Finding Mercy at the Table

All of us receive rest in Christ

By Paul Philibert, OP

Some time ago, I took a guided tour of a megachurch in Louisville, Ky., that welcomes approximately 20,000 people every weekend at its three huge worship services. The elderly gentleman who was my tour guide was full of admiration for this community, its preaching and its spiritual guidance. Responding to someone in my group, he explained that he was a former Catholic whose life in the Roman Catholic Church ended after his divorce. Among all the other changes that divorce brought into his life, he said, “This made me a nobody in my Catholic parish — a failure, a bad guy, a loser.” In his new church home, however, he appears to be a winner — happy and eager to help, committed and feeling close to Christ. His is only one story, but one that symbolically represents hundreds of thousands of Catholics for whom divorce has made them feel like misfits in their church community.

In his new Christian community, holy Communion is not celebrated weekly but only occasionally. However, powerful preaching, weekly Bible study and weekly community service are essential parts of belonging to his congregation. This is a very different world from your average Catholic parish, and one to which more and more Catholics find themselves attracted. Former Catholics make up the largest demographic of the growing number of evangelical churches in the United States and a large segment of the new megachurches.1 What have they discovered that Catholics have yet to learn? Is it that church is about life and not only about rituals? Is it the respect these churches give to study, faith sharing, community building and service? And why have so many Catholic refugees — the divorced and the disenchanted — found their way to these communities? A good deal of research has been done on exactly these questions, and the overall answer, put very simply, is that they are longing for worship and community that touch their hearts.

What is living liturgy?
Liturgy and ritual are not the same thing. The rite of the Mass begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m. But liturgy turns the whole of life into prayer. St. Paul understood this; he gave us the categories that describe how believers become a “living liturgy”: They are the temple of God (2 Cor 6:16), the dwelling place for God (Eph 2:22), people who put on Christ so that whatever they do, they do in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col 3:17). They live in and for Christ (2 Cor 5:15).

Since the Council of Trent, Roman Catholics have had a tendency to treat the Eucharist more as a divine icon than as a living communion with God. Catholics have over-privileged the consecrated bread and wine by neglecting the sacrament of the mystical body. The faithful become “one body, one spirit in Christ.” They are the realized fullness of the Eucharist. Many Catholics are moved more deeply by benediction of the Blessed Sacrament than by going to Communion, and ignore altogether their missionary mandate. But Christ’s words, repeated in the eucharistic prayer, are not “take and gaze” but “take and eat.” Jesus says: This is my body for you: to touch your needs, to enter your life.

The megachurches have neither an apostolic tradition of holy orders nor a theology of a living Eucharist. But they do have a tender respect for the members of the body of Christ. They recognize that commitment comes from being charged to undertake an apostolic mission for the kingdom of God. They express well a graced solidarity, but with less emphasis on the Incarnation. The incarnation of God’s Son was first of all his Father’s loving gift to a people he wanted to become his own (John 3:16). The humanity of the divine Son was anointed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18, 21). Christ’s entire mission pointed to the moment of his return to the Father, when together they poured out their Spirit upon those who believe in him. We celebrate that in every Eucharist.

Reborn and remade in the Spirit
In every Eucharist there are two critical invocations of the Holy Spirit: “O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ”; and after Christ’s words of institution, “Grant that we who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” The Holy Spirit unites the wounded members of the body of Christ on earth with the risen body of Christ in heaven. In his broken body, death is overcome, life is restored and meaning returns to those whose lives are painful, broken or empty.

The Second Vatican Council, in addition to clearly articulating the common priesthood of all the baptized (“Constitution on the Church” 10), also developed the biblical theme of “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5). That refers to the self-offering of the life, work, suffering and service of God’s people precisely as they are moved by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The “Constitution on the Church” (34) says of the laity: “Their prayers and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, even the hardships of life patiently borne” become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God and are “offered to the Father in all piety along with the body of the Lord.” This teaching explains that “worshiping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.” The Spirit who changes bread and wine into the eucharistic body of Christ and who transforms those who eat and drink into the mystical body of Christ, is poured out as well on the missionary lives of those gathered at the Eucharist. When scattered again to transform the ethos of their homes, their neighborhoods, their work and their society, they carry the Spirit’s energy to renew the face of the earth. The full power of the Eucharist does not detonate under the rafters of the parish church but “out there” wherever grace makes ordinary life incandescent with faith and love.

