Eucharistic Affiliation and the Chimera of Control

Last summer I participated in the McGrath Institute Summer Liturgy Series, “Will They Come Back After COVID?: Disaffiliation, Affiliation, and the Liturgy.” At the same time, I was teaching a course with Dr. Bronwen McShea called Reform, Renewal, and the Role of the Lay Faithful. One of the most important course themes regarded a virtue common to leaders of reform and renewal: magnanimity. Teresa of Avila clarifies magnanimity when she writes of the contrary vice: pusillanimity.

If we turn from self towards God, our understanding and our will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above . . . cowardice, pusillanimity and fear [we do ourselves a great disservice]. We shall always be glancing around and saying: “Are people looking at me or not?” “If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?” “Dare I begin such and such a task?” “Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?” “Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so lofty an exercise as prayer?” “Will people think better of me if I refrain from following the crowd?”[1]

Such fears can plague all of us. But if they begin to control our behavior, they directly undermine our ability to undertake great things, to be magnanimous.

In an article an article referencing Hartmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World, Tim O’Malley describes a trend within Church settings to try to seek panaceas, control the future (or appear to control it), and prevent all negative possibilities. But this is to chase an illusion. The attempt to control the future is impossible and it can drive endless research, strategizing, and the crafting of mission statements and press releases. To strive for perfect actions with perfect and predictable consequences can paralyze action and reduce attention, energy, and time for more daring ventures.

Magnanimous Catholics Willing to Take a Risk

Paralysis of action was one thing you did not see in the numerous examples Dr. McShea and I compiled for our course. I saw a willingness to take responsibility for situations rather than pass the responsibility to another or higher authority, to act rather than wait to be asked or told what to do, to make decisions and follow through without knowing the outcome and certainly without being able to control the consequences.

Our course focused on lay initiatives, although there were many examples of magnanimous clergy and religious. Long before Vatican II, lay men and women took risks. They called Church-wide ecumenical councils and local synods,[2] prosecuted clerical abuse, initiated and funded religious reforms, developed expressions of piety, built churches, recommended worthy pastors, served in ecclesiastical tribunals, and organized thousands of forms of evangelization and diakonia, from health cost sharing groups to schools, from theater clubs to meal centers, from street-preaching and presses to charitable and social justice groups.[3]

We can criticize the lay men and women who called the first eight ecumenical councils for personal failures, mixed motives, misreading situations and people, susceptibility to manipulation, ignorance of many aspects of theology, problematic uses of force, and so on. Yet, we cannot criticize them for pusillanimity; they did not let themselves be driven to inaction by an overabundance of caution regarding the prerogatives of the laity. They saw theological conflict. There was no clear theological teaching and (unlike now) no disciplinary rule against laity calling a council.[4] So, they called councils. Clarity was pursued, creeds written, fundamental truths discerned and proclaimed.

Or, consider the example of Gasparo Contarini. Born in Venice in 1483, he was a scholar and statesman, and a Catholic keenly interested in reform, penning works like his 1517 The Office of a Bishop. Ordained when he was 52, he chaired the reform commission whose work later informed the Council of Trent. Christopher Dawson relates an interaction Contarini had with certain Curia members nervous about the optics of reform. There was a risk of conflict and of scandalizing or alienating people. But Contarini did not let potential negative outcomes stop him. His response? “The attempt to justify all the actions of all the Popes would be an arduous, and in fact an endless, undertaking. We cast no stones at your predecessors, but from you the world expects better things.”[5]

Or consider the success of sixteenth-century Jesuit missions in Japan, of the number of baptisms from different social strata “in virtually every province.”[6] Part of the success can be attributed to the fact that,

By the time Xavier left Japan, in November 1551, there were already Japanese catechists spreading the Gospel, and the missionaries had several collaborators who helped them in their daily activities as well as in the translation of the scriptures, doctrinal and catechetical materials, and liturgy. Without the consent of either Goan or European authorities, the missionaries began accepting Japanese members into the Society from 1557, and thirty-three years later there were seventy native brothers in Japan, fully one half of Jesuits in Japan and fifteen percent of all Jesuits who were working in Asia.[7]

Communication was slow: it could take up to five years for the missionaries to hear back from their superiors, so “the missionaries often had to make decisions using their own judgment and intuition.”[8] There were risks. Such decisions might garner the ill-will of a superior. Imagine the frustration which would have ensued if Jesuit authorities later demanded a reversal of local policy. There were the risks of involving Japanese laity in catechesis and evangelization. What if they “did it wrong”? Much better to micromanage and do it yourself; you might burn out and infantilize others Christians, but at least you would safely ensure a future free of risk. Or would you?

