Beyond Bread and Wine

So the past few days, I’ve been talking a bit about communion with friends. I posted the following on Facebook:

Ok folks…here’s one for the germaphobes. The blood of Christ should not be suspended. #1 there’s enough alcohol in there to kill any germs and second of all people should police themselves if they are sick or prone to illness. #2 I find it odd that the liturgical police NUTS are so concerned about people who receive from the cup but are unconcerned about everyone dipping their fingers into the same bowl of holy water. Get a life folks and stop trying to politicize the Eucharist under the guise of health.

At least two people told me that receiving from the cup was gross…to which I replied.

“Um no, it’s Christ.”

One of the grossed outs informed me that:

Jesus is in my heart NOT in my cup!! Drinking wine is symbolic of the blood of Christ..c’mon Mike! We ALL learned that in Catholic school!!

Well, we obviously did NOT go to the same Catholic School because that’s what we call consubstantiation…meaning “with the substance”. So the wine is merely a symbol which is what the Protestants believe. They believe it’s a type of re-creation, but the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine. Catholics on the other hand believe in TRANS-substantiation. Meaning that the bread and wine look and taste the same but the substance is now changed. The bread and wine are merely “accidents” while the substance becomes the body and blood of Christ. Now no longer bread, the essence of the Eucharistic feast has changed into something “BEYOND the substance” we see.

How I love doing Catechesis on Facebook, but am also amazed at how people spout off their theological beliefs as if what they believe is Catholic dogma and they even have the audacity to try to tell me that I’m wrong, even with my Master’s Degree in my back pocket!

But beyond those who are grossed out, I’m also astounded that as a eucharistic minister many people don’t say “Amen” when they come up to receive, especially when they receive from the cup. I think people get nervous, especially those who may be returning to the church. They simply forget it. I often prompt them and while I’m not in favor of priests or Eucharistic Ministers refusing people communion for their political beliefs, I am in favor of prompting folks to answer the minister when they say “The Body of Christ”. I remember once I stood there host aloft waiting for someone to say “Amen” and they just looked blankly at me. I replied:

“This is the part where you say ‘Amen.””

And indeed they had become flustered and just forgot. They even apologized and then I did as well. I’m really not trying to embarrass anyone, or even be a snot. But I do believe that Christ is present in the sacrament and that we should be giving assent to that.

Now that said, I also believe that some of us get way too bent out of shape about the Eucharist. We should be reverent with the Eucharist for sure, but not so pious that we forget about people and the fact that the Eucharist ties us all together in unity.

I think we too often forget that Jesus went to the cross and beyond death and therefore I think Jesus is able to take care of himself. So all the mistakes people make when they come up is not the end of the world. Jesus understands our human frailty and forgetfulness at times. Grace abounds regardless.

This evening I stumbled upon a column by my dear friend, Deacon Greg Kandra. He’s calling for a return to the altar rail, which in my opinion is a vast over-reaction. But read for yourself why he feels that way.

But now, after several years of standing on the other side of the ciborium—first as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, now as a deacon—and watching what goes on, I’ve had about enough.

I’ve watched a mother receive communion, her toddler in tow, then take it back to the pew and share it with him like a cookie.

At least four or five times a year, I have to stop someone who just takes the host and wanders away with it and ask them to consume it on the spot.

Once or twice a month I encounter the droppers. Many are well-intentioned folks who somewhere, somehow drop the host or it slides out of their hands and Jesus tumbles to the floor.

A couple times a year I get the take-out crowd. They receive the host properly, and then pull out a hanky and ask if they can take another one home to a sick relative.

Beyond that, I’m reminded week after week that people have no uniform way to receive in the hand. There’s the reverent “hands-as-throne” approach; there’s the “Gimme five,” one-hand-extended style; there are the notorious “body snatchers” who reach up and seize the host to pop into their mouths like an after-dinner mint; and there are the vacillating undecideds who approach with hands slightly cupped and lips parted. Where do you want it and how??

After experiencing this too often, in too many places, under a variety of circumstances, I’ve decided: it’s got to stop. Catechesis is fruitless. We’ve tried. You can show people how it’s done; you can instruct them; you can post reminders in the bulletin and give talks from the pulpit. It does no good. Again and again, there is a sizable minority of the faithful who are just clueless—or, worse, indifferent.

