On Being with Krista Tippett

Don Saliers and Edward Foley

The Meaning of Communion: At the Table

Last Updated

November 24, 2005

Original Air Date

November 18, 2004

What are the origins of communion, and what is its deepest social relevance? Two leading theologians of communion describe a ritual that is not just personally meaningful for the believer, but also collectively and ethically challenging for Christians.


Image of Don Saliers

Don Saliers is the William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His books include, Worship Come to Its Senses and A Song to Sing, A Life to Live.

Image of Edward Foley

Edward Foley is a Capuchin priest, Professor of Liturgy and Music, and Director of the Ecumenical Doctor of Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He was a founder of the executive committee of the Catholic Academy of Liturgy.


November 24, 2005

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “At Table: The Meaning of Communion.” We’ll explore two perspectives — Protestant and Catholic — on the origins and the social relevance of Christianity’s ritual of thanksgiving by way of a meal.

MR. DON SALIERS: Some traditions have made this an extraordinarily elaborate ritual because they want to honor God. Then others come along and say, “Oh, too complicated. We want something plain and simple.” And that’s going to be the rhythm of the point-counterpoint in the history of this meal to our day.

FATHER EDWARD FOLEY: Roman Catholics, I think, very often think about what they get out of Communion. And lots of Roman Catholics don’t often think about what Communion gets out of us, like justice and ethical living and social action.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. From the earliest days, Communion was among the most mysterious of Christian practices to outsiders. But the word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving. Eucharist, Communion and the Lord’s Supper are different words to describe the ritual of thanksgiving that formed around shared meals in early Christian homes. This hour we’ll revisit that history and consider what meaning Communion might have ethically and socially in our time.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, “At Table: The Meaning of Communion.”

In recent years, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code sparked popular interest in the story behind Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper,” which was, in some sense, the first Communion. In a very different vein, the sacrament of Communion became politicized in the 2004 presidential election when a few bishops declared that Senator John Kerry should not be allowed to take Communion because of his stance on abortion.

But such images are far removed from the original context of the Christian Eucharist or thanksgiving. Communion, the act of receiving the Eucharist, means fellowship. Jesus and His early followers were Jewish, and the Gospels report the first Communion as a Passover feast. But the language in traditional Communion rites often follows most closely on a passage in a letter of the Apostle Paul. He wrote this of his reported encounter with Jesus after the resurrection.

READER: For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

MS. TIPPETT: My first guest, Don Saliers, is a Methodist scholar of the history and theology of Christian worship at Emory University. When I ask him about the Communion ritual that evolved from that New Testament story, he begins with the human impulse to share a meal and all that implies.

MR. SALIERS: You start with meals. You start with what it means to be at table, the sheer phenomenon of the table fellowship, and that’s a fairly important background term for understanding the evolution of things in the biblical accounts as well as background to Jesus and the disciples.

MS. TIPPETT: So that’s a wonderful place to start. And I think it does get at where the church started this all those centuries ago. But because that memory is lost, tell me the story of how Communion came to be.

MR. SALIERS: Well, we could start just simply with the role of food in some of the ritual practices that go way back in the practices of ancient Israel. The other, of course, is the incredible story of the children of Israel being fed manna every day, bread from heaven. They’re going to a place where there’s going to be milk and honey. And so you get this notion of God feeding and God showing up whenever there is bread broken.

MS. TIPPETT: And then, of course, the Christian Communion has its biblical roots in the biblical story at Passover, the Passover feast.

MR. SALIERS: Precisely. Yeah. And of course that has deep origins in Judaism and certainly in ancient Israel. But that’s the more immediate story, isn’t it? Jesus, who had a lot of meals with His followers, with these disciples, we know He ate in tax collectors’ houses, and that got Him into trouble. But in any event, in the Passover context, where Jesus is heading for His own death and He knows it, the disciples are quite ambivalent about this, He has a meal again with them. And in the context of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the notion of the Jewish celebration of the passover from death to life, suddenly He breaks bread, He does the familiar gestures, but all of a sudden He adds those extraordinary words, “This is my life.” Literally, this is my body broken for you. I doubt that the disciples understood everything that was going on with that. So that, in a sense, literally is the end of a long tradition of meals, a long history of Jesus’ own meal fellowship with the disciples. Now, in the Passover context, He Himself becomes the Passover, but they don’t understand it till later.

