In May 1995, the Most Reverend Thomas L. Dupre was installed as the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts. I was invited to the installation as an ecumenical guest representing the United Church of Christ, an American Protestant denomination. I took pleasure in being invited. I also took pleasure in the one holy Roman Catholic Church, its incense, its costumes, its history. William James once said that Catholics are a tapestry while Protestants come sombre, in black, with nothing but a book in our hand.
I took pleasure in the twinkle in the new bishop's eye and in the way it deepened as he greeted his blood relatives. I liked his opening joke for his homily: "Mother, I'm going to be bishop." "That's nice. Let's have lunch." The joke worked to establish his reputation as both capable and humble. It also meant he had a seat at a table, which is a great joy when we have it and a great burden when we don't.
That day, I was denied a seat at the table. Officials invited every pew in the packed sanctuary to come up and be served the Eucharist--except the two front rows of ecumenical guests. Everyone else remembered Jesus eucharistically; we did not. We watched them eat.
And so my pleasure did not last. It turned sour and it was unspeakable because it was impolite: how dare I beg for food from a table that rejects me? But the displeasure would not go away. It grew in my hungry heart. I decided I had to speak, even to beg. The table is too important, its food too crucial to my being.
I received the Eucharist once at the cathedral at Chartres, and no one knew I was not Catholic. But here I could not embarrass myself or my church or my front row. Because I lacked this courage, or had these manners, or both, I starved that day.
Of course I can receive communion in my own church. My hands can even break the bread and the wine. I am not without the sacrament. Still, to sit and starve while others eat is an experience that deserves mention, even in polite company. When will the day come when Christians cocommune? Will it come before the poor are fed or after? Will we have to believe in each other before we can eat or will eating allow us to believe? If Jesus Christ could eat with prostitutes and sinners, when will Catholics eat with Protestants?
Is there a midpoint possible between exclusion and inclusion? Between now and the time of Jesus' true table, when all the poor, all the hungry, all the thirsty are fed? Can we touch but not eat? Can we be served something in our front row? Can we witness, at least, to Bishop Dupre's mother's sentiment--that it is nice to be a bishop and even better to have lunch? Or shall we all stay away from the table until all can come? I don't know. I know only my hunger--and it is large.
I believe in the resurrection of the body. I believe that the Eucharist is not a sacramental cult that divides the church but rather a communion with the history of liberation as embodied in Israel and Jesus. Is it the real body and blood in the Eucharist? Of course it is. It is as real as communion, as history, as embodiment, as liberation, as Israel, as Jesus. That is to say, as real as you can get. I was sitting in the front row of the bishop's installation because of these realities, because both Catholics and Protestants know them as our deepest truth.
I can stay in the pleasure of what we share--and wait for Christ's body to be raised, all, to the table. All of my waiting will not be pleasant. That I now know.
In 1980 Cardinal Suenens, the retired primate of Belgium, asked me to accompany him to the annual meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the time I was director of the Christophers, a media organization specializing in interfaith dialogue. Cardinal Suenens knew of my work.
The Episcopal bishops had invited the cardinal to conduct the prayer service each morning before their deliberations began. Cardinal Suenens and the former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, were longtime friends, and both were exemplary leaders in the ecumenical movement. It was because of this connection that the invitation had come about.
The meeting was an unusual experience for me. I had attended the full and tedious meetings of our own hierarchy: black-suited senior citizens who shuffled papers and were submerged in an endless succession of talks. But in Tennessee, the Episcopal bishops came in a variety of shades of clothing, with their wives sitting around the outskirts of the assembly, knitting, doing puzzles, writing letters and being as unobtrusive as possible. It was different, to say the least.
As the week proceeded we all became more friendly and open with one another. By the time the meeting concluded we had bonded in a fellowship of true Christian solidarity.
The concluding Mass was beautiful. Cardinal Suenens and I sat in the congregation praying with the whole assembly. As the time for Holy Communion approached, I asked the cardinal, "Are you going to receive?" I had every intention of going up until he said, "No. They don't expect us to receive. The Eucharist is a sign of unity and since we in our respective churches have not yet achieved true unity it would not be appropriate."
I was sorry I had asked. I understood his position as a cardinal of the church, but my heart sank. It was the most frustrating moment that one could imagine. In addition I felt embarrassment that I might offend our hosts by not receiving the gift of Christ's body. As the congregation lined up to receive the Eucharist we sat there like dejected outsiders feeling the pain of separation.
The experience brought home most forcefully the reality and sin of our division. When Jesus prayed, "That all may be one," he challenged us to overcome all the obstacles that keep us from being a true sign of love and unity. We are all one Church, one Body of Christ. How sad that we do not cherish our unity and proclaim it in the breaking of the bread.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld