Longing for communion

Longing for communion

Therese married the man she loved. She goes to Mass every week, but can’t receive Communion. Will Francis change the rules?

Published on September 18, 2015

Therese’s first Holy Communion: She remembers the hair ribbons and the nuns, and the words of the catechism and how some of them were, “We are made to know God and love him in this world so we may serve him in the next.” And the wafer, which tasted like unsalted bread and dissolved between her tongue and the roof of her mouth; she wasn’t supposed to chew it because it was the body of Christ.

Next came the second Communion, the third, the 20th. Hundreds of Communions in her Northern Virginia Catholic church, until one night she met a man at a party. They liked each other, their first date was driving for hours down back roads, they got married, and they still are. Her husband had been previously wed to another woman and divorced before Therese ever met him. Because she believed in following Catholic doctrine about remarriage, the last time she received Communion was a time she can now barely remember.

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Therese’s last Holy Communion was 37 years ago. At first, giving up that sacrament didn’t seem important, but her faith deepened after she had children. Now, she misses it. She misses how new she felt afterward. The sensation “of deep love” running through her. She’s 55 and a grandmother now, a nurse at a hospital near her Vienna, Va., home who watches patient after injured patient come in, who looks at the clean white socks of an old man whose body is otherwise mangled from a car accident and thinks, “His wife never knew that when she folded these socks, they would end up on this gurney today.”

Praying is like breathing to her and she does it without thinking, 50 times a day by her estimate — expressions of gratitude, or requests for assistance to help her through a life that has felt, lately, as if it is barely glued together. She has a father who is ailing and relies on her to translate medical terminology. A house she’s trying to sell that keeps having electrical problems. A dented car and a stolen wallet. So she prays to St. Michael the Archangel as soon as she wakes up. She says the Hail Mary to gather strength throughout the day. She walks up a flight of stairs between patient rounds at work and sends a silent plea to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost items, over an acquaintance’s misplaced engagement ring.

Therese says it’s a myth that faith should always be “easy” or “comfortable.” Sometimes deep faith should be a challenge. So while she prays every day and attends Mass at least once a week, she has refrained from receiving Communion for 35 years. Now, the Catholic Church is having unprecedented discussions about whether this rule should be changed.

She doesn’t talk about it much — her relationship with Communion felt like a private family matter, and she didn’t want her last name to be used in this story.

But she does miss it. It would be nice, particularly at this moment in her life, to have it. It would, she says, “be amazing.”

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A pure faith

In the Catholic Church, marriages are permanent. While civil divorces may legally dissolve unions, spiritually, they continue on. And so marriages in which one or both spouses have been divorced are considered “irregular” — according to the church, the couples are still bound to their original partners. Unless they receive annulments, which rule their first marriages invalid, or commit to a celibate union, these couples cannot receive the sacrament of Communion because they are not in a state of grace with the church.

Pope Francis was elected into this state of affairs in 2013 and since then has opened conversations about the church’s relationship with divorced couples. Last year he called for a worldwide meeting of bishops to discuss it; the bishops are scheduled to meet again in October and then offer recommendations. A prominent German cardinal published an open letter arguing for divorced couples to be allowed Communion. Other cardinals wrote their own articles, arguing that the tenets should remain unchanged. Remarried couples “are not at all excommunicated,” Pope Francis told a group of visitors during an open audience in August, and religious scholars immediately dissected whether he was publicly hinting at a pathway to greater acceptance.

What he is rumored to have said in private has caused even more consternation.

He telephoned a woman in Argentina in 2014, having received her letter lamenting that her priest wouldn’t give her Communion because of her husband’s previous marriage. The pope, according to the accounts of the woman and her husband in the local press, told her she could receive Communion. He told her she could just visit a different parish, she said, in an account that the Vatican dismissed because the pope’s pastoral conversations are confidential.

If he said it, and if he meant it, and if it reflected his calling as the leader of the Catholic Church and became codified, it would be revolutionary for the several million Catholics in the United States alone who are unable to receive Communions because of divorce and remarriage.

Including Therese. Because she doesn’t want a workaround, such as leaving the church and joining a less structured faith. She doesn’t want to do what some friends have suggested and what a lot of other people do: stand up in Mass and receive Communion anyway, though she’s not supposed to.

“I take so much comfort from the church,” Therese says. “How could I just choose to ignore the parts that are hard?”

As a young child, she attended a Catholic school until her parents transferred her to a secular one. She didn’t like the secular school. “They weren’t diagramming sentences there. There wasn’t any structure. I didn’t like the gray.” Therese realized she was a person who was paralyzed by too many choices. “Rules and boundaries, right and wrong. I loved that. Faith has given me a moral compass that I rely on, and I always go back to it. I go back to that place.”

Either she believed what priests taught, or she didn’t.

Either she was Catholic, or she wasn’t.

Being Catholic meant obeying Catholic teachings.

Communion was represented by the slenderest of wafers, but the decision not to accept it unless there was a pronouncement ex cathedra — an official papal pronouncement from the chair of St. Peter — that decision represented the entirety of Therese’s faith.

