Online Edition: May 2010
Vol. XVI, No. 3
What is Communion?
by Father Theodore Book
We would have a hard time speaking about the Church without using the word “communion”. In this one beautiful term, we sum up so much of what we are as Catholics. The Church is a communion because it gathers us together as one body. The word implies that we have a shared mission, a shared purpose, a shared belief. The union that I have with my fellow Catholics is deeper than the one I might share with the residents of my neighborhood, followers of my favorite sports team, or friends of the same political persuasion. No — the communion of the Church is much deeper, much more meaningful.
As an infant, when I was baptized into the Catholic Church, I became a part of that communion. I was cleansed of the stain of original sin, and given a special relationship with Jesus, a relationship that is lived out in union with all of the other members of the Church. Our communion is spiritual, it is profound, and it affects every dimension of my life. In some way, whether I am working, playing, or sharing my views on the world, I am doing so as a Catholic, because I am rooted in the Catholic Church, that union with Jesus Christ that is bigger and deeper than myself.
While the communion of the Catholic Church is a spiritual reality, it also has concrete and visible elements. Together with all of the other Catholics in the world, I fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Together with the whole Church, I respect and obey the pope and the bishops who are the successors to blessed Peter and the Apostles. But that communion is most clearly expressed when I gather with the rest of the Church at Sunday Mass.
At the Mass, we come together as members of the Body of Christ. We are not present as an audience seeking entertainment, nor as individual worshipers looking for a spiritual experience. Rather, our worship manifests a shared devotion to Jesus Christ, and a shared pledge to love and serve Him. Indeed, I come to Sunday Mass first of all to give honor and glory to God through the worship of the whole Church, and only secondarily for the aid and grace that I know He will give me in return.
It is no accident that we refer to the reception of the Eucharist as Holy Communion. In the Eucharist, we manifest the communion that we have with the Father through Jesus Christ, as we obey His command to eat His Body and drink His Blood.
But Holy Communion does not only express our belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. It also manifests our communion with His entire Catholic Church. It is a concrete way of saying “yes” to Jesus and to His Church. My reception of Holy Communion affirms that I am in communion with the Church — that I believe what the Church believes, and live as the Church teaches that I should live.
Jesus Christ founded His Church for all people. He concluded His ministry with the command to “Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Through that baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God, and members of His Church.
But Jesus never forces Himself on us. He does not make us believe what He teaches or live as members of His Church. That is our free choice. The communion of the Church is open to all, but, to be in communion, we must freely choose to embrace Jesus Christ, His Catholic Church, and all that she teaches and professes.
In our world, there are still many people who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. We respect their choice to embrace other beliefs or no beliefs at all. At the same time, we believe that they are missing out on something beautiful and good. We pray for those who do not fully share our faith, and we pray that they may some day come to possess it. It would be dishonest, however, to pretend that communion exists where it does not. To invite non-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics to receive Holy Communion would be to pretend to have a union that does not yet exist.
Communion is a precious gift that binds us together with Jesus Christ and each other in His Catholic Church. It is sad when we encounter people who do not share in that unity. Let us invite all people to communion! Not in a false way, by pretending that there is unity where none is present, but in reality, inviting others to share the full richness of the Catholic faith, handed down from Jesus through His apostles to us, today.
Father Theodore Book holds a License in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute and is the Director of the Office of Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.