The Rev. Tom Hartman was not just my best friend, he was my teacher. When we had to answer a question about Judaism, obviously I knew enough. When we had to answer about Catholicism, obviously, he knew enough. As far as questions about Buddhism, I sort of knew enough, and as far as questions about every other religion in the world we were mostly just guessing. Our guesses were, hopefully a bit more than wild. We co-authored "Religion for Dummies" and a book on world religions for kids; we hosted an HBO special on the book "How Do You Spell God?"
Anyway, I wish Father Tom were here for a million reasons, but one is that I have a big, juicy, difficult Catholic question. In a recent column, I brought up the example of how it is inappropriate for a non-Catholic to go to the Communion rail during the Eucharist service. Then R, a deacon in the Catholic Church, wrote to me to gently suggest that regarding Communion rails, I was more than 50 years behind the times:
"I read your articles frequently and I feel like you do not know that the Church held a Vatican II Synod more than 50 years ago, which changed many of the religious practices within the Church. One article pointed out that the church has a 'communion rail.' Communion rails were eliminated back in 1975. I will never forget the night after our pastor said we did not need our beautiful rail and a couple of men and I took a saw and cut our railing into pieces and removed it forever. And from there we received communion standing and in the hand.
"Now I know that I live in a town that has a bunch of very conservative priests who think we are still living in the '50s. Why Communion rails are condoned, or still exist, I do not understand. It is the same with people still thinking we have 'the last rites' when a person is about to die, again, eliminated with the Council. We have, I am sure you know, seven sacraments, and the Sacrament of Anointing is the sacrament that can be offered to the person, but it should be held in tandem with Confession and Viaticum, Holy Communion for the road, so to speak. These are just a couple of comments. I liked your story on the Christmas hymn: La La for sure, for the Lord."
Because your local newspaper rabbi/columnist is not the world's authority on Communion rails, which I have seen as I have also seen Father Tom administer Last Rites, I am out of answers. Are rails just out as an option? Then things got even deeper into the Catholic "weeds." B wrote to me about the problem of crossed arms.
"I am a faithful reader of your weekly column and also remember the dialogue and friendship you had with Father Tom. Though not Catholic, my wife attended a number of Masses because many of our grandchildren are of that religion. We were taught that during Communion we could go up to the rail, cross our arms, and receive a blessing. We have done this many times. Is that not proper? On a side note: I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about dress code. I can't believe what some people wear to church."
So, Communion is a sacred ritual meant only for baptized Catholics who are not living in sin or guilty of a mortal sin. This means if you are not a Catholic or if you are a Catholic who has divorced without an annulment and then married again, or if you are a child below a certain age, you cannot receive Communion.
Nevertheless, many people who attend a wedding in a Catholic Church and are not spiritually eligible to receive Communion still want to join the bridal party (or may be in the bridal party) go up anyway and cross their arms, or hold a copy of the wedding invitation and get a blessing from the priest instead of the wafer and the wine. Parents of young children who do not want to leave them behind often bring them along just so they can get a blessing from the priest.
All this is what some Catholics do. As to whether this is a violation of Canon Law (which my research indicates it is), I have no idea. What I need is this: If you are Catholic and you have a pious, learned loved one who has died, please have him or her find Father Tom in Heaven and have him call me right away!
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.