By Father Kenneth Doyle
The Question Corner
Q. It has been 30 years since I last saw this happen, but at Sunday Mass yesterday a couple and their two children got up from a pew in front of me just as Communion was about to be distributed and walked around our section of pews in order to get in line to receive from the priest instead of from a lay Eucharistic minister. I am fighting being judgmental, but I can’t believe that this still happens. How might a priest deal with this? How might those who witness it best react? (St. Paul, Minnesota)
A. It is, of course, the same Eucharist — whether received from a priest or from a lay minister — and like you, I am a bit surprised when someone feels compelled to make a choice. You may have not seen it for 30 years, but my experience is more current. Up until a few weeks ago, there was a man in our parish who consistently refused to take the consecrated host from a layperson. (I say until a few weeks ago because the man has since passed away.)
When the distribution of Communion began, he would remain in the back of the church. At the end, when I would go up to give Communion to those unable to negotiate the aisle (our floor is sloped downward toward the altar), he would walk over to me, fall to his knees and take the host in his mouth.
I respected his choice and never made an effort to change his behavior. In the scope of things, I felt that his preference was a small issue. For me, it came under the heading of the “big tent” that embraces a wide variety of Catholics. (For safety reasons, I did, some years ago, speak to him about his habit of walking down the Communion aisle and suddenly dropping to his knees when he reached the priest, leaving the people behind him hard-pressed not to fall in a pile on top of him!)
Q. I raised my children to respect all people, to understand differences in nationalities, races and family traits and to know that God created everyone. But this week’s issue of our Catholic newspaper raises a serious question for me. I opened it to find two pages dedicated to a joint conference of national black sisters, national black clergy, national black deacons and national black seminarians.
My question is this: If the conference had referred to national white sisters, white clergy, white deacons, etc., don’t you think it would have incited a frenzy? Please help me to understand how one is acceptable to the church and society while the other is not. (Charleston, South Carolina)
A. Black clergy and religious — rather logically, I would think — have combined their efforts to deal with issues of special concern to black people in the church and in society. This coordination first began in 1968 during the civil rights movement when our nation was beginning to give greater attention to the sin of racism.
The primary focus currently seems to be evangelization — how to give the Catholic Church greater relevance with African-Americans, in part through the joy and enthusiasm of liturgical celebration. Attention also is given to societal issues that impact black people in particular. The 2015 joint conference of the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, called for the abolition of the death penalty and referenced studies that show race and poverty are often determining factors in our criminal justice system.
Q. Over the past few years, my husband has suffered a traumatic brain injury and, more recently, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I would like him to participate in all the sacraments, as he has done faithfully since he was a child. He attends Mass with me but does not remember any prayers, cannot read them from the missal and needs assistance when receiving the Eucharist.
I have taken him with me to confession during Lent — having him come into the reconciliation room with me, as he cannot be left unattended. The priests have heard my confession and then have given my husband a blessing. Is it appropriate for me to have him participate in the sacraments when he doesn’t fully understand their significance? (New Palestine, Indiana)
A. The answer to your question is a resounding “yes.” Your husband’s participation is absolutely appropriate. Despite his limitations, he should be encouraged to share in the sacraments for whatever spiritual blessings and personal satisfaction they might bring him.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called repeatedly for broader integration of people with disabilities into the full life of the church, particularly through the sacraments.
The canonical requirements for reception of the sacraments are quite modest. For holy Communion, there is a requirement about the use of reason but that is to be interpreted liberally. In a document entitled, “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments With Persons With Disabilities,” the document notes in No. 20 that all that is necessary is that “the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally.”
As for confession, the same document states in No. 23 that “as long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution.”
My guess is that in your situation the priests in the confessional have been giving your husband more than just a “blessing” and granting him absolution to whatever degree it is needed. If I were the priest, I would say to your husband, “Let’s thank God for his mercy and ask his forgiveness for anything we might have done wrong.” I would look to your husband for a nod or smile of recognition, dispense with any recitation of sins, act of contrition or imposition of a penance and simply go on to pronounce the words of absolution.
I must say that I am edified by your care for your husband and for his continued spiritual nourishment. To me, it stands as a beautiful example of fidelity to the marriage vow.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.