Lay minister on Biden, abortion and Communion: No litmus tests, please. Everyone is worthy.
An abortion litmus test for Communion would place lay Eucharistic ministers in the untenable position of having to decide who is worthy and who is not.
The blusteringU.S. Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly a few weeks ago to begin a drafting a document on the Eucharist that could include restrictions on public figures who are Catholic and support abortion rights, including President Joe Biden, in contravention of Pope Francis’ request to forgo a vote. Then, in a head-spinning move, they back-pedaled just days afterward by declaring in a brief statement that there will be no national policy restricting politicians from Communion.
The unintended consequences of such a punitive policy, should it emerge as a national policy, could be unfathomably painful – not so much for the ordained clergy who are the focus of this debate, but for lay Eucharistic ministers who distribute Communion to untold millions of Catholics in churches, homes and hospitals.
Spiritual care for hospital patients
In fact,lay Eucharistic ministers give out Communion much more frequently than priests do. According to the Georgetown University-based research institute, CARA, there were 35,513 priests in the United States in 2020, and some 16,703 parishes, and 512 Catholic hospitals. Yet lay Eucharistic ministers are so common in those parishes and hospitals that neither CARA nor most dioceses know how many there are, and it’s safe to say that their numbers would far exceed the total number of priests.
For close to 25 years now I have served as a volunteer Eucharistic minister in the spiritual care department at my local hospital in Connecticut. It has been a singular joy and privilege to bring the Eucharist to an estimated 4,000 patients during this time, including on occasion public figures and political party activists. Sharing the Eucharist with newly minted mothers, those in for surgery and those at the end of their lives, among others, has afforded me an intimate and up-close experience of the impact of the Eucharist on its recipients.
Being a Eucharistic minister requires an open heart, an open mind and much humility. I am not there to hear confessions (I can’t anyway because I am not a priest) or to offer therapy (for which I am not qualified), although patients tend to pour their hearts out occasionally. I am not there to make a judgment about their life decisions. I am not there to punish them for their political views. Whatever the patient’s political views, they are irrelevant.
I am bedside in order to facilitate an encounter with our Lord in the Eucharist. Indeed, as Pope Francis has written, “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
This description is never more apt than at a patient’s bedside. In fact, it is interesting to note that the assessment of a patient’s spiritual condition by a trained hospital chaplain becomes a part of the patient’s medical record. Can you imagine placing a note in a patient’s medical record that the patient is ineligible for Communion? This is a heads up as to where to draw the line, if the bishops create a Communion litmus test.
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Many times, when I am praying softly, patients will close their eyes and join me in praying out loud. Some remain silent while I pray. Then I present the Eucharist and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Patients respond, if they can, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I then place the Eucharist in their hands or on their tongues.
'Worthiness tests' for the Eucharist
More than a few patients, while consuming the Host, begin to gently weep, tears running down their faces, as some mystical, spiritual closeness with the God of all understanding is taking place. Time seems to stand still and I am drawn into this private, internal moment of intimacy. I know not the cause of these tears, but they come from a place deep inside the heart.
That is what it is all about: Facilitating an encounter with the Lord in order to heal one’s soul. It’s so simple and so powerful.
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Despite the retrofitted, terse statement that there will be no such national policy against certain politicians receiving Communion, should the U.S. Catholic bishops at some point create an abortion litmus test for Communion, it will place lay Eucharistic ministers in the untenable position of having to make “worthiness” decisions of who is and is not eligible. It is untenable to me that I would be required to deny the request of a dying patient – or any patient for that matter – to receive the Eucharist.
Any attempt by the U.S. Catholic bishops to try to implement an abortion restriction – or any similar restriction – to the distribution of Communion throughout the U.S. will likely end up being pastorally disastrous for lay Eucharistic ministers and for the souls they are called by the Catholic Church to serve.
Tom Gallagher is the Executive Producer of a new documentary on religious pluralism in the United Arab Emirates titled, Amen-Amen-Amen, due out this summer. He previously served as CEO and Publisher of Religion News Service. @tleogallagher