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On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion (part one)

April 22, 2018

credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Last week in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, we read this from St. Justin Martyr:

No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes what we teach is true; Unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ (Apologia Cap 66: 6, 427-431).

St. Justin may have had in mind this text from the Letter to the Hebrews, which links proper doctrine to the reception of Holy Communion:

Brethren, Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace and not by their ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those devoted to them. For we have an altar from which those who serve at the [old] tabernacle have no right to eat (Heb 13:9-10).

Thus, communion points to doctrine not hospitality. The Eucharist comes from a basic communion of belief and serves to strengthen that belief. It is no mere ceremony; it is a family communion rooted in our communion with who the Lord is and what He teaches. This common belief makes us brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In the modern debate about who can and should receive Holy Communion, some presume that everyone has the right to approach the Eucharistic sacrifice and partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord. In this view, limiting or discouraging indiscriminate reception is dismissed, not only as unjust, but as contrary to the practice of Jesus Christ, who “welcomed everyone,” even the worst of sinners.

In this sort of climate, it is necessary to explain the Church’s historical practice of what some call “closed communion.” Not everyone who uses this terminology means it pejoratively; to some extent it is a fair description.  For the Catholic Church, Holy Communion is not a “come one, come all” event. It is reserved for those who, by grace, preserve union with the Church through adherence to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. Our response of “Amen” at Holy Communion signifies our communion with these realities along with our faith in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Many today have reduced Holy Communion to a mere sign of hospitality, such that if the Church does not extend it to all, we are being unkind. This misconception is often based on a mistaken understanding of the nature of the Last Supper (and the Eucharist that proceeds from it). Many years ago, Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, articulated the misunderstanding well. Following are some excerpts from his Collected Works, Vol 11, Ignatius Press pp 273-274:

Nowadays [some] New Testament scholars … say that the Eucharist … is the continuation of the meals with sinners that Jesus had held … a notion with far-reaching consequences. It would mean that the Eucharist is the sinners’ banquet, where Jesus sits at the table; [that] the Eucharist is the public gesture by which we invite everyone without exception. The logic of this is expressed in a far-reaching criticism of the Church’s Eucharist, since it implies that the Eucharist cannot be conditional on anything, not depending on denomination or even on baptism. It is necessarily an open table to which all may come to encounter the universal God …

However, tempting the idea may be, it contradicts what we find in the Bible. Jesus’ Last Supper was not one of those meals he held with “publicans and sinners.” He made it subject to the basic form of the Passover, which implies that the meal was held in a family setting. Thus, he kept it with his new family, with the Twelve; with those whose feet he washed, whom he had prepared by his Word and by this cleansing of absolution (John 13:10) to receive a blood relationship with him, to become one body with him.

The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.

That is why, from the beginning, the Eucharist has been preceded by a discernment … (I Corinthians 11:27ff). The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [the Didache] is one of the oldest writings outside the New Testament, from the beginning of the Second Century, it takes up this apostolic tradition and has the priest, just before distributing the sacrament saying: “Whoever is holy, let him approach, whoever is not, let him do penance” (Didache 10).

This makes clear the root of the problem: the failure to see the Eucharist for what it truly is: a sacred banquet wherein those who enjoy communion with the Lord (by His grace) partake of the sign and sacrament of that communion. Holy Communion serves to celebrate and deepen the communion already operative through the other sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession.

You may label this communion “closed,” but at its heart it is more positively called a sacrum convivium, a sacred meal of those who share a life together (con (with or together) + vivium (life)). This is not a “come one, come all” meal; it is a Holy banquet for those who wear the wedding garment. The garment is righteousness and those who refuse to wear it are cast out (cf: Matt 22:11-12 & Rev 19:8).

Many moderns surely would prefer a “no questions asked” invitation to all who wish to come. It fits in well with the popular notion of inclusiveness and unity. To a large degree, though, it is a contrived unity, one that overlooks truth (the opposite of which is falsehood, not just a different viewpoint). Yes, it overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best and a lie at worst. How can people approach the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion and unity, and say “Amen” when they differ with the Church over essentials such as that Baptism is necessary; that there are seven Sacraments; that the Pope is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth; that homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery are gravely sinful; that women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders; that there is in fact a priesthood; that Scripture must be read in the light of the Magisterium; and on and on? Saying that there is communion in such a case is either a contrivance or a lie, but in either case it does not suffice for the “Amen” that is required at the moment of reception of Holy Communion.

Such divisions do not make for a family meal or a sacrum convivium. Hence, to share Holy Communion with Protestants, dissenters, and others who do not live in communion with the Church is incoherent. To paraphrase Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), the Eucharist is not a table fellowship with publicans and other “sinners”; it is a family meal that presupposes grace and shared faith.

Tomorrow we will discuss the need to receive Holy Communion in a state free from grave or serious sin.

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Comments (13)

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  1. yan says:

    Msgr., I have a question. I am tasked with preparing some high school students to receive their first holy communion. They are in the class because of their parents and not by their own choice. Two have professed openly their unbelief in the faith of the Church and in God generally. Do you have any suggestions about how to proceed? It seems farcical to me to insist that these children should partake of first communion in order to satisfy their parents’ desires. On the other hand, I know that people pass on their traditions to their children in various ways in different cultures, and I don’t want to interfere with that. Is there some basis to allow children in these situations to be part of a ceremony in which, having attained the age of reason, they do not believe? The statement above from St. Justin Martyr seems dispositive of the question: they should not be permitted to participate if they do not believe. Again, your thoughts/suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Bender says:

      If I may answer here —

      I am a catechist too. And our role is simply to teach. The question of whether these kids actually receive First Communion at this time is for the pastor, not us. And in determining that, the pastor may ask questions of the DRE or you, but it is entirely HIS decision.