MS. TIPPETT: And still there are a lot of big jumps. I mean, if you actually go back and look at those passages in the New Testament, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and also what the Apostle Paul had to say about teachings he received from Jesus, it’s a pretty spare story. There are those mysterious words in some different variations. And still it’s a great big leap from that to the liturgy we know today to the notion of sacrament, right? To all the theology that has come down to us in the 21st century. Now, my impression — and I wonder if this is true from what you know — is that in those early decades in the first century, I mean, what we would see as a precursor of Eucharist, or a Communion, continued in the form of meals that people took in churches, which were in homes.

MR. SALIERS: Yes. The first real example we have that is fairly late, and that’s the Dura-Europos house church where we really have the architecture that tells us a bit about that. But quite before that period, we know in Paul’s letters and in some of the other corroborating letters and literature from the time that — let’s go to Rome, for example c that a lot of these Christians lived in what we would now call tenement buildings.

MS. TIPPETT: And this is those first, second, third centuries?

MR. SALIERS: Mm-hmm. The first. You know, even before really, almost at the close of the New Testament period, we have some corroborating evidences here. And you’re absolutely right that the meal context and the Communion itself are quite commingled, that these were in some sense meals with special blessings, with special memory of Jesus. But at that time it’s a long way from, say, the first full liturgy celebrated in Rome or in Jerusalem, say in the fourth century, from those first what we call the Love Feast or the agape meals. The other distinctive thing about some of those things: We do have enough sociological evidence that the Christians would have their meal, but it always had to be shared with others.

MS. TIPPETT: With outsiders. With non-Christians?

MR. SALIERS: Yeah, with outsiders. Now, that’s where you begin to get some really interesting history. What makes the special in-group meal that we then know as the liturgy of the Eucharist, or the Communion, differentiated from a large fellowship meal to which we share food with others?

MS. TIPPETT: I think you also point out in some of what you’ve written that Communion in the early church was very much associated with this other value of serving the poor.

MR. SALIERS: Very much so. In fact, probably one of the most interesting things for anyone listening, is a little account called Justin Martyr’s Apology, which is written just in the middle of the second century, and it reflects the practice at Rome. And it goes something like this: “Wine is brought with bread and water, and then a presider.” This now means that the community has an order in which someone is sort of presiding at the table. And this person sends up prayers of thanksgiving. It’s a blessing prayer. It comes out of the Jewish prayer known as the berachah or berachot. You bless God, and thereby sanctify these things. And then it says, “We partake of the food,” and then a blessing is said. And immediately this food is taken out to the absent by the deacons. And then it says, “And they take care of the orphans and the widows and the sojourners and the strangers.”

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s all of a piece?

MR. SALIERS: It is all of a piece, and that’s what’s so impressive about this early story of Holy Communion, of Eucharist. Quite frankly, Krista, I think the church has struggled to hold those things together, the ritual aspect and the service.

MS. TIPPETT: Liturgist and theologian Don Saliers.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we’re exploring the meaning of Communion.

As early Christianity expanded, the rituals of the young religion spread to a multitude of cultures. By the fourth and fifth centuries there were major elaborations and a diversity of forms. Then, with the great defining debates of the church, the emergence of heresies and the formulation of doctrine, the meaning of Communion became a source of division. Roman Catholic doctrine insists on the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, a miracle called transubstantiation. In the medieval church, Communion became a highly ritualized celebration in which the mass of congregants scarcely felt worthy to participate. This was one of the practices against which the Protestant reformers rebelled. Martin Luther declared that Christ is truly present in the Communion meal, but the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine.