Vatican II’s theology of the Eucharist moved us beyond a unique focus upon the consecrated bread and wine (immense gift of God that it is) to the transformation of the world through the changed lives of those who become one body, one spirit in Christ. The previous fixation upon the consecrated bread and wine was also obsessed with ritual nicety and canonical propriety. Our grandparents remember the requirement to fast from midnight before receiving holy Communion, abstaining even from drinking water. The council’s missionary theology (new to us, but ancient and seminal) has other preoccupations: the synergy — the mutual self gift — of the faithful people and the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the lives of those who enter into communion with Christ, and their epiphany of the saving power of the risen Lord.

Through the outpouring of the Spirit, the Eucharist plunges our sinful selves into the abyss of God’s mercy. We dare to say, “Lord, I am unfinished — have mercy.” “Lord, my world is a mess — have mercy.” “Lord, I am awakening to my true destiny, letting go of mistakes; I am poor, selfish, and hungry for you — have mercy.” This is each one of us. We pray, with circumstances different in each case, but truly: “Have mercy,” and God gives himself and mercy is received.

Who belongs at the Lord’s Table?
Who can fail to think these days of the challenge brought to the Synod on the Family of the pastoral care for divorced Catholics — some remarried, some not? The aloofness with which some commentators spoke of the problem as a deviation from Christian life fails to grasp that 50 percent of marriages today end in divorce. Are we going to treat half of the people of God as misfits? Pastors can’t approach this question with categories of ritual purity and canonical requirements as their checklist. They need to become Christ to their people.

They need to think about the lives of persons who sincerely wagered their whole selves in a gift to another and lost. Persons who had hoped for fulfillment and joy in place of loneliness, and were deceived. Persons who searched for transforming intimacy and, in place of enduring love, met with fear and failure. Those deep wounds, that enduring pain, belong to, belong in the body of Christ. These are people who have learned their need for Christ and his mercy in the crucible of suffering and failure. Doesn’t Christ say to them: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”? (Matt 11:28)

The theological challenge
There is no question that the church will continue to honor Christ’s proclamation of the sanctity of mutual self-giving in marriage, to honor Paul’s claim that marital love is a symbol of Christ’s love for the church. What is in question is neither Christ’s demand for fidelity from those who have truly joined themselves to one another or Paul’s insistence on the manifestly sacramental power of true love among spouses. The real question is: Does the ritual of marriage bring about this unity? Does the power of the sacramental sign happen automatically — or does it grow patiently into a substantial reality? Indissolubility rests upon fidelity, but fidelity is a subjective quality that must be reciprocal. It must be true if it is going to be an authentic sign.

The sacrament of matrimony embodies one of the highest human values: mutual love. While the institution of marriage is juridical and objective, its human motivation is subjective and genetic. It grows only gradually. When we institutionalize the subjective call of two persons who take the risk to bind their lives together, we offer them a powerful possibility for good. But we also risk perpetuating an obligation for couples who fail to find their potential for enduring mutual commitment and genuine enduring love. Who fail, in other words, to arrive at “what God has joined” (is joining) together. And this — about half the time, it appears.

My focus here is not on canonical requirements or the theology of matrimony. It is about facing the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of divorced Catholics who tried to create homes of enduring love, and failed. How or whether the church will decide theologically to give them a second chance is something we are all vitally interested in, and some of the world’s best theologians are working on it. But this article is about Eucharist and spiritual sacrifices. It is about the theological rightness of bringing to the table of the Lord the lives, hopes, sufferings and service of those who have been wounded by separation and divorce, both those who remain in painful isolation and those who have found a new love in their life.

What is the right perspective?
Here is the motto of the megachurch I spoke about above: “We are imperfect people striving to live a life for God.”2 What is the special contribution of the once-broken, the imperfect, to a Christian community coming together to witness to God’s forgiving love? Pope Francis summed it up at his Angelus teaching in St. Peter’s Square:

We celebrate the Eucharist not because we are worthy, but because we recognize our need for God’s mercy, incarnate in Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, we renew the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of sins, and our hearts are enlarged to receive and show mercy.3

Finding mercy in the body of Christ, we celebrate “the blood of the new and eternal covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” “Yes, Lord,” we go on pray, “by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.”

_ _ _
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Celebration. Paul Philibert, a Dominican friar, is promoter for permanent formation for the Southern Dominican Province in the United States.

With Dominican Fr.Thomas O’Meara, he recently published Scanning the Signs of the Times: French Dominicans in the Twentieth Century.

Learn more about Celebration or subscribe.

1. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), esp. Ch. 5; cf.
2. See
3. See