I think that’s a bit much. I think people can be instructed and I think we can make that time more solemn in many other ways. I love the parishes who stand together after communion until all have received or those that do a nice post-communion hymn standing together as one body in Christ. See, we don’t stand together often, there’s always some divisiveness that bleeds over into our cluttered and opinionated lives. But here we stand together as one, one body of believers drawn forth by Christ to become who it is that we receive. We challenge one another to stand humbly before God as unworthy people and receive all of God into our bloodstreams.

And now back to the germophobes.

I suspect that all this talk of altar rails and not making the blood of Christ available at mass, comes from an attempt to co-opt the sacrament to a time from before the Second Vatican Council. So I’d like to call for more levity in making those kinds of sweeping judgements and to look for what might be good in receiving communion together in the present form.

And so while the germophobes almost immediately side with those who wish to eliminate the reception of Christ’s precious blood, these same people may receive Christ’s body on their tongue, a practice that is far more unsanitary (fingers touch tongue, touches next host). And secondly, we don’t seem to have any problem dipping our fingers in the same holy water font week in and week out. By the way the CDC agrees with me, TWICE, so I now have medicine and theology on my side. Next up: The World.

My point is that the problems with receiving communion properly is not really as much about those coming forth to receive, but instead it is with us who are ministers of the sacrament. How much care do we take with our roles? Do we stand and receive reverently ourselves, do we try to create a time like no other for Christ? Do we give people ample opportunities for quiet after communion to pray a bit more privately in gratitude for Christ’s love for us?

Or do we come forth, like we’re carrying any old thing and then expect others to act differently? Do we even seem excited about being a Eucharistic Minister? There’s a guy in my parish who is a big time lawyer, but when he goes to the altar to be a Eucharistic Minister, he seems so filled with enthusiasm that it becomes holy. Are we as excited to receive Christ?

Lastly, I’m not sure the altar rail will work. I think people will be more confused. Kneel or stand? Hands out –or tongue? Where do I go again? What’s worse is that it seems to emphasize the separation between priest and laity over the unity of the sacrament. We are all joined together in the Eucharist, not just to each other, but to all who have received the eucharist before us, including the disciples! Ritualizing that moment might be worth doing, placing our minds and hearts before God during and after the sacrament. In doing so, we bring ourselves and others to Christ. Be we priests or pot smokers, bishops or bankers, mothers or managers, custodians or CEOs. We are all one body in Christ.

For it is:

“Through him with him and in him, O God Almighty Father,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit, all power and glory are yours
Both now and forever. Amen.

A brief addendum…A faithful reader points out that for those unable to receive because of illness, this shouldn’t be read as a judgement against them. Rather, people should be given the choice to receive or not receive the blood of Christ. My own wife doesn’t receive normally. So I understand that, but my point is that we need not overreact and eliminate it altogether. Bishop Malone here in Buffalo has asked people to police themselves if they are sick, which I would say is the right idea.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you for thoughtfully responding to Mr. Kandra’s article. I was annoyed and disturbed by his line of thinking, but just couldn’t put together my thoughts in a clear way! So thanks for saying what was on my mind. Especially the part of all of standing together. I find that important, and theologically/liturgically appropriate.
    Happy Wednesday!


  2. I teach 2nd grade CCD and am always amazed at how many kids are told by their parents – teacher is wrong – it is a symbol. Talk about making my job more difficult. I actually had a significant discussion with one parent over it. Had to send him over to the rectory to clear things up. I view it as basic Catholic doctrine. My 3 year old was once playing peek a boo with the little girls in pew in front of him. When he heard the altar server ring the bells – he told them to stop now Jesus was here. They thought him a bit strange – but there it is.

    And, thanks – I might never bless myself with holy water again. Had to share that info just as I got all my kids to stop playing with it and bless themselves. Yech.


  3. “My point is that the problems with receiving communion properly is not really as much about those coming forth to receive, but instead it is with us who are ministers of the sacrament.”

    Thanks for this point. Well said.

    I was a bit more snarky on my blog, suggesting that I’ve tried to catechize priests and other ministers to take their time, and act with utmost reverence.


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