Last month marked the anniversary of the death of George Floyd and the beginning of mass protests and social unrest that came on the heels of three months of social distancing and frozen economic activity due to the pandemic. This month, with the easing of social restrictions, African Americans will participate in the annual celebration of Juneteenth, a traditional holiday marking the end of 240 years of enslavement.
Over the past year, teenagers and young adults of all races appear to be particularly interested in issues related to social justice to a degree not seen since the civil rights movement to end forced racial segregation a half century ago. No one should be surprised that many Catholic parents and grandparents in western Pennsylvania are perplexed by how different their vision of the world seems from that of their children and grandchildren. This raises the question as to what is the Catholic spirituality of this moment.
As in all things Catholic, the answer is found in the Eucharist. When the priest elevates the Eucharist and proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world,” he holds in his hand, above the chalice of the precious blood, two broken fragments of a host that was once whole. This reflects the reality that as individuals and as a community, we too, are broken.
Rather than being repulsed by this image of brokenness, we must accept it, embrace it, and enter into it as the first step on the path to becoming whole as the universal Body of Christ. After Jesus was resurrected from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and called down peace upon them, but he also showed them his wounds (John 20: 19-20).
In a real sense, many of our social relationships are broken, but to be broken is not to be defeated. There is a big difference between being “broken down” and being “broken open.” When we enter into the fragmentation and brokenness of our society, we are reminded of the fragmentation and brokenness of the Eucharist.
We confront the brokenness of our condition so that we may empty ourselves of those things that separate us from each other and from God. We break open the barriers that prevent us from knowing one another in an authentic way. This always entails a pouring out and emptying of ourselves so that we can see and hear each other more clearly.
The two fragments of the broken Eucharist, which the priest suspends over the chalice of the Blood of Christ, signify a temporary separation, not an eternal one. They show a fragmentation within our humanity that will be restored to wholeness. As a Church, we believe that our hope for unity in the Holy Spirit will not go unfulfilled. When we allow ourselves to be animated by the Holy Spirit, we see a vision of humanity that awaits us. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we are all given to drink of One Spirit (1 Corinthians 12: 12-13).
While the world that teenagers and young adults are living in may seem strange, in many ways, to their parents and grandparents, it is likely that those children and grandchildren have a sense of something that the rest of us ignore at our peril. While it is true that the Eucharist itself is about the “real presence,” there is also a real absence at the Eucharistic celebration in many of our parishes. That real absence is that members of our churches often do not remotely reflect the diversity of the geographic territory in which our churches are located.
This should disturb us more than it does. That real absence makes it harder for us to catechize and re-evangelize teenagers and young adults who grew up in the Catholic Church. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus said, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:19)” This requires being present, having encounters, listening, and active engagement beyond our zone of comfort and beyond that which is convenient for us. And it is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.