      Meanwhile, if these kids have doubts, that is all the more reason that you, as catechist, with tender mercy teach them fully and properly and prayerfully. Who knows, maybe you (with the grace of God) will convert them?

      But, back to the first point — it is not for you to say whether it is right that they participate or not. We are mere servants, not the masters.

  2. Alfred says:

    Mgr.Pope,
    Thank you for this affirmation of one of the key foundations of the Catholic Faith. In this time of confusion, when even “shepherds” are confusing and misleading their flock, often to gain approval of the secular world, it greatly helps to know that the flock can still find shepherds who will not be silent, but who will speak out and assert the truth.

    May God strengthen your voice and that of others who choose to stand in the breach.

  3. yan says:

    Right, that wasn’t really my question, but thanks for your input. Monsignor?

    • Bender says:

      Yes, it was. Your questions were —

      Do you have any suggestions about how to proceed?

      I answered this question. Teach the children. That is your role.

      Is there some basis to allow children in these situations to be part of a ceremony in which, having attained the age of reason, they do not believe?

      I answered this too. It is not your concern. The basis or non-basis to “allow” children in these situations to receive is whatever the pastor says. Period.

      I’m just trying to be helpful here. There was no need for the blow-off response.

  4. Fr Fizzlewit says:

    Hi Msgr.,

    When a non-Catholic Christian minister tells me, “We practice OPEN Communion” I tell him/her “We practice TRUE Communion.”

  5. yan says:

    Wasn’t a blow off, and I thanked you for your reply. Question was not addressed to you though, and, I see no need to argue anymore.

    • Jpac says:

      Yan, i was in a similar position a decade ago as a catechist of the Confirmation students who did not attend the parish school. I had a 13 year old student my first year who objected to many dogmatic and doctrinal positions of the Church.

      I told our pastor that she had too many objections for me to answer satisfactorily. He had a meeting with her and her parents. Together they were able to make a well-formed decision about the sacrament.

      The final say was “above my pay grade (i was a volunteer)” to say the least and i was happy to let my pastor shoulder the responsibility of the final decision.

      • yan says:

        Thanks for your input, and, I think something like that is what is going to happen, but maybe not. If I may, I’d like to explain myself a bit: I think it’s an issue of prudential wisdom primarily, and I am more than happy to leave the decision to the parish priest, who I believe has an abundance of that quality, and who as well has a long and rich experience as a pastor. However, he doesn’t know these children and has never been in my class. I doubt he has ever met the child. How can he come to a conclusion without data? So, I’m open to being a part of this meeting if that’s what he thinks would be best. Or not.

        Personally, when I have been ultimately in charge of making some decision in my family, I like to be fully informed about the facts before I make that decision. I also like to know what others in my family are thinking and feeling about the particular facts. Sometimes I can get wisdom by listening to them, I think. Other times, I have a very different view than they have. But in those cases I’ve found it is also important to know and hear what they think, because then I can make a better decision and also provide an explanation for my decision that is better than it otherwise would be.

        Anyway, as I age I have learned to make decisions more collaboratively at times. But I know that others have different styles.

  6. Dan says:

    It would be most helpful if these posts actually shared what the priests decision was. I personally do not believe anyone who does not share in the teachings of the Church should receive the sacrament until they do. I don’t say this lightly, but I see very little difference in not admitting a non-believing Christian of a non-Catholic faith from a non-believing Catholic who had no choice in their Catholic rearing. Instead I think it is a priestly call but one that should be easily answered. I think the consultation with a priest is a good process rather than putting it on the catechist and should be part of a parish policy put in place in advance so catechists know how to respond without making each incident a unique one.

    • Jpac says:

      Dan, the questioning youngster in my anecdote did not receive confirmation i am relieved to report, although i hope one day, as she continues her search for truth…

      Little background: her parents we in a religiously mixed marriage, mom historically lutheran, dad and granparents were parishioners.

      Her objections were the “pelvic issues” and the abscence female ordination in the RCC.

  7. joseph says:

    I know this is more complicated than I may make it sound but I still have troubles with the thought process of being in FULL COMMUNION to receive Communion BUT we could receive Communion from Orthodox churches AND they are allowed to receive from Roman Catholic (even though most of them are not allowed to from their end) This, to me seems contradicting to the “Full Communion” reason.

    • Marie says:

      Joseph, Catholics are not allowed to receive from the Orthodox except in VERY limited circumstances. That’s relevant (not irrelevant as you seem to want to paint it).

      Under normal circumstances, because of the very real division of belief (particularly about authority of the Pope, but also touching on Mary’s Assumption and the procession of the Trinity), intercommunion with the Orthodox is not allowed. That’s the norm.

      However, the unity of belief we share with the Orthodox on other very important matters is quite close, close enough that the Catholic Church considers the Orthodox to have valid Holy Orders and valid Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. This leads to the exception to the norm.

      Namely, under certain *very* limited circumstances (such as danger of death where Catholic priest is unavailable), the most important thing is for the individual to receive the Lord in Holy Viaticum, and so the exception is allowed. This isn’t a contradiction. It’s recognizing that emergencies happen and if there’s no other way to receive Jesus, then you do so!

      Such exceptions are the fruit of the *unity* that we do have with the Orthodox on most matters, particularly on the matter of Holy Orders and the Sacred Liturgy. It’s a deeper unity than we have with Protestants, which is why there is no intercommunion allowed, ever, with Protestants. It would not be even possible (however much a Catholic wanted to) to receive the Lord in Holy Communion from say, a Lutheran. They could give you a host, but it wouldn’t BE Jesus because they do not have valid Holy Orders or Liturgy. That’s why there’s no exception for Catholics to ever receive, even in danger of death, from Protestants.