The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. McCarthy

One of the most beautiful and symbolic gestures of the Catholic faith occurs when a person is unable to get to church to participate in the Eucharist and the parish sends one of its members to that person with a consecrated host. The hunger must be satisfied. Without community a person is alone; without Communion the Catholic is isolated.

What I wonder is: When the sense of community is absent, is Communion enough to sustain the believer? In other words, can the body of Christ as bread make up for the lack of body of Christ as communal flesh? And vice versa: Can the body of Christ in the form of faith community sustain a person denied the opportunity to receive the body of Christ in the form of a host? Who and what determines when a believer is severed from the body of Christ?

When the subject of faith came up during a recent reunion with close friends from college, the subject of alienation wasn’t far behind. There was general lamenting of their inability, despite continued searching, to find a parish to feel at home in, one that challenged and nurtured. They’ve come up dry not because they didn’t like the music or homily or decor; it’s more pointed and more intangible than that. Like many other Catholics whose work and family life are committed to cultivating a Christ-like sense of community and tolerance, they feel disconnected from church (to say nothing of “the Church”). Despite living a Catholic worldview, they find it all but impossible to live out their Catholic identity.

One among this group is remarrying, though not in the church. Because he opted against the infamously grueling annulment process, he is not embarking on his new life (with a fellow Catholic) under the aegis of a holy sacrament and henceforth cannot receive Communion. All six people at the gathering personally knew someone who had begun the annulment process in good faith only to throw up their hands in disgust after what each described as a chilling, humiliating ordeal. My own sister spent the better part of a year meeting with the priest assigned to her case, subjecting herself to bizarrely inappropriate questions and lectures. Told to write an autobiography, she dutifully labored over it for months, trying to be thorough and honest. She finally submitted it for review, and when she walked into the chancery office a week later to discuss it, the priest tossed her autobiography on the floor at her feet, shaking his head. “This simply won’t do,” he said. Who could tolerate such a process? My sister did not, and she is not the only one.

But alone is precisely how so many Catholics feel—isolated from the church they know and love, from something inseparably bound up with who they are: Eucharist, Communion.

I don’t consider myself an extremist in this matter, and I’m not one to be persuaded by anecdotal evidence that illuminates only one end of a spectrum. During the discussion with my friends, I found myself in the awkward position of trying to defend the church, arguing that any one could cite examples of insensitivity by particular clergy and other Catholics. One small part of the faith, I argued, cannot define the whole experience of being a Catholic.

Only later did I truly hear what my friends had said that night, and sadness swept over me. These are my people, a deeply cherished community of spirit and mind. When they are broken, I am broken. And this, it struck me, is what it means to be in communion. Without it I would feel more than a void; I would feel unnaturally torn asunder—which is the sense these friends conveyed about the faith in which all of us, in various parts of the country, have been baptized, raised, schooled and thoroughly steeped.

What I’m talking about is a problem that is both larger and more personal than being unable to find a parish that suits one’s political leanings or liturgical style. It’s not a question of comfort level. For many adults who were raised Catholic and embrace Christian values, and in their hearts identify themselves as Catholic, somewhere along the line being a Catholic and raising children in the Catholic faith has gone from making them uncomfortable to causing them pain. Rules do not entirely define an institution, but they certainly shape it. Catholics with dear friends who are divorced or homosexual, for instance, find it increasingly painful, hypocritical, even indefensible to practice in a church where such members cannot be recognized.

While Mother Church is neither a smorgasbord nor a chameleon, surely we the church are organic. If it has meaning at all, our growth as Catholics, as spiritual seekers, must be contingent not only on God’s grace but also on each other’s grace. The church is people—flawed, varied, broken, changeable. Our personal experience and our efforts to de-institutionalize—to humanize—the Catholic church are neither impertinent nor otiose. They are, perhaps more than ever before, critical to carrying on the iconoclastic work Christ began.