And as my guest, Don Saliers, has reflected on the history of Communion, he stresses that it was always meant to be transformative socially as well as personally. But he’s said there is an excruciating gap between the mystery of the sacrament and the capacity of the Christian community to turn it into reality. I asked what he means by that.

MR. SALIERS: You might put it this way: At the center of this Holy Communion is a broken symbol, but the symbol happens to be a real life. You know, it’s the life, the teachings, the death, the suffering of Jesus Christ. And that is broken even in the words that a lot of our churches, despite their differences, say: “This is the body broken for your…”; “This is given for you.” The problem is, as T.S. Eliot once said, we can’t stand that much reality. We confront this symbol of God’s breaking God’s self open for the world, and if we receive this, then we are part of that ongoing power in the world. And I think that’s scary. That asks something of us. So I think one of the things that happens is that people aren’t prepared to receive the implications of that participation in the meal with Jesus. In other words, the meal isn’t just simply my shot of grace, it already is my incorporation into, shall I say, the body, the church, for the world, for the sake of the world. Now, for me then, that’s the theology of presence that I would like to have more churches — even despite our differences — understand. That when Jesus comes to speak with us, so to say, and when Jesus comes to feed us, He comes to reconcile, to forgive, to feed, to empower us to be His body in the world and be vulnerable to God’s pain in the world. That’s the radical claim at the heart of this Eucharistic meal, this Holy Communion, this Lord’s Supper.

MS. TIPPETT: This is just such a different way of thinking about what’s happening in Communion, again, than — I don’t know — than you get of watching movies in which Communion happens, right? Or reading about it in the newspaper. So, I mean, where does that gap come from?

MR. SALIERS: Oh, it’s just a lack of good education in the basics. Sometimes I think the church teaches sort of silly things around the edges and neglects the most central things of all. What is it together about word and sacrament, Sunday by Sunday by Sunday, if not to build up the body of Christ for the sake of the world? So I lay some of this problem to the doorstep of poor education of the laity. Now, I happen to teach in a theological seminary, so I even see that my struggle is to teach future pastors and priests something of the richness of the mystery of the power of this, because they are going to be the presiders and the teachers of the church, the leaders of the church.

But listen, Krista, the other side is the popular culture issue. We’d prefer simple popular images of this than we would the deep, complex ones. But the other side of it is I think we realize somewhere in our heart of hearts that there really is something at stake with this God who has become incarnate in a human life like ours and offers life in a way that nothing else does. I think there’s something in us that is drawn to it and that can’t quite make it out. It’s maybe too much of a mystery, too deep, too demanding all at once.

MS. TIPPETT: But would that be also sort of a human explanation for some of the reasons that over time this act of Communion became ritualized and elaborate and made more tangibly mysterious? I mean, would that be a way to understand how that could happen?

MR. SALIERS: Oh, yes. Yeah, and very early on, too. We could go to some texts in the early centuries where there’s a sudden build-up of mystery. You know, you don’t want to touch the elements because they’re so powerful. So there’s an element of what I even call the superstitious, certainly an element of recognition of sacral power. But then there’s also the kind of popular imagination that starts to develop around the practices. So, you know, it’s so fascinating to my students to learn that in the Roman Catholic tradition in 1215 at the Lateran Council they had to pass a law requiring the laity to commune once a year. That tells you something. You know, what on earth?

And then here’s another thing. You know, in the English church there’s this joke about at the elevation of a chalice of “Higher, Sir John, higher, so we can see the miracle.” So the participation was not in eating and drinking, but seeing the miracle happen.

MS. TIPPETT: Watching the magic trick would be the cynical…

MR. SALIERS: We want that.


