On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion (part two)

In yesterday’s post we considered the term “closed communion,” the practice of offering Holy Communion only to those who hold to the full doctrine of the Church. This practice emphasizes that communion of mind and heart to all the Holy Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God is included in the “Amen” that affirms the true presence.

Today we will discuss the need to approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion free from serious and unrepentant sin. Let’s consider some texts showing that the Church’s desire that her sons and daughters receive Holy Communion only when in such a state is not only a proper but loving. The excerpts are followed by my own commentary, presented in red text.

So then, 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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:27-32).

St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with our Lord, it brings condemnation. Therefore, out of respect for Christ and for our own good, the Church requires us to be in a state of grace when we receive. We are required to abstain from Holy Communion only when there is mortal sin (confessions of devotion, however, are highly recommended).

[At the Last Supper the disciples asked] “Lord, who is it [who will betray you]?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (Jn 13:21-30).

It is unclear whether the “morsel” taken by Judas was Holy Communion. If it was, why would Jesus have dipped it? Still, there is something of a picture of what unworthy (sacrilegious) reception of Holy Communion might cause in an extreme case.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Mat 5:21-26).

Note the use of the simple word “first” in the second sentence. Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with hate or injustice toward our brethren. Reconciliation and the restoration of unity are required prior to approaching the Sacrament of Holy Communion, lest our “Amen” be either incoherent or a lie.

A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (Code of Canon Law # 916).

The use of an act of contrition mentioned here is an exception, requiring the impossibility to go to Confession beforehand and including the necessity of receiving Communion immediately thereafter. Such would be the case for a priest who is in an unworthy state but who must celebrate Mass. There are some pastoral notes that can be added later for those who struggle with some habitual sins that are possibly grave (e.g., masturbation). The Catechism has some commentary that a confessor can apply to a penitent in such cases. No Catholic should simply take it upon himself to use the exception described in Canon 916. A confessor must be consulted.

To respond to the invitation to Holy Communion, we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385).

If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9).

The Didache was written sometime between 90 and 110 A.D, hence very early on there was an understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church.

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 (2004 Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).

In all these writings we see a tradition that is scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.” There are warnings against irreverent reception, in which the Eucharist is regarded as ordinary or is treated casually.

Is the Church merely being “fussy” about Holy Communion? No more so than were St. Paul and the Holy Spirit, who inspired him to write and warn us against unworthy reception of the Eucharist. Rather, the Church is charitably exhorting us to receive the Eucharist but also warning those who are unprepared to refrain from reception. Indeed, Scripture warns that the unworthy reception of Holy Communion brings not a blessing but a condemnation. This is God’s teaching, not mine.

Perhaps an analogy can be found by noting that some people are allergic to penicillin. For them, a drug that has saved many lives can be life-threatening. Similarly, sinners, though not by accident or genetics but by choice, will find that the Eucharist—life-giving to many—is not so for them when in such a state. In charity, the Church teaches that those individuals unprepared to receive Communion must refrain from doing so until the problem is resolved. This is charity, not cruelty or a lack of hospitality.

In tomorrow’s post I will develop some of these principles further, discussing some pastoral issues and some solutions aligning with the Church’s stance. Indeed, questions arise as to what is meant by mortal sin and how dissenters, those in serious sin, and those in invalid marriages or other irregular situations should be handled. Such questions and issues must be handled charitably and equitably by the Church, but not in a way that violates the principles given by Scripture and Tradition on the need for worthy reception of Holy Communion. The clear instruction of Pope Benedict XVI, written as Cardinal Ratzinger, deserves to be reiterated and needs to be better taught and applied with clarity and charity:

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 (2004 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).

19 Replies to “On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion (part two)”

  1. Msgr, I thank you for your effort to push back the frontier of catechetical ignorance. If i may ask a question. When did the usher based “cattle call” come into play? It seems to invite a sense of required participation.

  2. Cattle call? We ushers invite parishioners to go to communion. We do not herd them. We encourage them, When we need to speak to them (e.g. The cry room we ask “all those who wish to go to communion please line up there”) There are a few who sit in the pew. We want to have an orderly and dignified procession.

    I believe the ushers have been doing this for over a 100 years.

    1. Perhaps what he referred to was the practice in some parishes for the ushers to go from aisle to aisle as they empty out. I.e., if they stand to the side of one’s aisle then it is that aisle’s turn to get in line.

