With some fear and trepidation I broach again the topic of the worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Clearly the topic has been much in the news in the recent past and has intersected with politics, for the usual demands are that politicians be denied communion for their support of abortion, euthanasia and matters related to so-called Gay “marriage.”
Bishops for their part do not appreciate being baited and/or drawn into making disciplinary actions that many will see as political (even if they are not) and one-sided (generally Democrats would receive the discipline).
And, thus, while prudentially concluding that the such disciplines would generally backfire, the Bishops are then excoriated by many theoretically loyal Catholics for malfeasance and/or dereliction of duty. It is a major mess and field day for the devil who brings in a harvest of wrath.
I too have suffered great wrath from many readers here how are furious that I do not “take the bait” and slam the bishops. I of course will do no such thing, for they are shepherds and Fathers to me and, if I were to have any burden under their leadership, I would speak to them privately and as to a father, respectfully, never drawing the faithful into attitudes of dissension and disrespect, or to legalistic notions that they only need to reverence the bishops in a few restricted matters.
And yet, in today’s reading (Wednesday of Week 13) came the clarion warning to us all from the Prophet Amos that we should be very careful approaching the divine Liturgy with hearts full of sin and injustice and hands stained with blood and oppression. As always, Amos words’ leave no room for face-saving niceties:
I hate, I spurn your feasts, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
And old African American song says, What if God is unhappy with our praise? What if God is unhappy with the way we live? We must change the way we walk, we must change the way we talk. We must live a life that’s pleasing to our king….
Cardinal Ratzinger in his memo Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion reminds us all:
Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (# 1).
Commenting as he was on the questions of abortion and euthanasia the Cardinal said further:
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. (# 5)
Note that the Cardinal, Now Pope Benedict, speaks of the role of pastors. For while it is frequently bishops who get the venom of the faithful, it is the pastors of wayward Catholics that have the first obligation to both warn and instruct the faithful, politician or otherwise, when serious sin becomes evident in the life of any.
Pastors have the duty first to instruct in a general sort of way that the faithful ought not approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion if they are aware of serious (mortal) sin, or are in grave disunity with the teachings of the Church. It is usually helpful to instruct them based on the scriptural admonition of St. Paul:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Cor 11:27-32)
The context of St. Paul’s admonition makes it clear that he has in mind serious sins that include more than merely sexual matters, but also matters that extend to a grave lack of charity toward others, something which too few judge as very serious today.
And thus the Pastor ought to instruct in a general kind of way, taking care not to excite grave scrupulosity, but being clear of the need for regular confession, especially in the case of habitual serious sin.
More specifically the pastor may sometimes need to approach certain individuals and, after ascertaining the facts, warn serious sinners in a private and clear way to repent and to stay away from Communion until such time as they are ready to do so wholeheartedly. Cardinal Ratzinger cited this as a clear duty of pastors.
For my own part, and speaking in a very general sort of way, I have indeed undertaken this duty in more than a few cases to warn certain individuals in serious sin to repent. This was not, in every case, sinners who were only in sinful sexual liaisons, and almost never did it include politicians. It also included certain people who were exhibiting a very grave lack of charity or causing serious harm in their family or the parish.
It was my duty in all such cases not only to warn them that they should stay back from Communion, but also that they risked Hell. For when one is in so serious a state that they should refrain from Communion, this is not their only problem! The prospect of strict judgement and hell are also very serious and real likelihoods.
Hence, when the Church teaches on the manner of receiving communion worthily, it is good and important to broaden the discussion beyond certain politicians or certain subjects. Otherwise it appears that our agenda is more political than spiritual. Pastors (and Bishops too) thus should look to teach on this matter in broad as well as specific ways.
There are many sins that can and should exclude one from receiving Holy Communion unless and until repentance is manifest and Sacramental confession is received (or, in specific circumstances, a perfect act of contrition with the intent to receive the Confession is made):
- One may habitually skip mass, and thus be in mortal sin.
- One may ridicule sacred things or person and thus harm seriously the faith of children or others.
- One may give grave scandal or harm the reputations of others in serious ways by gossip.
- One may be gravely lacking charity or unreasonably refusing of mercy.
- One may be seriously derelict in their duties toward parents or family.
- One may be seriously insubordinate and cause grave harm to unity.
- One may be reckless in their behavior and thus seriously endanger the lives or well being of others.
- One may have procured or assisted in the procuring of abortion.
- One may be in sinful and wrongful sexual liaisons, have engaged in seductive behaviors that led others to sin, or may be sexually uncontrolled and irresponsible.
- One may born false witness or told lies that seriously misled, endangered others or caused others to make seriously wrong choices or conclusions.
- One may have taken from others, or failed to render what others were due in significant ways.
- One can be seriously derelict in their duties to the poor and needy.
- And one can be locked into serious greed that unreasonably seeks to posses what belongs to others or is needed by others.
We tend, in our culture and times to emphasize certain things to the exclusion of others. But there are many things from which we should repent and which, when repentance is lacking should require us to step back from the Sacrament of Communion, the Holy Sacrament of love, union and charity.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24)
We all do well to, as St. Paul says, “examine ourselves,” and be frequent in confession if we are going to frequent the altar. Again, to quote the Pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger): The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected.
And this admonition is for us all, not just for some, lest we fall condemned under the word of Amos above or of these similar words from Isaiah:
“The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have had more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals;….Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is 11:11-20ff).
Though it is right that we trust in God’s mercy, the door to that mercy is repentance and humility. God is clearly not pleased with presumption, vain worship or sinful Communion. A message for us all.