MR. SALIERS: Listen — oh, don’t we want it! I mean, we want the magic, we want the quick fix, and here’s God taking the long, slow way. You know, we’d rather have authority and miracle, said Dostoyevsky, than to be vulnerable to the suffering and pain of the world. And then to find out that God is in on that, in the midst of the pain and the suffering, and that part of the meaning of the supper, part of the meaning of Eucharist, is God’s identification and solidarity with that. Wow, that’s a heavy thing. Some traditions have made this an extraordinarily elaborate ritual because they want to honor God for this great gift. I respect that. Then others come along and say, “Oh, too complicated. Too many layers. Too many symbols. Too many gestures. We want something plain and simple.” And that’s going to be the rhythm of the point counterpoint in the history of this meal to our day.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Don Saliers. Protestantism has encouraged a wide range of practices of Communion in memory of Jesus’ last Passover meal with His disciples. Some churches offer Communion as a standard part of weekly worship; others observe it rarely.

Solomon’s Porch, an independent Christian congregation in Minneapolis, draws many worshipers in their 20s and 30s. Couches and reading lamps adorn this warehouse-turned-church in a rehabbed commercial building. Here the weekly Communion is truly a social ritual. Communicants serve each other bread and wine from tables scattered throughout the room.

CELEBRANT: The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.

COMMUNICANT: May the peace of Christ be within you.

CELEBRANT: And also with you.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest, Don Saliers, is a scholar of the history and theology of Christian worship, including Communion, across many traditions. I asked whether he feels that the meaning of Communion is diminished by the fact that different denominations interpret and practice it in such different ways.

MR. SALIERS: Let me give you an analogy. Suppose there was a beautiful melody that has haunted you and that you’d do anything to hear it and sing it, and whenever you hear it or sing it, you’re moved by it. But you go to one place and there’s a string quartet playing it, and you say, “Oh! I’ve never heard the melody quite that way before.” And then you go someplace else and it’s a group of singers singing the same melody in unison. You say, “Oh! I never realized the sound of the voice could be so with that melody.” And then you go someplace and you hear the Minnesota Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic play it in a big symphonic form and you say, “Ah! There it is again.” If that gives you some hint and guess, that’s my experience, as you mentioned before.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. These are such beautiful words, and yet I’m also wanting to ask you to personalize this a bit. I mean, you have also in the many things you’ve written about worship, you know, you’ve written about the connection between learning to worship with the community of biblical memory — and Communion is a remembrance — and the opening up of the interior dimensions of our lives. Give me a window inside how that works for you, the connection between this ritual and your interior life. What comes to mind?

MR. SALIERS: Let me just start again with the notion that we live in a time — and most of us live in circumstances — in which deep memory is very difficult. We live in a culture of distraction and immediacy and forgetfulness. Here is a ritual that requires us to stop the distraction and to remember profoundly with all who have gone before us. When I talk about biblical memory, I mean literally we’ve got to realize that when we’re worshipping God we’re worshipping in this enormous company of kinfolk. Maybe some people we don’t even like.

MS. TIPPETT: Probably some people we don’t like.

MR. SALIERS: That is the human condition. So, you know, do my anamnesis is the Greek there in the words of institution at the supper. “Do my memory. Do this in remembrance of me.” When that is said, remembering Jesus includes remembering all He has brought. You know, all the people that that grace of God is available to and has won, including people I don’t like. Now, we do have a fancy word for this, too, the Communion of Saints. So when I — I’m speaking now very personally — when I commune and I hold with trembling hand a piece of bread, leavened or unleavened, you know — and there’s another dispute — and when I hold the chalice, or when I’m given, you know, the cup, I realize with trembling that I am being remembered. See?

MS. TIPPETT: How’s that?

MR. SALIERS: Well, that God is remembering my life in its entirety and remembering the whole of humanity. So my finitude, my inability to love, the string of broken promises which is my life to this point suddenly is going to be mended by God remembering me. And when things get really tough, like they are right now — war and suffering — man, I need to go someplace with that. So I’m speaking very personally now that if I didn’t have a place like the meal, I don’t know what I would do. Well, you could go to a psychiatrist, but… So that’s one function of it.

