Mercy from this side of the Altar

This is the Year of Mercy, which if you are Catholic, you should already know. And much debate rages on about how the faithful should celebrate and what constitutes “mercy.” Because apparently the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy the Church sets out aren’t good enough.

A week ago, my son received his First Holy Communion and debate again started up. Do we receive on the hand or the tongue? Well, my kid is, thus far, the only new First Communicant at our parish who received (and continues to receive) on his tongue. His reasoning has nothing to do with Catechesis (as he has been taught that receiving on the tongue and on one’s hand are both valid) but the fact that he’s a lefty and the whole right-over-left-lift-with-your-left-then-Cross-with-your-right is really confusing to him. Also, I receive on my tongue. Bottom line: he’s not doing it because he feels it is more valid to receive this way, it just happens to be easier for him. He’s eight, if you want to pick on an eight-year-old for his reasoning, well bully on you because he believes in the True Presence, he knows what transubstantiation means and exactly when it happens during Mass. Your average adult Catholic does not. But…I digress…

This debate of validity often leads to great disparagement of priests and dioceses. For an example, remember when this happened a year ago at the funeral of Katrina Fernandez’s grandmother? The original post tells the tale of a truly awful event and one that should be avoided whenever possible by all clergy. The follow-up post makes some clarifications and Fernandez is careful to point out that this was not intended to be a N.O. vs M.E.F. debate (because inevitably that’s what happens with these kinds of stories). She also regrets airing the problem before speaking to the priest in question. She states in the follow-up that she got a satisfactory response when she did contact the priest. 

What happened to Katrina happened because a priest and parish “did things a certain way.” Had she been to a parish I know and the pastor emeritus was presiding, it would have been a different story. (This is where mercy comes in…)

Father B. at St M’s  is retired from active ministry with a cancer diagnosis. He is also the priest who baptized Joseph as an infant. This past New Years, for the Solemnity of Mary, we attended this parish and while I had known about his diagnosis and decline, I was shocked to see how frail he appeared. At Communion, only Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist gave the faithful the Body and Precious Blood. After Mass, I made sure to bring Joseph over and tell Father B. that Joseph would be making his First Communion later this year. He was very happy to hear this and see that baby he baptized 8 years previous.

Last weekend I found out why Father B. rarely distributes the Body of Christ at Mass. His arthritis has become so bad that he can no longer safely place the Eucharist on the tongues of the faithful. And the faithful, in response, behave poorly. As in, stomping out of Mass like a two-year-old poorly. And frankly, if that’s your attitude, you might not be in a state of grace to receive…

If this was the situation I found myself in, I would simply receive in my hand. This is a small parish, they are truly blessed that they have a retired priest in the vicinity who loves Jesus and the sacraments enough to still take part and fill in for the parish priest. There is no parochial vicar here. Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is still Jesus regardless of how we receive Him. Yes, from the perspective of not having Jesus fully consumed because particles remain on one’s hands, it is best to receive on the tongue, but in a situation like this one, our mercy should outweigh our sense of piety.

But this whole “Communion in the hand vs on the tongue” debate brings about a larger idea. Do we show mercy to our shepherds? Really, seriously, are we merciful in our assessments of them? Do we pray for the priests we have that aren’t our favorites?

A few years ago I watched, in horror, as various former parishoners of a particular parish ripped apart the pastor on a facebook forum. They denounced his every move and his every motivation from his homilies to how he ran the parish outreach. And nowhere did I see anyone saying that, while he may have upset them by his words or actions, that they were praying for him. Maybe some of them did, but it’s hard to believe by the viritol spewed that any of them thought about him except to disparage him. There was definitely no mercy extended in those comments.

I agree, priests that are committing liturgical abuse shouldn’t be excused but should our immediate reaction be burning at the stake? Because it wasn’t a far leap in that conversation for people to start calling for it. And where I live, with a shortage of priests and vocations, people seem to forget that they don’t have as much choice as they did in the northeast or midwest or California. There’s a better chance of getting a dud who has bad homilies than a brilliant, holy mind who does everything right, that’s just the state of things.

Then I run into the people who are angry at the state of things and take it out on the immigrant priest who left his homeland and learned English to serve in this tiny diocese. Really? The African and Latin American priests we have are acclimating to a different culture and language so that you have a chance to receive the Eucharist and your response is to be angry that sometimes they are difficult to understand?

And let’s not forget our priests are human too. They are subject to the same temptations and sins we all are. Which is why they need our mercy even more at times. Instead of complaining, offer to help. If that is rebuffed, instead of skewering someone in the virtual world, pray for them. Ask St John Vianney and the Blessed Mother to pray for them. Let’s not forget, not every priest is ecstatic about being assigned to their particular parish either. As our pastor said in a homily once, there was comparison even amongst the priests in the diocese about who got which assignment and not all of it happy. They serve out of obedience and they deserve a flock who, at the very least, is willing to pray for them.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy, as outlined by the USCCB here do not include bashing someone or slandering them. They do include bearing wrongs patiently and instructing the ignorant and admonishing the sinner in a certain way. It’s not enough to simply be angry at your priest or any priest. And as we continue on in this year of mercy, perhaps we can consider how to utilize these Spiritual Works of Mercy when encountering our priests and not reacting simply on our emotions and our own fallen state.