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Friday, October 29, 2004

The Doors, the Doors!

In the Catholic Byzantine rite, immediately before the priest consecrates the offering, the deacon proclaims, "The doors, the doors! Let us attend in wisdom!" With those words, the doors of the iconostasis are shut. The closing of the doors not only transforms the altar area into an image of Mary’s virginal womb, so that the presence of Jesus might enter into the Bride of the Christ as He did two millenia ago, it also serves a rather practical purpose. It keeps the riff-raff out.

Riff-raff are always trying to get in, as any good bishop knows. Take St. Ambrose, for instance. Though Emperor Theodosious and St. Ambrose, the great bishop who taught St. Augustine, were on close terms, St. Ambrose had strict standards. Now, keep in mind that Theodosius was a good Catholic. He had called the second council of Constantinople in order to solve the problem Arian heresy. He was responsible for obliterating the last traces of pagan worship, destroying pagan temples and holy places with such fervor that the pagans themselves resorted to the sword. He took to the field of battle and resoundingly defeated these Italian troops, thus finally making the Roman empire a Christian empire. Yet, when, in 390, the Emperor Theodosius slaughtered 7000 Thessalonicans in revenge for a riot they had instigated, St. Ambrose refused to allow the ruler of the whole Roman empire, the ruler of the entire known civilized world, to step foot into a church until he had confessed his sin and performed eight months penance. It didn’t matter how staunch a supporter of Christian Faith the Emperor might be. He had sinned. He could not profane the holy places by his presence until his sins were forgiven.

Keeping the riff-raff out is just good practice. Even today, tourists are denied entrance to the great basilicas of Rome if they are clothed in an all too unconcerned fashion. There are standards.

Thus, it is somewhat puzzling to read Cardinal George’s latest missive to the people of Illinois.
"Should Catholic ’pro-choice’ politicians receive Holy Communion? Objectively, no; but subjectively a politician may have convinced himself he is in good conscience. The burden of helping politicians form their consciences falls back upon their pastors. Such a conversation about personal conversion is hard to have in the midst of the pressures of electioneering. As the conversations, both public and private, go on, however, "pro-choice" politicians will inevitably find themselves ever more estranged from their own community of faith. This is tragic, not only for politicians, most of whom went into public service for generous motives, but for the faith community itself.

Should a minister of Holy Communion give a ‘pro-choice’ politician the Body of the Lord? If a voting record is evidence of ‘manifest and obstinate’ sin, no. The objection is raised that voting for abortion isn’t the only political sin, even though abortion and euthanasia are the moral bottom line. Nevertheless, a firm case can be made that refusing Communion, after pastoral counseling and discussion, is a necessary response to the present scandal. Some bishops have made that case. If I haven’t made it in this Archdiocese, it’s primarily because I believe it would turn the reception of Holy Communion into a circus here. Who should be excluded? Is a special list to be published or will the Communion minister make the determination, supposing that a particular politician is even recognized by the minister. Will the media be invited in to watch a confused or disobedient minister give the Eucharist to a politician making a point? What happens next?"

The answer is obvious. Every Catholic Church has men who volunteer to be ushers. In America, the usher holds a largely ceremonial post with few duties. American ushers do, however, have one distinctly odd habit, a distorted throw-back to the original function of the usher, or door-warden.

For obscure reasons, American ushers in some churches think they have a right to tell people when they can walk up to receive the Eucharist. That is, they position themselves at the rear of the communion line in such a way that the faithful are deterred from standing up and approaching the Eucharist until such time as the usher deems that they may approach.

Now, from a sacramental point of view, it is not at all obvious why this would be the case. What amazing spiritual insight do ushers possess that tells them the people in the front of the congregation will always be prepared to come forward to meet God well before anyone in the back of the congregation is ready to receive? Clearly the European-style rush of uninhibited congregants towards the altar offends the American sense of assembly-line order, so ushers take it upon themselves to transform this most intimate encounter with Christ into something less spontaneous and more… well… strait-jacketed. Though the ushers thereby violate the sacramental rights of the people to come forward when they are ready, it accords with everyone's over-inflated sense of social decorum, so the practice is well-tolerated, even actively encouraged.

But, though the current practice is rather a violation of the congregants' rights, the ushers' instincts are right. The door-wardens of the early Church did something very much akin to what ushers do now, the difference being that the door-wardens would not let anyone into the physical building unless they were known to and approved by the wardens. If you were unknown to the wardens, you had to present a letter from your priest or bishop testifying to the fact that you were a Catholic in good standing with the Church. Only then could you enter and prepare yourself for attendance at the sacred duties of the Mass. When the deacon cried out, "The doors, the doors!", the altar servers would swing the doors of the iconostasis shut, while at the same time, the door wardens would swing the outer doors of the Church shut. God was coming. "Holy things for the holy!" the priest cried, for only holy congregants could stand the presence of the living God. Penitents and pagans had to remain outside.

Cardinal George can solve his problem right now, today, simply by re-constituting the ancient office of door warden. He acknowledges that no one who supports abortion should receive the Eucharist. He acknowledges that every minister of the Eucharist has the duty to refuse such individuals the Body and Blood of Christ. He has only to solve the problem of how to prevent a circus during Mass.

Simple. Don’t let the riff-raff in. Keep pro-abortion politicians and the media on the street. They can film and demonstrate all they want out there. By this very action, we remind the world that human beings are a sacramental people – that means that external created reality always reflects the internal spiritual disposition. A pagan or sinner who approaches to profane the holy now encounters the reality. The doors that lead to holiness are closed. The only thing that will open those doors is a penitent heart.


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