The other function is very positive. Every one of our traditions, despite all of our theological and ecclesial differences, realize that finally there is this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we are called to bless and thank and praise God even in the midst of terrible tribulation. So also the other thing that Eucharist does — and literally, as you said earlier, it means thanksgiving — teaches me it’s a school for gratitude. And we know that the life that has gratitude at its center is very different from the life that doesn’t have gratitude at its center. This gives me a chance to complete my life by saying thank you. Not for the suffering. No, that’s something else. God doesn’t just send the suffering. But we are thankful for the grace and the community and the support and the life of those who can keep their courage and their hope even in the midst of so much despair.

MS. TIPPETT: Didn’t St. Augustine say something like “The mystery you receive…

MR. SALIERS: Oh, yeah. It’s so beautiful.

MS. TIPPETT: …is you.” Is that it?

MR. SALIERS: It’s so beautiful.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that the quote?

MR. SALIERS: Yeah, “Receive the mystery you are.” He also had one other one-liner that — I don’t know — isn’t even going to work in the program, but he said this: “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” And that seems to me at the heart of Eucharist, too, that God has lavished — lavished in the simple notion of this bread and wine no matter how elaborated we’ve made it — lavished that notion, that this is us. “It is our own mystery we receive.” He also said that. You receive the Eucharist; it is your own mystery you receive back that’s been transformed. And I, for the life of me, you know, that’s kind of my whole vocation: just trying to get people to see what we’ve been given here.

MS. TIPPETT: Don Saliers is the William R. Cannon distinguished professor of theology and worship at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His books include Worship Come to its Senses and A Song to Sing, a Life to Live, written with his daughter, the musician Emily Saliers.

This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, Father Edward Foley on what Communion might or might not have to do with politicians and sin.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “At Table: The Meaning of Communion.” We’re exploring the original context and relevance of the foundational Christian ritual of eating and thanksgiving.

Over time Communion has taken on many different forms and interpretations. There are significant differences between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant practices. The ritual is variously called the Communion or the Lord’s Supper or, after the Greek, Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.

My next guest, Edward Foley, is a Capuchin priest and a professor of liturgy and music at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Roman Catholic tradition attaches special significance to the rite of Eucharist. It is performed daily in memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is believed to be sacramentally present in the bread and wine. Sacrament is a visible sign of an inward divinely conferred grace. But like my first guest, Protestant theologian Don Saliers, Edward Foley stresses that, from the beginning, Communion drew its mystery and power from the human paradigm of the family meal.

FATHER EDWARD FOLEY: Even historically, one could argue that there was Communion, in a sense, before there was Christianity. There’s a great line that the church was born around the table. So the Communion or the larger idea of Eucharist, or what Roman Catholics call Mass, it’s sort of like in my own family — I mean, having grown up when we did sit down and have dinner every night — that the family in some ways grew out of the table, my own family. And it was sitting around at night and talking and telling stories and arguing and those kinds of things that shape a family. Sort of the way I think about this sacred ritual of eating around a table or standing around an altar in the name of Jesus, the ritual not simply expresses who we are, but it creates us.

MS. TIPPETT: And I spoke with your Protestant colleague, Don Saliers, and he spoke in very similar terms about thinking of the core of this Christian act as a meal and as table fellowship. You know, in Roman Catholic tradition Communion is a sacrament. I wonder how sacrament and how sacramental imagination then changes or adds another dimension to this basic experience of the church, which was at the founding of Communion, which is a supper, the last supper of Jesus.

FATHER FOLEY: Look, can I just step back a bit, though?


FATHER FOLEY: While the Last Supper is foundational, one of the things that I think lots of times we forget is the adjective last. It seems to me that the dining experience all through Jesus’ public ministry is sort of paradigmatic of His accepting all sorts of folk to sit with Him. So, as for sacrament, I think you do touch on something that I believe sort of strongly, and that is that Roman Catholics do have a kind of particular imagination that’s been shaped over the centuries, that we do believe that God is like things, like oil and candles and statues. And so we’re very comfortable with that.

MS. TIPPETT: That God is like those things and that God’s presence is invited in those things?