It’s not the church but I, as church, who must assume responsibility for creating and manifesting community. I’ve felt Christ’s love reach into my being nowhere more palpably and abidingly than in these friends now experiencing alienation from church. Communion doesn’t come from Rome or the local pulpit; we distribute it just as we receive it—from one human hand to another.

Comments

(Msgr.) John R. Amos | 1/31/2007 - 11:19am
Thomas J. McCarthy's statements about "the infamously grueling annulment process" (From This Clay, 7/29) hardly do justice to the tribunal personnel and other pastoral ministers striving to make people as comfortable as possible in a difficult situation.

His sister's experience is unfortunate but not typical. While parties in his group claimed to "know someone who had begun the annulment process in good faith only to throw up their hands after...a chilling, humiliating ordeal," a discussion with others who stayed the course might have revealed a totally different perspective.

Nullity trials are far from easy and certainly far from perfect. While changes are needed, they will not come from one-sided presentations of the issues.

Judy Hurley | 1/22/2007 - 9:27am
Thomas J. McCarthy’s column (7/29) struck a very familiar chord with me. As a divorced Catholic mother whose marriage was annulled, I can identify with the pain of the “marginalized.” Who are we to do that to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

I am cognizant of the necessity for rules and regulations in any organization (and family, for that matter), but I totally agree with Mr. McCarthy that it is “I, as church, who must assume responsibility for creating and manifesting community.”

Mary Pope-Handy | 1/22/2007 - 9:14am
Thomas J. McCarthy’s column on alienated Catholics (7/29) raised some valid points about our flaws as a church. It is always with sadness that we hear “lousy priest” or “lousy nun” stories—the stories in which people tell us, “I used to be Catholic until this or that happened.” The stories are always the type that make us cringe, as with the author’s sister and her annulment case. I think he’s right in stating that the faith is passed from person to person, or as it has been said in the past, “faith is caught, not taught.” It’s all about relationships; that is where the “grace” happens.

Even so, a little information can be a big boon. Many of America’s readers probably realize that it is in their own best interest to read up on medical issues that affect them and to do their own research in conjunction with listening to their doctors’ advice or suggestions for care rather than simply to be passive. I think this approach is a good one to take with the church too, especially when something like an annulment is involved. Read up, find out as much as you can up front, and then go talk to your priest (who may or may not be as well read or as sensitive as you need him to be in this matter). We need to be independent enough to know what it is we’re attempting to do, so that if we hit that 1 in 5,000 chance of someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care, at least we’ll recognize it enough to be able to do something about it before it’s too late. McCarthy suggests “assuming responsibility for creating and manifesting community.” I think assuming responsibility can also mean doing some research and getting some education too. It’s practical stuff.

(Deacon) Norbert Ciesil | 1/21/2007 - 6:38pm
I wish to protest the remarks in Thomas McCarthy’s column (7/29), which lash out at “the infamously grueling annulment process.” McCarthy relates that he knows six people who know people who threw up their hands in disgust after “a chilling, humiliating ordeal.” Even his sister had a terrible experience trying to get a Catholic annulment.

It is possible that there is a diocese somewhere in America that has such a barbaric process, but as a field associate of the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago for eight years, I can assure you these things would never happen in Chicago. I am also confident that my Chicago experience is typical of the vast majority of dioceses in the United States.

Normal procedures require the petitioner to submit an application, give written testimony, the names of a few witnesses and meet once with a field associate at a location near their home. The amount of the fee is entirely up to the petitioner. Great care is always taken that the process may be a means of healing, and many petitioners obtain a sense of closure over a wounded part of their lives.

I am alarmed that McCarthy’s remarks may deter some from taking a crucial step in getting back to the church and renewing their spiritual lives.

