Christ” and who are now living out what Evangelicals regard a life of discipleship. What brings us together as Christians, in this view, is not Jesus Christ, fully present in the Eucharist which is the Body of Christ, but our personal decision to follow Christ. The notion that the Church itself might have some say in how that discipleship happens is looked at with great suspicion. The great thing is to construct one’s life of discipleship on one’s personal interpretation of Scripture and (unconsciously) on conformity to the sundry currents of Evangelical cultural enthusiasms. Communion, if it is celebrated at all, is strictly an audio-visual aid for remembering something that happened long ago. It is not the source and summit of our faith and the Sacrament by which the Eucharistic Body of Christ strengthens and sustains the ecclesial Body of Christ. This approach tends to downplay the mystical connectedness of the members of the Body with one another, and to take a “You aren’t the boss of me” approach to expressions of ecclesial authority—unless that authority happens to be a personally charismatic pastor (in which case he is sometimes afforded a presumption of infallibility and impeccability the Pope could only dream of).
This tendency to downplay the mystical connectedness of the Body of Christ is why things like prayers to the saints are off the table: the notion that the dead are not severed from us by death is not there for the most part in Evangelicalism. The idea, in short, is not so much Communion as “community”. Mutually supportive like-minded folk who engage in “fellowship” and support one another in prayer and acts of charity: but not a Mystical Body whose soul is the Holy Spirit and whose members cannot be divided from one another, even by sin and death.
Catholics can be apt to pride themselves on their “deeper” sense of Communion in contrast to this, especially when engaged in apologetics wars on the Internet and such. But I think the counsel of Christ really needs to be heeded in the matter of motes and logs here. Yes, the Church has a rich theology of Communion. Yes, it’s true that Communion is a more than warm and fuzzy socializing. But does it follow that it should be less than that? I mean, honestly, where’s the beef in practice? What’s the use of boasting about a deep Catholic theology of Communion when (as many can attest) you can join a Catholic parish and spend years there while never forming a single relationship beyond passing acquaintance? The profound loneliness that many Catholics feel in their parishes is quite real. And the polemical excuses made for it (“We aren’t happy clappy Protestants whose focus is on shallow fellowship and church socials”) is just desperate excuse-making for our failure to live out our own theology. The marvel of the early pagans was “See how the Christians love one another!” The shame of our modern, socially inept Catholic suburban parish is that one of the principal reasons people leave the Church for Evangelicalism is that they felt welcomed and loved there, and quite desperately alone, friendless and neglected in the precincts of the Eucharist. Indeed, when they leave, they often hear “Good riddance to the shallow, emotional Protestant” from the polemicist eager to make excuses for our own failure to make them feel like they have a place and purpose in the family of God.
So American spiritual isolationism cuts more than one way. Whether in the Evangelical vision of Me ‘n Jesus or in the Catholic tendency to dismiss fellowship as happy clappy kumbaya Catholicism, it tends to think that the way to God is to get away from people (“far from the madding crowd”) and then hunker down and follow our solitary vision in communion with God and God alone. But to receive Communion as if it were a radio transmission device which hooks us up on a secure line with the Almighty and frees us from bothering about everybody else is in reality as deeply uncatholic as Evangelical Me ‘n Jesusism. For in the Catholic communion we commune not only with Christ but with each other. Our participation in the Body of Christ is not only Eucharistic but ecclesial. To be united with the Head is to be united with his Body. To be members of Christ is to be “members of one another” (Romans 12:5). The next time you go to Mass, remember your solidarity with the Body of Christ, and make a point of really trying to greet and get to know somebody new.