FATHER FOLEY: Right. Roman Catholics generally believe that God is more like the world than unlike the world. And, therefore, we feel comfortable with when you go into a Catholic church and see the candles and the flowers and using the oil and incense. And some will suggest that a Protestant imagination is that God is more unlike the world than like the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Are you a lifelong Catholic? I’m sort of assuming you are.


MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you could talk to me about if you can recall how your sense of this sacrament became real to you?

FATHER FOLEY: My thinking and my feeling about the sacrament has changed over the years. I think one of the things that happens as a child being brought up in a Catholic family is I understood the rituals, and out of that I began to understand my place in the family. And so I understood as a child how sacred Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread was. I mean, we didn’t walk into a church unless you genuflected, and you genuflected in front of the tabernacle where there was a light burning because that was Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. I mean, I can remember as a kid walking with my grandfather in the ’50s, and as he would pass a church he would tip his hat. And so I think those ritual experiences of not being allowed to go to Communion until I had gotten through the second grade and had done the preparation. As a priest today on Sunday mornings, you know, watching four-year-olds and five-year-olds grabbing for the consecrated bread, and they understand that it’s important, and they want it.

And the reverence that I was taught as a child. I remember some things from First Communion about especially certain teachings. You are not allowed to chew on the consecrated bread, you had to swallow it. Which as I got a little older I thought — and then as I began to study theology — I thought, “Well, it’s probably a little overdone.” You know, it’s still a little literal. And then trying to understand what’s the difference between real and literal. And so we believe that Jesus is really present, but he’s really present sacramentally, mediated through the elements of consecrated bread and wine.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologian and priest Edward Foley. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “At Table: The Meaning of Communion.”

Christian churches open the Communion table to outsiders, meaning other kinds of Christians, in varying degrees. But the ritual of bread and wine remains restricted in Roman Catholic church. Edward Foley describes a complex story that continues to unfold.

FATHER FOLEY: The irony is that when you look at the table ministry of Jesus, His table ministry was really open to sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors. And, I mean, Jesus sort of says there are two requirements to get into the reign of God: You have to be a sinner — so we all qualify — and number two, you have to admit it. And His table was a place where the sinners were gathered. In the early community, if you were a baptized member of the community, you would gather with them and celebrate the Eucharist, recognizing that you were a sinner.

There were folk who were cut off from the table even early on. The great sins in the early community would have been anything that would have divided the body, so schism, or heresy or apostasy, denying that you were a Christian during a persecution or something. And if somebody was identified as a sinner — we do have evidence that there is, before we have this sacrament, of penance or confession in the Catholic church today, that there was what you could call therapeutic excommunication in the sense that somebody would, let’s say that during a persecution they said, “Jesus who?” you know, and then after the persecution was over they wanted to come back. And the community says, “Well…” And they would cut them off from the table and excommunication, cut them from Communion. And then they would do public penance for a limited period of time. And then instead of being given what today we would call absolution, they would be recommunicated, which was their return to the community. But eventually in the West, probably with the emphasis on unworthiness with the rise of the monks as the new holy ones in the sixth and seventh centuries, and then the priests and the religious…

MS. TIPPETT: And this would be examples of people who seemed to be completely holy? Is that what you mean?

FATHER FOLEY: Yeah. In some ways you could say that the rise of the monks in the sixth and seventh and eighth century in the West, they were the new holy. And then in the 11th and 12th centuries you start getting theologies of priesthood, that priesthood is a new holiness and it’s the apex of holiness. So I think with those kinds of theological and spiritual developments, the unworthiness of the folk, the emphasis on their sinfulness, the incredible poverty of folk. And, I mean, you’d have a missal or a chalice that would be worth more than they would make in their entire life, and so they would watch. That’s why you start getting practices in the 11th and 12th centuries that people didn’t receive the bread physically, they would look at the bread. That’s why they would ask the priest to hold it up because they felt just looking at it was an act of, later on, what you’ll call spiritual communion.

