Back when my younger son was a teenager we’d shared a surprising conversation over a suppertime hamburger. He’d asked me whether it was true that the Holy Eucharist is sometimes accepted at Mass by someone, only to remain unconsumed and spirited out of a church for use in various, always nefarious, ways.
“How exactly,” he had asked me. “I’ve read that the Eucharist has been stolen for use in black masses, but what do they do with it, actually.”
I never liked talking about this subject, but I related a little—that some mentally or spiritually disturbed people have put the Consecrated Host upon an “altar” and stabbed it, or sliced it, so as to “stab” Christ. “They actually believe, as we do, that the Eucharist is the true and physical Presence, the Body and Blood of Christ,” I explained. “That’s why Wonder Bread and grape juice won’t do—nor will the unconsecrated wafers lying on the sacristy shelf of a Catholic church. They want the Consecrated Host—they know what it is. Sometimes the desecration involves tearing it up and stomping on it, or doing disgusting things to it. And sometimes the Host is even abused sexually. Just as sexual abuse is about power and control and domination, someone who sexually abuses a Host sees it as controlling and dominating Christ.”
“But, it’s a Gift,” he said, “So they only cheat and hurt themselves.”
I was a little confused. “What do you mean, which is the Gift, the Holy Eucharist, or sexuality?”
“Both,” he said. “They’re both gifts, but I’m talking about the Gift of the Body of Christ. Christ gave himself to us, feely, of his own free will. A Gift freely given. If someone takes the Gift and spits on it or whatever—they’re only destroying what was given to them, they are destroying what is ‘theirs.’ They don’t in any way destroy the Giver of the Gift, or lessen the Giver, or the Gift. So, they have no power over it, they can’t dominate it. All they can do is destroy themselves within themselves.”
“Yes,” I agreed. If I freely give you a car, and you decide to smash it up, you’ve lost out, not me. If I give you my life, and you are unappreciative, it doesn’t lessen what I have done, but reveals the void within you.”
“That’s why even during the Passion, those who wanted Jesus dead could not have victory over him,” my son mused. “So, no matter how they mistreated him or misjudged him, or tortured him…He had consented to it. And so they lost, and he won.” The power was always his.”
“Right,” I said, wondering what I was thinking about when I was sixteen years old.
“And so, these people at the black masses—they have an illusion of power, but the power is always Christ’s, because he is the Gift.”
“It doesn’t make me feel any better to think of anyone desecrating a Host,” he mused. “But if they don’t realize that the power they think they have is only an illusion, then really…‘they know not what they do.’”
It was a good conversation, and I came away from it feeling satisfied that my son, both of my kids actually, were never going to be content to skim the surfaces of their faith, and convinced that even if they eventually wandered away from regular Mass attendance—almost a rite of passage for cradle Catholics as they journey toward maturity—they’d always been too intellectually and spiritually challenged by the Church to ever fully walk away.
Fast forward fourteen years. My son is now a thirty-year-old man who still affirms his Catholic faith even though he, like many Catholics at the moment, finds much to be troubled about amid some of the Church’s leaders, and given the sometimes horrifying, sometimes maddening revelations that keep unfolding and proving beyond a doubt that this Church survives solely through the Reality of Christ himself, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and not by the works of the human creatures who administer it throughout the world.
Not by our leaders, not even by our saints and their powerful communion do we survive as a Church, but by Christ alone. Amen and amen.
So it was interesting to hear my son’s response to a question posed during this week’s meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the form of a tweet that asked, “If you are a young Catholic who is still a Catholic, what has made you stay?”
“Because if I leave, the bad guys win,” he said, narrowing his eyes like Clint Eastwood. “Because if I leave, then I don’t get to see the renewal that needs to happen. Maybe the better question isn’t why I’m still here, but why are some of them?”
“Yeah, alright, tough guy,” I smirked, even as I was once again struck by how easily my millennial kids (and so many of their friends) seem so able to quickly cut to the heart of a matter. “Seriously, what is your answer? I have a column to write, and I need some inspiration. Why have you remained in the Church?”
“Because I understand what’s true,” he said, sounding annoyed at having to say something so obvious, “And truth is truth always. I received the sacraments and learned what it means to have faith, and then I went out into the world and realized that without faith—and maybe more importantly, without a reasonable and humane moral code that makes sense within the context of faith, and to which I am held accountable—the world is mostly marketing and distraction and illusion. And that’s just a means to tempt us into adopting whatever notion suits us without asking us to change. Which means, in essentials, that the world is just a way to get comfortable with a lie, and keep truth at a distance.”
“And you don’t want to keep it at a distance,” I said, scribbling down his remarks as fast as I could.
“No, I’d like to embrace truth, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, yes,” I chuckled.
A while later he wandered back to the subject. “You know,” he mused, “I almost wish the bishops had asked the opposite question: not why I am still here, but what has most pushed me away.”
“What would you answer?” I asked, pen poised.
“I’d tell them that, beyond the scandals, which are heinous and make us want to puke, too many have become too much like the very world the Church is meant to redeem us from—too much savvy marketing, too much misdirection, too much back-scratching, too much political alignment in any direction. The Church is just too much in the world. Just give us Christ; give us the sacraments, teach us to pray, and then get out of the way. Or get your hands dirty with the rest of us, in trying to serve each other. Everything else is noise and theatrics.”