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).