MS. TIPPETT: So the idea became then that most people were so sinful most of the time, so unworthy, that they, in fact, didn’t take Communion, or didn’t take it often physically?

FATHER FOLEY: Right. And that’s why you have, like, a council of the church and Lateran IV in 1215 saying, “You have to go to Communion at least once a year.” And of course if you’ve committed serious sin, which we presume, then you go to confession before you go to Communion. And if you’ve got a law that’s saying you’ve got to go at least once a year, then the law is good evidence that people aren’t going even once a year, making what’s eventually called their Easter duty. And so that in the 20th century really with Pius X, that was really a move towards much more frequent Communion. Lowering the age of Communion so that instead of being in eighth grade or 14 years old, now you are like in second grade and seven years old. And to get people to go to Communion frequently was really a 20th century — I mean, you listen to the saints, their writings of the 13th and 12th centuries, and they’re talking to their spiritual adviser about whether they should go to Communion.

MS. TIPPETT: And in the 20th century did sin seem to matter less? What was the change?

FATHER FOLEY: Well, there was that great book by Menninger in the ’70s about whatever happened to sin. And there is a — and I think this is a rightful concern about church leadership and bishops — is that where’s the balance between recognizing that nobody is worthy to receive Communion? I mean, if you want to be really careful, I mean, nobody’s worthy, but we’re called. And what’s the balance between inviting people into participation and at the same time not making it so nonchalant and undemanding? Roman Catholics, I think, very often think about they get out of Communion, you know, grace or a morale booster or intimacy with Jesus. And lots of Roman Catholics don’t often think about what Communion gets out of us, like justice and, you know, ethical living and social action.

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about how Communion would get that out of communicants?

FATHER FOLEY: Well, the whole act of going to Communion, or this, you know, supping with God, it’s such an act of intimacy. God says, “This is my body.” And Jesus is no longer historically present in the world today, so it was like Jesus saying to His disciples, you know, “You’ve dined on me for three years. You’ve chewed me up, you’ve spit me out, and I’m going to be gone soon. And when I’m gone who’s going to be my body in the world?” And He says, “This is my body. You eat this, you become my presence in the world.” And when He gives them the cup He says, “This is how you become my presence in the world. This is my blood that’s being spilt for you, that I’m pouring out for you, that I’m going to literally pour out on a cross.” And so eating the bread and drinking from the cup really calls us to be Christ’s presence — “See how they love one another,” — you know, in the world.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s what was said of the earliest Christians.

FATHER FOLEY: Yeah. And if we eat and we drink and there’s no difference and they can’t tell that we’re believers, then maybe we’re missing what the eating and drinking is about.

MS. TIPPETT: Catholic theologian Edward Foley. The passage to which he just referred about outsiders exclaiming at the practical love among early Christians was reported by the second-century North African church scholar Tertullian. Here is a reading from the Book of Acts, the New Testament’s account of the life of the earliest churches, which links the practice of Communion with outward charity.

READER: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

From the second chapter of Acts, verses 44 through 47.

MS. TIPPETT: Communion became a political issue in America during the 2004 presidential campaign when a handful of conservative Catholic bishops suggested that it should be withheld from Senator John Kerry because of his record on abortion. My guest, Father Edward Foley, says that this controversy was made possible in part by an unusual outcome of the Second Vatican Council. The council met from 1962 to 1965 and substantively reformed the Catholic church. It drew a new, more direct line between worship and daily life.

FATHER FOLEY: The first document that came out of that council was about worship, and it was a way that the church sort of said that the way we worship is the way we are. It actually said that our worship is “the font and summit” of the church’s life. So I think one of the things that’s — the good thing that’s going on is that it’s saying that there’s a relationship between worship and life, that worship is not simply something we do in sequestered buildings on Sunday morning in secret.