Both the missionaries and their lay collaborators took risks. Their magnanimous actions may explain why so many hidden Christians (the Kakure Kirishitan) were able to preserve elements of their faith for centuries without clergy and to be formally reunited to the Catholic Church when missionaries returned in the late nineteenth century. The first three Japanese men to be ordained after the missionaries returned were all descended from Kakure Kirishitan, and had themselves spent time in prison with their families during late nineteenth century persecutions.[9]  João Costa observes that the “reason for this success from a religious perspective was the real conversion of thousands of Japanese to the Gospel and the decision of hundreds of them to take an active role in the support of their religious lives.”[10]

Modern Catholics Taking Risks?

There were uncharted territories during COVID-19. We are too close to assess what was and was not magnanimous, but I offer some potential examples of Catholics willing to exercise prudence and take magnanimous risks. Time (and God) will have to judge.

I walk three miles a day. I began the practice for my health, and in 2020, it was a necessity because my car died and could not be replaced due to COVID-19 related economic hardships. While walking, I experienced unexpected solidarity with the suffering. For long stretches of time, it seemed like everybody was inside—inside a home, a workplace, or a car. It seemed that the only people outside were me and the homeless. Perhaps they could not quarantine, even if they had wanted to, because they had nowhere to go and no one to take them in. Maybe they had endured such terrible experiences that the threat of coronavirus was the least of their problems.

Once, when I was walking home from work, I was crying openly. It had been a terrible day. Crying relieved my feelings but there was the risk of extreme embarrassment should I encounter someone. Also, I was walking through a rather lonely part of town. I turned a corner and saw a man walking away from the transitional housing service and towards me. Nobody else was around. I felt horrible. I was in no mood to “assess the risk,” to determine whether I was being “judgy” or “naïve.” I could have crossed to the opposite side of the street. That has become a pretty common practice of mine since the pandemic began. But I did not cross.

As the man approached, he did something I would never have expected. He said, “Hard day at work?” I looked up, tears streaking my face. “It’ll get better,” he said and walked on, like some messenger from God. I stared after him. I am willing to bet this man had endured a day worse than mine. Yet he was rich in something I lacked: the ability to notice suffering and extend compassion. I took a little risk. The result? Someone suffering more than me extended solidarity and mercy.

There were other examples. Some friends used to make a walking pilgrimage to a Marian shrine. During COVID-19, the sponsoring institution cancelled the pilgrimage. My friends were faced with a dilemma. They had to ask: “Am I living out my baptismal call to be priest, prophet, and king, if my lived love of God depends completely on what my parish, diocese, or other apostolic group chooses to permit? Do we need their permission for expressions of lay piety?” My friends had to exercise prudence. They made a practical decision to undertake their own private walking pilgrimage.

When the churches closed, I wanted to turn my daily walk into a pilgrimage to visit Jesus in the Eucharist. During that time, there was a government mandate against nonessential trips. But it was very unclear what constituted “essential.” Like the Jesuit missionaries, I had to make decisions using my own judgment and intuition and risk the consequences. I had to decide if visiting the Eucharist was as essential as other services available to me, such as purchasing ice-cream and throw pillows. I had to be willing to argue for my decision if I was stopped or questioned and to pay the penalty if it turned out that I had misconstrued the meaning of “essential.”

I made a decision, took a risk, and walked down to the church. I could not go inside; the church was locked. But I could look through the glass on one of the doors and dimly see the tabernacle and the flickering red flame of the sanctuary lamp. Jesus was there even if I could not receive him in the Eucharist at Mass.

When I would go, I would see practical signs of Eucharistic affiliation, of lived, enculturated devotion to the Eucharist. Others made their own pilgrimages and took their kids. For weeks, there were fresh roses and bundles of lavender left on the steps of the church or tied to the door handles. People were going to see Jesus. I went, too. I went to see Jesus and to remind myself that the Eucharist is essential.

During COVID-19, walking was the occasion for another situation which called for prudence. In some places, bishops forbade sacramental confession except in emergency. Confession was forbidden, even you employed masks, social distancing, and extra sanitizing.

This raised many questions. Did bishops have the authority to make this ruling? What qualifies as “an emergency”? Did this rule bind laity or only priests? If priests disregarded it, what would happen—an official consequence? Or would they pay for it in more subtle ways? If you asked a priest for confession, were you putting yourself and him in an “occasion of sin” or endangering his future within the diocese? How long would you be willing to go without confession? Were you bound to report a priest who was offering confession? Or mind your own business? Talk about it? Or keep your mouth shut? Support the prohibition? Or criticize it openly? And on and on . . . in a frazzled and pusillanimous litany of questions so well illustrated by Teresa of Avila in the earlier quotation.

I heard of priests who would “take a walk.” That was code for being available to offer sacramental confession. Some thought this was great; some thought this was scandalous disobedience; some reported it to chanceries. Some laity waxed eloquent about being able to receive confession. “Left-out laity” were mad they had not been told. Priests who realized laity were talking openly expressed frustrated about the “lack of discretion.” It was all very painful.