      Ushers directing everyone that way was common when I was an Anglican–I do not understand why Catholics do it.

      1. Sola GIRM? There are many things that are not explicitly mentioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal just as there are many things that are not explicitly mentioned in Sacred Scripture; re Chapters 20 and 21 of the Gospel of John. It should be noted that the minor order of porter(usher) in the Ordinary Form was done away with, along with others, in 1972 but it remains in the Extraordinary Form utilizing the 1962 Missal. Reading MINISTERIA QUAEDAM might prove beneficial for you.

    2. Ushers frequently act as sentinels in those parishes where nefarious characters attempt to steal or profane the Blessed Sacrament.

  3. Father,
    Thank you for an excellent teaching. If I can suggest one thing for all Catholic priests, religious, and religious ed teachers (not to mention parents) to bring up with all seriousness and patience, it is that “state of grace” DOES NOT mean that I feel all right with myself. Rather, please, please use the words “state of sanctifying grace” and hammer in the point that there is both a subjective and an objective component to this state, as also with being in the state of hardened, obstinate, unrepented and unabsolved mortal sin.
    Most “Catholics” especially the younger ones, simply have no concept that Catholic truth never changes, and cannot ever change. That living together outside of marriage is, objectively speaking, a mortal sin. That practicing artificial birth control, contraception, abortion, etc., likewise, is objectively a mortal sin.
    These unfortunates also, in many cases, simply have no idea that they are under a continuing, lifelong obligation to educate themselves about their faith, and to teach it above all else to their children, and everyone else whom God may put into their path, so to speak.
    The final thing I keep encountering in this regard is that even many older “Catholics” have the idea that even if they do commit a mortal sin (usually in the sexual realm), that as long as they go to confession the next day, they can worthily receive. Then, it’s OK to go right back to their objectively mortally sinful livestyle, repeat ad infinitum.
    I recently heard an online sermon by a very traditional Catholic priest who said, when it is a question of habitual mortal sin, the general rule is you get 3 opportunities to confess and be absolved. Otherwise, if that person keeps on keeping on, without seriously attempting to amend, the priest is under an obligation to deny absolution.
    Could you please explain these further, with your usual thoroughness, as the number of “Catholics” who are in either deep ignorance, or worse yet total denial, is simply mind-boggling? Thank you!

  4. Msgr. Pope,

    This subject has always puzzled me a bit. 1 Corinthians 11 warns about receiving unworthily but also seems to present the idea that doing so can cause one to be disciplined by the Lord in such a way that it may save them.

    Here is the NABRE translation:

    27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.[l] 28 A person should examine himself,[m] and so eat the bread and drink the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment[n] on himself. 30 That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. 31 If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; 32 but since we are judged by [the] Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

    “We are being disciplined so we MAY NOT be condemned along with the world.”
    This line sticks every time I read it. I have checked numerous translations and most seem to present this same idea. Being condemned is not a good thing but may be what that person needs to amend their life before it’s too late. If the Eucharist has that power, should we deny it to those who are in need of such discipline?

  5. When communion is dished out on the hand like its candy, why would anyone respect its Divinity?

  6. The problem with ‘reading translations’ and ‘questioning if ‘we’ should do this or that is deep rooted Protestantism, and failure to submit to the will of Christ and his Church.
    In essence, you do not accept Church approved translations nor her teaching on the Eucharist.
    You think the Church has error-ed in her discipline around the Eucharist and somehow Scripture is going to identify for you her errors…

  7. “an abuse that must be corrected”

    I once heard a priest talk about this in a homily. He first observed that, in the old days the line for confession was nearly as long as the line for communion. Today by contrast, the communion line is very long, and the confession line very short. He then said a line I will probably never forget: “Are we so much holier than our grandparents?”

  8. “Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with hate or injustice toward our brethren.”

    Certainly He teaches that by implication, but what He teaches in this particular instance is that we should not approach the altar if SOMEONE ELSE is properly offended by what WE have done. That is different and, I think, perhaps, even more demanding than the requirement that we ourselves be free from hatred when we take communion. His teaching here is rather a requirement that we make amends with those whom we have offended. I think this is why we see even saints like JPII asking others for forgiveness.

  9. Many Churches do indeed operate under the assumption that without the presence of ushers to control the Eucharistic procession pew-by-pew, dozens of parishioners would be trampled to death each Mass because of frenzied, haphazard stampedes towards the altar.