I think there is also a conflict or a challenge and confusion about the relationship between worship and ethics, and that is an ethical life as a pattern. And when you look at the teaching from Rome on this, one has to look at the pattern of one’s life. That’s what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin from Chicago used to call the consistent ethic of life. So one has to be attentive to issues of abortion, birth control, euthanasia, but also capital punishment, war, imprisonment. So how do we think consistently about the ethic? And I think some may have a tendency, especially because the abortion issue is so important and I think has so polarized folk in some ways, that there are some who sort of single that issue out and say, “This is the issue by which we will judge.”

MS. TIPPETT: Now, there’s also been some controversy — and this happened in part in your territory in Chicago — of people visibly proclaiming their homosexuality being denied Communion. And there’s been some of that. The Catholic church does have a practice of withholding Communion, and that would have to do with divorce and remarriage.

FATHER FOLEY: If you’re remarried without an annulment, without the church’s permission, then the church believes that you’ve entered into a nonsacramental relationship and you would not be invited to the table. The major one that’s often overlooked is that we don’t have intercommunion with Protestants. So that the sacrament is offered to folk who are baptized, who are in union with the church, and we don’t freely offer it to seekers who are thinking about it.

MS. TIPPETT: Or other kinds of Christians, people who’re baptized in other churches. And what I want to ask you — and again, just to help in understanding of this — I mean, what is happening theologically when Communion is withheld from someone? What does that mean? What is the church doing?

FATHER FOLEY: Now, the difference for me is that I would find it very difficult to make that decision at the Communion rail, so to speak. But what the church is trying to do, and I think rightly so, is recognize that if we hold this gift so precious and we believe that this is a particular mode of Christ’s presence that was so important it even gave rise to the church, that we’re careful to whom we give it.

MS. TIPPETT: But I’m quite sure that over the years many, many Catholics who are using birth control or have had abortions have taken Communion, I would think, or done other things that contradict the teachings of the church. I mean, what is the understanding of what happens when they do partake in the sacrament?

FATHER FOLEY: Well, you’re going to have a wide variety of opinion on that. The interesting thing about sacraments is that sacraments are not for God, that they’re for people. I mean, God doesn’t need sacraments. God is really doing really well without them. And God is self-communicating all the time. So that sacraments are particular ways in which we avail of ourselves of a very particular invitation from God.

As a kid I was raised to believe that if I was in mortal sin — like, for example, if I had missed Mass on Sunday and if I didn’t go to confession before the next Sunday and if I went to Communion — there would be no grace, no self-communication of God. It seems to me that God self-communicates to people whether they’re sinful or not, whether they’re in a serious sin or not. I mean, did Jesus self-communicate to Judas and did it make a difference? I don’t know. I may get to heaven — I hope I do — and find out Judas is there waiting for us because he did repent. And so I would not encourage folk who are living in serious sin to communicate without having a good experience of reconciliation and reviewing their life. But I believe that God is not contained or not restricted by sometimes our limited theology and that somebody in serious sin receiving Communion could still experience God’s grace. And the reality is historically before the first five or six centuries, people, that’s the way they did experience God’s self-communication, by going to Communion.

MS. TIPPETT: By going to Communion even if they knew they didn’t deserve it?

FATHER FOLEY: Well, none of us deserve it. I mean, and, see, that’s the other catch, is that we say, “Oh, here’s a notorious sinner. They should not — they’re not worthy to go to Communion.” And sometimes the implicit presumption is, “but I am.”

MS. TIPPETT: Some of us are, yes.

FATHER FOLEY: But none of us are worthy. And I think that’s part of the continuum that we have to keep ourselves connected to.

MS. TIPPETT: Edward Foley is a professor of liturgy and music at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The author of many books and articles, he also presides and preaches at St. Mary’s Catholic church in Riverside, Illinois.

Earlier in this hour you heard Protestant theologian Don Saliers of Emory University.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. You can contact us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find the “particulars” section that will guide you through all the history, readings and music you’ve just heard. You’ll also find an archive of all of our past programs. You can listen online at no charge and learn how to purchase downloadable copies. Also, sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each interview, as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss with assistance from Ilona Piotrowska. The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett.

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