There is a problem with being in Germany in May. If you are there, you will be forced to eat asparagus. The abundance of this delicacy will hunt you down, and face you in heaping piles at lunch and dinner, all the while, steam will rise from this mound of delight in what seems to spell out the words “Eat me! Eat me!” But it isn’t just the asparagus, it is the white asparagus, with the thick stalks. The kind that is considered a most exquisite luxury when one is forced to eat vegetables.
This week, my hosts have force fed me (OK it really wasn’t that hard) with plates full of thick, white, asparagus. I would sit at the dinner table saying “No! You can’t give me more! Do you know how much this would cost in the United Sates?”
But they kept piling it on. I estimated in the States, the amount that I ate would cost upwards of $20, for the green asparagus, not even the expensive white asparagus. What they fed me during a dinner was probably worth $6 here.
It is during one of these feasts that Volker introduced me to an expression cliché found in German culture. “Management by Asparagus.”
You see… to get the really good, white asparagus, you need to grow it in a special way. You are required to grow the asparagus in rows, specially prepared in which the asparagus is covered completely in dirt. These mounds of dirt, in long rows, wait anxiously for the asparagus to pop its head out. As soon as it does, the asparagus starts to turn green (the less acceptable asparagus in Germany… though it is pretty much all we eat in the States). So, when the asparagus peeks its little head out of the dirt, you have to dig away the dirt, and cut it off.
Management by asparagus is a derogatory expression of management systems that discourage any motivation by any employee who ventures so far as to peek his/her head out of the confines in which the management has covered its rows of automated drones. The concept describes a sensation many employees feel. If you think for yourself, and emerge from the darkness which has been created for you, you will be eliminated.
I laughed heartily when I heard about the concept. Then cut into another luxurious bite of asparagus, buttered, and properly salted. Yum!
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I wanted to write about today could easily lead to “management by asparagus.” I am very aware of my Catholic allegiance, even while I have criticized the present and past of the Catholic hierarchy. I have only done so while also keeping fidelity in my heart, honoring the role of the hierarchy as officers of message of Jesus Christ, and caregivers to the Catholic community, and all Christians, in order to lead us closer, in unity, with one another. I would not be dedicating an entire year of my life, to go to Mass EVERY DAY, in a DIFFERENT CHURCH, around the WORLD, if I did not believe that the covenant of love offered through Jesus Christ, through the ministry of THE CHURCH, was relevant to humanity’s need of salvation.
But the Church also has a lot of bureaucracy.
For centuries, there has been an attitude prevailing in the Church in which we should not interact with those with whom we disagree. “Error has no rights.” It is an expression that led to the torturing of thousands, especially Jews, who denied Christ as their Savior. No matter the intentions of the Inquisition, the philosophies and methods used actually violated the core values of Christianity. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation facilitated changes in the Church that were necessary, but did so in ways that were contrary to the calling for Christians to love one another. I recognize that, even for me, I was raised with a mentality that was always suspicious of Protestants.
But I’m in Germany right now. The first thing to note is that Protestantism is very different in Germany than it is in America. It is often difficult to notice the differences between Protestants and Catholics. Their Churches often look the same, their worship is identical (especially if you don’t speak German), and their concern for unity with Christ is the same. One begins to discover that Protestantism in Germany is more about political history, than it is about theological identity.
Which is why I was really excited to join my host Volker Langbein at his Protestant church today. We joked quite a bit about me coming. How could I say that I was honoring my goal to visit a Catholic Church every day? Well… the actual building of his church WAS Catholic in 1430. At that time, it was parish of Mary Magdalene.
“That’s it! I’m visiting the suppressed Church of Mary Magdalene!”
“But it was Catholic again in 1696 when the Carmelite nuns returned to take the Church for the Catholics. Then in 1707 the Protestants took it back. Then in 1725 the Catholics.. then…”
“Wait just a second… Was this Church ever burned down by Napoleon?”
“Then it’s not that interesting.”
What was interesting to me was that the church was having the celebration of Confirmation today. I really wanted to see the celebration. I’d never heard of Protestants celebrating Confirmation, and I wanted to know what it was like. I was surprised to find out that the prayers were very similar, we had a reading from the Gospel, a sermon, and then the youth who were Confirmed were required to make a Profession of Faith, (just like the Catholics), and the minister laid hands upon the youth, (just like the Catholics) and we even had communion (just like the Catholics)
The Protestant church had communion.
Hmm… What to do? And then… what to say about what I would do? Sure. I can say that I’m visiting the “Suppressed Church of Mary Magdalene,” but this is a church that is clearly out of union with the Pope (that is actually the primary theological difference), and communion should always be an exterior sign of an interior reality. I think of my solidarity with Christ as solidarity experienced through the ministry of the Church, led by the succors to the Apostles, of whom, the first among equals, is the Pope. The Christians at this church do not believe the same things that I do. Receiving communion in this church would be an exterior sign, executed in discontinuity with my own interior reality.
But then again, I’ve been living all week long through the hospitality of a Protestant and Catholic household. I’ve been feasting on their copious amounts of asparagus. Could I really say that I was in solidarity with them at the dinner table of their home, but not the community home of Volkers’ church? What is the real difference? Where is God the most present?
I have been blessed in my life not to be troubled by these scruples too much. I know the law. I’ve read it. I’ve even taught it. The most current teaching on intercommunion comes from Pope John Paul II’s papal encyclical entitled Ecclesia y Eucharistia written in 2003. Pope John Paul II explicitly states that “it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion.”
But wait. That’s only what some authorities in the Church want you to hear. Pope John Paul II wrote a little more. It can be found in Paragraph 45 of Ecclesia y Eucharistia. You can find the document at www.vatican.va if you don’t believe me.While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established
So, I was faced with a simple question. I’m on a pilgrimage of 365 Church in the world, giving witness to the diversity and unity of the Church, while staying through the hospitality of a family friend for over 50 years, in a foreign country, when my host is an Elder in his church’s community, while I’m on a mission of peace to heighten our awareness of our unique cultures, and our call to unity. Does that constitute a “special circumstance?” to meet a “grave spiritual need” as determined by a well formed conscience?
I’m all for Church teaching. I think the differences between Protestants and Catholics need healthy and safe dialogue before we dismiss them willy nilly. This is going to take a great deal of work, and in the meantime, it benefits no one to ignore those differences in the benefit of a false communion expressed at liturgies, but not lived in the life of our churches. But there are moments like this, in which we need to recognize that the unity that Christ has gathered in his covenant of love is larger than our temporal, and political expressions of it.
So, yes. I went to a Protestant Church today. And I received communion. Not out of a denial of my own faith community, but out of respect for that to which my faith calls me. I don’t normally do this and would not normally do this, but today was special. It was very special… and meaningful.
Now my only fear is the perception of my authorities, my readers, and even my job. By admitting this, I’m peeking my head, ever so slightly outside of the mound in which I have been buried. My intention would be to grow, but I have my doubts. I know the climate of the Catholic Church right now. I work for her. There can be consequences, and confusion. There can even be “scandal” (which is not the way we think of scandal in the media. Scandal refers to anything that might lead others away from the faith.)
So I rhetorically ask, “Does anyone really think this type of experience needs to be cut off?”
If so… welcome to a world where “management by asparagus” is the norm.
Enjoy the meal.