Like many, I researched for insight into the proper response. To go or not to go to confession? I could come to no conclusion. Talking with friends, I said, “I think we will have to exercise prudence and take a risk. You’re just not going to find some obvious answer about what to do.”

When the Church teaches something clearly, there is no dilemma for me because I have already accepted her claim to be founded by Christ and preserved from error by the Holy Spirit. It is harder when there is no clear teaching. There is no rulebook for new situations. I do not know what repercussions a certain decision will have on my relationship with God, on the local Church, on the body of Christ. And I cannot control the outcome. I have to pray, examine what the Church teaches, consult others, and make a judgment. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes,

The rules to which we must conform in order to act rightly are never by themselves sufficient to specify what we must do, if we are to act well. And the ends for the sake of which we act are never such that we can simply read off from them what to do here and now; there is no algorithm by which we may connect our particular situation with the relevant aspects of those ends. This is why we need prudence. [11]

I know one thing. To wait to be told what to do, to wait until there is no chance of failure is to relinquish our call to be magnanimous priests, prophets, and kings. And that is a recipe for priestly burnout and lay disaffiliation.

Whatever You Can, Dare to Do

When the churches finally opened, I expected to experience joy. But it was hard. I felt cold and numb. Later, I realized: “If I let myself experience joy, it will also rekindle the sadness and anger I feel about not being allowed to receive the sacraments for so long.” I told my pastor Fr. Timothy Alkire, “There’s a dispensation. We don’t have to go right now, and honestly, I don’t feel like going.” Fr. Alkire said, “I’m very practical. If I thought Jesus was really present in the Eucharist, I’d do whatever I had to do to get him.”

That is practical. The scandals, bureaucracy, and bids for control do not change the fact that God is God, that he made and saved the world, that he offers us eternal life, and that he really comes to us in the Eucharist. It can be hard sometimes, but maybe I will take that risk. “Quantum potes, tantum aude,” says the sequence for Corpus Christi, the feast of the body and blood of Our Lord. Whatever you can, dare to do.

[1] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, translated by E. Allison Peers, Book I, Chapter 2, §10.

[2] See Hubert Jedin, Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, trans. Ernest Graf (Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1961); Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2020); Norman Tanner, The Councils of the Church: A Short History (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001); Joseph Francis Kelly, The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009).

[3] See John P. Beal, “The Exercise of the Power of Governance by Lay People: State of the Question,” Jurist 55 (1995): 1–92; James A. Coriden, “Lay Persons and the Power of Governance,” Jurist 59, no. 2 (1999): 335–347; Duane Galles, “Lay Participation in Church Governance,”; Jeffrey Burns, “The Parish History Project: A Descriptive Analysis of the Data,” 9, Jay P. Dolan Papers, Parish History Project: Burns and Dolan, CDOL 2002–145, box 4, University of Notre Dame Archives; Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 204–208, 323; Jim Castelli and Joseph Gremillion, The Emerging Parish: The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life since Vatican II (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 22; Bronwen McShea, “The Age of the Laity? Historical Reconsiderations in Light of the Crisis,” The Josephinum Journal of Theology 26, no. 1–2 (2019): 80–92, and her forthcoming book on Marie de Vignerot, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon (1604–1675).

[4] Currently, there is a disciplinary prohibition against laity calling councils. See 1983 Code of Canon Law, §338; Lumen Gentium, §22; 1917 Code of Canon Law, §227, in force when Lumen Gentium was promulgated. However, the fact that eight of the first ecumenical councils were convoked by laity suggests that convoking a council is not an effect of the sacrament of ordination. Current canonical structures are matters of discipline and can be changed to serve the needs of the church. There is no dogmatic theological reason laity could not convoke councils in the future as part of the exercise of their baptismal call. Tanner also makes this point in his Councils of the Church.

[5] Christopher Dawson, “Trent and the Jesuits,” in The Dividing of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), 146. See also John Patrick Donnelly, “Introduction,” in Gasparo Contarini, The Office of a Bishop (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002).

[6] João Paulo Oliveira E. Costa, “The Brotherhoods (Confrarias) and Lay Support for the Early Christian Church in Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34, no. 1 (2007): 69.

[7] Costa, 71.

[8] Costa, 70.

[9] Jean-Pierre Lehmann, “French Catholic Missionaries in Japan in the Bakumatsu and Early Meiji Periods,” Modern Asian Studies, 13, no. 3 (1979): 400.

[10] Costa, 73.

[11] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Aquinas’s Critique of Education: Against His Own Age, Against Ours,” in Philosophers on Education: Historical Perspectives, edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 106. See also Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 116; Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 93.

Featured Image: Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash.


Gwendolen Adams

Gwen Adams is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute, Denver, Colorado, as well as a writer and playwright.

Read more by Gwendolen Adams