Marian E. Crowe | 1/21/2007 - 6:19pm
As someone who was divorced, had an annulment and was remarried in the Catholic Church, I find it difficult to relate to the view of the annulment process as “infamously grueling,” as described by Thomas J. McCarthy in “Communion Without Community?” (7/29). Again and again one reads horror stories about annulment; yet my own experience and that of my second husband (who got his annulment in a different diocese) was that we both found the process to be healing, clarifying and therapeutic. During the time of my separation, divorce and annulment, I never experienced anything but compassion and support from Catholic clergy. My husband’s experience was the same. In fact, at our nuptial Mass he publicly thanked the six priests who had been so much help to him during this very difficult time. I am beginning to think that only the horror stories get written up and published, leading most people to think they are normative. It may be that they are not.

Judy Hurley | 1/22/2007 - 9:27am
Thomas J. McCarthy’s column (7/29) struck a very familiar chord with me. As a divorced Catholic mother whose marriage was annulled, I can identify with the pain of the “marginalized.” Who are we to do that to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

I am cognizant of the necessity for rules and regulations in any organization (and family, for that matter), but I totally agree with Mr. McCarthy that it is “I, as church, who must assume responsibility for creating and manifesting community.”

Mary Pope-Handy | 1/22/2007 - 9:14am
Thomas J. McCarthy’s column on alienated Catholics (7/29) raised some valid points about our flaws as a church. It is always with sadness that we hear “lousy priest” or “lousy nun” stories—the stories in which people tell us, “I used to be Catholic until this or that happened.” The stories are always the type that make us cringe, as with the author’s sister and her annulment case. I think he’s right in stating that the faith is passed from person to person, or as it has been said in the past, “faith is caught, not taught.” It’s all about relationships; that is where the “grace” happens.

Even so, a little information can be a big boon. Many of America’s readers probably realize that it is in their own best interest to read up on medical issues that affect them and to do their own research in conjunction with listening to their doctors’ advice or suggestions for care rather than simply to be passive. I think this approach is a good one to take with the church too, especially when something like an annulment is involved. Read up, find out as much as you can up front, and then go talk to your priest (who may or may not be as well read or as sensitive as you need him to be in this matter). We need to be independent enough to know what it is we’re attempting to do, so that if we hit that 1 in 5,000 chance of someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care, at least we’ll recognize it enough to be able to do something about it before it’s too late. McCarthy suggests “assuming responsibility for creating and manifesting community.” I think assuming responsibility can also mean doing some research and getting some education too. It’s practical stuff.

(Deacon) Norbert Ciesil | 1/21/2007 - 6:38pm
I wish to protest the remarks in Thomas McCarthy’s column (7/29), which lash out at “the infamously grueling annulment process.” McCarthy relates that he knows six people who know people who threw up their hands in disgust after “a chilling, humiliating ordeal.” Even his sister had a terrible experience trying to get a Catholic annulment.

It is possible that there is a diocese somewhere in America that has such a barbaric process, but as a field associate of the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago for eight years, I can assure you these things would never happen in Chicago. I am also confident that my Chicago experience is typical of the vast majority of dioceses in the United States.

Normal procedures require the petitioner to submit an application, give written testimony, the names of a few witnesses and meet once with a field associate at a location near their home. The amount of the fee is entirely up to the petitioner. Great care is always taken that the process may be a means of healing, and many petitioners obtain a sense of closure over a wounded part of their lives.

I am alarmed that McCarthy’s remarks may deter some from taking a crucial step in getting back to the church and renewing their spiritual lives.

Marian E. Crowe | 1/21/2007 - 6:19pm
As someone who was divorced, had an annulment and was remarried in the Catholic Church, I find it difficult to relate to the view of the annulment process as “infamously grueling,” as described by Thomas J. McCarthy in “Communion Without Community?” (7/29). Again and again one reads horror stories about annulment; yet my own experience and that of my second husband (who got his annulment in a different diocese) was that we both found the process to be healing, clarifying and therapeutic. During the time of my separation, divorce and annulment, I never experienced anything but compassion and support from Catholic clergy. My husband’s experience was the same. In fact, at our nuptial Mass he publicly thanked the six priests who had been so much help to him during this very difficult time. I am beginning to think that only the horror stories get written up and published, leading most people to think they are normative. It may be that they are not.

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