Last week, one of the brothers with whom I live here in Rome mentioned that the priest at Mass that morning had spoken after Communion and said that he hoped it was the last time he would have to say anything about people coming to communion with their hands behind their backs! Apparently he didn’t think it was a respectful way of approaching the sacrament. In the summer time, I often go to that particular Mass as it is early in the morning before the day heats up, but I was not there this particular day. It made me wonder – how do I approach communion?
I realised that I usually have my hands behind my back, and then put them in front of me to receive the host! For a lot of the day, the words of the priest kept coming back, and each time, they got me angry. What right has this man to tell anyone how to be reverent? Am I going to allow him to impose his sense of appropriateness on me? etc. So the following morning, I did walk up in the queue with my hands behind my back, and noticed that I was not the only one who did it! There was some consolation perhaps in that. Anyway, I received communion and nothing further was said.
So why did I get so angry about all this? I felt like I was a defiant adolescent not going to do what I had been asked by an authority figure. If you tell me to do this, I’ll do the opposite! The last few days have had me thinking about this question. There is a genuine concern on the part of the priest that people are respectful of the eucharist, but it is hard to imagine someone who has no love and respect for the eucharist fronting up at 6am anyway! So he was preaching to the converted, not all of whom agreed with him on how they show that reverence externally, while others were more than happy to bow and genuflect. In typically Italian way, nobody gets too excited (except the priest here!) about individual styles. Uniformity has no value of itself.
At a deeper level, it seems that my anger was more about a clerical authority attempting to impose quite an arbitrary standard on people. Having been increasingly disenchanted with the manifestations of that clerical authority in the Church when it seems to me to be used inappropriately, my immediate reaction was to say: What’s the point of going to Mass here if it is just a source of frustration?
Yet, on looking around at the congregation, there is an extraordinary mix of people, even at 6am. There are quite a few religious, mainly sisters, most wearing their traditional habits; a number of local people who are very faithful regulars, and not all old; an elderly man who gets around slowly but with some dexterity with walking sticks to assist his movements; and often a man who seems to be a ‘street person’ with his unkempt appearance and significant body odour. All are welcome and all are there because they want to celebrate the eucharist together at the start of the day. And when I can, I find it quite an inspiration to be there too. I can put up with the personal whims of the priest, and effectively ignore him.
When we have our community eucharist each Wednesday evening, we break bread and share wine in memory of Jesus, and we share how the reading of the day has had an impact on our living and how it is impacting on our world. There is no priest present, but for me this is the ‘real presence’ of Jesus, as we are really present to one another. What would ‘real presence’ mean if people were not opened up more to one another and impelled to be disciples of Jesus once again with renewed freshness?
I’m believing more and more that things come our way to read as we are meant to read them. In a week’s time, Francis Hall and I will be travelling to Belarus to spend a week with Brother Liam O’Meara who has been very active in working with children and adults in the institutions of that country, particularly since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. I’ve just read Liam’s latest book on the work of the Burren-Chernobyl Project, with its many volunteers from Ireland, and the people of Belarus who are trying to make a more human existence for those who currently live in the state-run institutions. Collectively they have done extraordinary work over the years to bring buildings to a state of relevance and comfort for people, but it is more in the resurrection of people than buildings that they take some pride. Many of Liam’s stories are poignant and illustrate that once one commits oneself to the welfare of others, there is no turning back.
One particular story is staying with me in terms of my Mass reflections of the last few days. Liam speaks of the death of a young man with multiple disabilities named Sergei. Sergei featured in a couple of RTE Ireland programmes on the Burren Chernobyl Project, and in particular the care that he was given by an older woman, Teresa Flynn, whose devotion to Sergei cannot be adequately put into words. Sergei died in February 2007. Liam describes how Sergei was in his coffin and people were calling in to see him and express their condolences. A man arrived, apparently quite drunken yet gentle, and was present until it was time to go to the cemetery. He then led the way, holding the cross as the coffin was taken to the car. After the ceremony at the graveside, all returned for something to eat. In Liam’s words: “The drunken man came too. We gave him some food and the price of drink as we hadn’t any at the meal. I gave him some sandwiches and he said ‘Thank you’ in English. We never saw him before or since. But we felt it was appropriate that he should turn up. Sometimes Jesus turns up in various ways. I wonder when the time comes will he remind us that he was at the funeral and that we almost recognised him? In his gentleness?”
These thoughts, and our being part of a much bigger reality (ultimately the Mystery that we call God), seem to place reverence for eucharist in a much bigger context. Instead of being influenced by those who seek to narrow our understandings, thanks for those whose words and actions open us up more to a much wider truth about our existence than we have ever even imagined before. I get a clear impression that the Jesus of the gospels would say Amen to that!
Christian Brothers' Leadership Team, Rome -