“I take so much comfort from the church. How could I just choose to ignore the parts that are hard?” Therese says. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Unfinished business

“I’ve said before,” the priest, Edward Filardi, said to Therese’s husband. “I think you may have good grounds for saying your first marriage was not valid.”

It was one morning after a Mass in Bethesda, the three were catching up over coffee in the rectory, and now her husband nodded at the priest’s words. He was a longtime family friend, and they’d had this discussion several times.

“I feel responsible sometimes,” Therese’s husband said to her. “I should have done it earlier, but I left it unfinished.” His first marriage was to his high school sweetheart, and it ended before they had ever lived together. Initially, he hadn’t requested an annulment because she wasn’t Catholic — he didn’t want to put her through the complex process required of a faith that wasn’t hers. “After a while,” he said now, “I really felt unworthy. Like I had made a mistake that I shouldn’t get to rectify.”

“Getting married to you was easy,” Therese told him. “You’re so kind and so loving, and you let me be what I want.” She turned to the priest. “I’m not going to force my husband to do anything,” she said.

“We’re all on a journey,” the priest said. Nobody was without sin. It was complicated, the priest said, because the church’s teachings on divorce had come from Jesus Christ himself. “He said if a man leaves his wife and marries another, he commits adultery.”

But the priest knew Therese and her husband. He admired them — their lively kids, who stayed up late having philosophical debates about faith and salvation, the way Therese had parented them, firmly but with love.

He told Therese and her husband that he knew it must be difficult to remain in the pews while the rest of the congregation came for Communion. “The humility it takes is inspiring.”

He knew other couples, he said, who avoided Mass altogether because they were embarrassed by the awkwardness.

“Sometimes it’s awkward,” Therese’s husband said. “But I’m focused on the Mass.”

“If it’s awkward, that’s okay,” Therese said.

She does still go to confession sometimes, she told the priest. “Is that all right? I make sure to always state my impediment.”

The priest told her that he thought that it was okay.

“The thing that bothers me is that I’ve taken you away from Communion,” her husband said.

She shook her head and repeated the truest things in her life: “We’re married. We have a family. We have children. I support the church.”

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What was given up

The lesson this morning would be from the Book of Ruth, the priest had said earlier at the morning Mass. “It’s a small book,” he said. “A beautiful book.”

In the pews, only partially full at 8 a.m. on a weekday, were older men in khakis and young women in jeans. Therese was there with her husband; he parked the car while she found a seat as the service was beginning and listened to the priest talk about Ruth, a woman who was married, but widowed young. Instead of returning to her homeland, she remained with her mother-in-law and adopted the customs and faith of her new people. The story of Ruth was about faithfulness, the priest said, and familial devotion.

Therese listened and thought about her father, who was back in the hospital, and found herself silently crying.

“Ruth will go on to remarry,” the priest continued as Therese allowed the tears to run down her face. “A man from Bethlehem, no less. And she will go on to become an ancestor of King David — and of Jesus Christ himself.”

“The Lord be with you,” the priest said.

“And with your spirit,” Therese replied with the rest of the congregants.

“Lift up your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

A little while later, the priest took a basket of wafers, raising it slightly above the altar, and reached the part of the service that harks back to the last supper of Jesus Christ, the root of Christianity — the night when, Catholics believe, and Therese believes, that Jesus Christ instructed his disciples to eat bread and drink wine that His touch had transformed into his flesh.

“Behold the Lamb of God,” the priest said. “Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” Therese repeated with the congregation. “But only say the word, and my soul should be healed.”

The other congregants rose from their pews to form a line in front of the priest, receiving their wafers one by one. Therese and her husband stayed in their pew as everyone else was seated again, and then everyone joined together in prayer.

“I realize now what I gave up,” she said later that day when she was at work, when she had a moment between patients to go to the cafeteria and sit and think. “When I got married, I thought about how I loved him, and nothing else seemed important.” The early missed Communions, she says, probably passed by almost unnoticed. She didn’t think at that time about how long her life of faith would be. Baptisms, wedding ceremonies, funerals, Easters, all of them stacking on top of each other and all of them without Communion. “But I have free will. I choose this every day.”

And if nothing changed in the Catholic Church, she said, then her life would still continue to feel full, as it had for the past 30 years.

But if something were to change — she stopped, now, sitting at the rickety table in the hospital cafeteria, to really consider it.

“Well, then, I’d say, ‘Amen.’ ”

THE FRANCIS FACTOR:
Illustration by Maria Corte

Schedule: What Pope Francis will do during his trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Sign up here to follow Washington Post stories about Pope Francis’s visit, and we’ll e-mail you as they’re published.

A pope for all seasons: Francis may be empathetic. He may tweet. But he’s got everyone guessing about what he really wants.

A church in the streets: Six 20-somethings in D.C. will give up many comforts of modern life for a year to serve the sick and the poor, a nod to the pope’s teachings.

A young nun in a disappearing world: At Bethesda’s Little Flower Parish, Sister Rachel and her elderly counterparts keep the faith as their ranks dwindle

A papal visit can’t heal these wounds: Faith abides, but the sex abuse scandal and their son’s death have alienated the McIlmails from the Catholic Church

For conservatives, sowing confusion: Francis is a global sensation, but to certain traditional Catholics, his message rings hollow

The latest on the pope’s U.S. visit

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