  10. Maybe the homilist(s) should speak more on this topic at Mass. I think our culture has poisoned the Laity’s minds thinking that sin & hell don’t exist. Instead of glossing over homilies saying God is all forgiving, loving and eventually everyone will be saved is the “smoke of Satan” and most Catholics have been drinking his kool-aide. What’s more, maybe more people should stay in the pew and not come up, even for a blessing. Is this their way of escaping embarrassment because they have sins and don’t want to “stick out” in the crowd because they’re ashamed? That’s not even in the rubrics! The communion line is a formal and Solomon procession for receiving the consecrated Body of Christ. Nothing else! Stopping the procession to give people and their children a blessing detracts and disrupts the liturgical action. I think some priest don’t say anything because they’re afraid of confrontation and want everyone to like them. For God’s sake, follow the rubrics! Everyone, everyone gets a blessing at the end of Mass. So brake the illicit and petty tradition by STAYING IN THE PEW for God’s sake!

    1. You wonder how quickly these people who continually complain and bad mouth the Church about how awful this is or that is would be in coming up with their donation for the collection without ushers — the same collection that pays for the upkeep of the church?

      How they would complain if there were not someone there to provide assistance to the elderly and infirm, or someone to keep an eye out to make sure no one walks off with a Host, or someone to clean up the mess that people leave behind after Mass.

      How they would moan about how unfriendly the church is without someone to say “hello, welcome” and help those who need help to find seats when all of these people who are better than anyone block the pews and won’t move over.

      Yes, ushers are lowly, lowly people who are offering a lowly service to God and the Church, doing the grunt work that is needed and without which much of what happens could not happen.

      Sorry if I sound a bit annoyed here — no if’s about it, really — but it really is tiresome to hear people complain all the time about how the Church, the Mass, and the people around them are all lousy. On this comment thread alone to date, 12 of the 20 comments are complaints or some kind of uncharitable snark. Thirteen if you count mine complaining about all the complaining.

      1. What is specifically criticized is how ushers are used to standardize a communion procession. Unlike passing the collection basket or helping people find seats, this is not a healthy role for them or for the Church — but it should not be taken as blanket criticism for everything ushers do.

        How can they “invite”, “encourage” people to Holy Communion without knowing if they are Catholic or properly disposed to receive? And yet in most parishes this subtle pressure is applied, this expectation that everyone will file out of each pew every week, one of many factors contributing to the terrible widespread sacrilegious receipt of Holy Communion.

        For those churches which do send ushers pew by pew, I would encourage them to leave plenty of room for those who are not going up to step out of the pew and let others go. On multiple occasions I have been so boxed in that I have had to turn my back to the Lord, face the usher, and audibly request he step back two paces. I’m sure you would agree that this is hardly welcoming, particularly to those non-Catholics or those conscious of serious sin to whom we should be especially solicitous!

  11. Msgr, this is inspiring and sobering. I am reminded that in Pope Benedict XVI’s book-long interview “Light of the World”, when he was asked to name the greatest challenge facing the church today, he said lack of respect/reverence for the eucharist. Think of all the things he could have said, the things that grab headlines. But it was this tendency for people to receive communion without having gone to confession, just because they are present at Mass, that most troubled him. Because you can see how many other things flow from it. I have heard that many people who are in situations that preclude receive communion (eg cohabiting, contracepting, or remarriage without annulment) do so anyway, perhaps because they don’t know any better but in some cases because they reject the Church’s teaching and feel like their conscience says it’s OK.

    Pope Benedict also writes very beautifully about how when we are unable to receive communion, these can be spiritual nourishing times, in a way, if we take the opportunity to pray and increase our appreciation for the sacrament in all its mystery. I find that to be very true, myself; when I can’t receive because I haven’t made it to confession, those are times when I’m really aware of how much I need that grace, how completely I depend on it.

    So it also pains me to see people shuffling up to communion looking bored, or half asleep. I do think our physical posture matters, and the few times I’ve been to traditional latin Mass and knelt at the communion rail with everyone, I’m struck by the huge difference between that collective attitude of reverence and the kind of blasé attitude you see in so many parishes. I would be curious to know more about why that practice was ended. I wish we could all just allow communion to take longer, too, rather than have extraordinary ministers.

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