For today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi for short, the Diocese of Roermond has published a brochure about Communion. After a description of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us, the brochure delves into the Eucharist, its celebration an, most notably, the proper disposition for receiving that sacrament, Jesus Himself, in the Communion.

In their foreword, Bishops Frans Wiertz and Everard de Jong write:

“The attention for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of faith, the most precious gift that the Lord has left His Church, could use an extra impulse in our days. Not only because of the Year of Faith that the pope has announced, but most of all because of the graces that participation in this beneficial Sacrament can give the faithful. Does our time not have a great need for spiritual food which can lessen the soul’s thirst?”

I won’t be analysing the entire brochure, which offers a handy introduction to the source and summit of our faith, but I will share what in my opinion is the most significant chapter in it: an explanation of the proper disposition for receiving Communion. This is especially necessary in the Netherlands, where Communion is often considered a right or “just something that everybody does, so why shouldnt I?”.

  • Certain texts seem to imply restraint when receiving Communion is concerned: We hear Jesus Himself say, “‘Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6). Saint Paul also writes in his letter to Timothy:

“You may be quite sure that in the last days there will be some difficult times. People will be self-centred and avaricious, boastful, arrogant and rude; disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious; heartless and intractable; they will be slanderers, profligates, savages and enemies of everything that is good; they will be treacherous and reckless and demented by pride, preferring their own pleasure to God. They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it. Keep away from people like that” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

And the same Apostle claims:

“What does this mean? That the dedication of food to false gods amounts to anything? Or that false gods themselves amount to anything? No, it does not; simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord’s table and the demons’ table as well. Do we really want to arouse the Lord’s jealousy; are we stronger than he is?” (1 Corinthians 10:19-22).

He then opines:

“Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned, but when we are judged by the Lord, we are corrected by the Lord to save us from being condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:26-32).

It is then clear that Communion is not for just everyone.

  • Yet this question about the reasons to not receive Communion can, on second thought, seem like a strange question. After all, we are sinners and we need Him. Yes, exactly because we are sinners, we need Him. The more we sin, the more we need Him. Not without reason do we say,  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed” (vg. Luke 7:6).
  • This unsuitability to receive Communion tells us, on further examination, what we have just said [in previous chapters] about  the will to be converted, the openness to healing and the unity in love. There are actions which, as it were, lock us so tightly within ourselves, which block us from experiencing Jesus’ love and active healing power in the Communion in such a way that we can’t experience this meeting with Him in a fruitful manner without some preparation. There are actions or omissions which have shut the door to Jesus in such a way that it won’t open without a special help. They cause such hardness in our hearts that a ‘softener’ and a strong purification are needed to receive Him properly. Jesus offers those too, but not in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For that reason He, as we saw, instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: Confession. We must therefore distinguish between the need  to being saved by Christ, and the way in which this can occur. The encounter with Him in the Communion is so sensitive and tender that Communion can’t work without a prior big cleaning, ie. a verbal confession of our sins. It is like a communal meal, or even a marital physical union, which also can’t happen if there are major issues between man and wife. General apologies do not suffice here, as in the penitential rite [1], but specific and honest regret must be shown. In other words, the road to unity with the Lord only goes via the road of purification. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is in this way complementary. Saint Thomas Aquinas summarised  these arguments in this way: because of mortal sin we no longer have spiritual life within us, while the Eucharist is food for the living; and because of our attachment to mortal sin we have removed ourselves so far from Christ that we can’t become one with Him through Communion [2].
  • Do not be afraid of this sacrament of penance and reconciliation… As the Apostle Saint John writes in his first letter, “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and truth has no place in us; if we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil. If we say, ‘We have never sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word has no place in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
  • What are mortal sins? According to the Church you can only sin mortally if you go against God’s commandments in a serious matter (materia gravis) with full knowledge and in free will. What is exactly a serious matte is not always clear, but they often have to do with life and death, the beginning and end of physical and spiritual life. They may be things against God, your neighbour, or yourself.
  • In judging the sin, there are a number of aspects which involved. Three aspects of an action count. 1: That what you do, the action itself. 2: The motivation, by which you act. 3: The circumstances of the act. All three aspects must be good to speak of a good act. So only one of these three has to be bad, for the entire act to be bad. All three aspects can also independently lead to a mortal sin. [3]
  • Some acts, regardless of their result, intention or circumstance, are always bad, because the act is intrinsically, in itself, bad.  These human actions or omission have to do with what seriously affects and damages our deepest personality or that of another. The killing of an innocent person, for example, in whatever phase of life, regardless of motivation or circumstance, is never justified. But all other forms of damage to human dignity and human integrity, such as torture, psychological terror, slavery, human trafficking and so on [4] are always reprehensible. For the Church, sexuality is a sacred event, and man is very vulnerable in that area: it affects the heart of his person and God’s creative power. If it does not take place within a marriage between a man and a women, or when the openness to new life of consciously blocked, it is, in principle, always a mortal sin. Not without reason does Jesus tell us, “But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28).
  • Who decides how serious a sin is? And so if you need to confess it before receive Communion? As long as they are acts which happened in secret, it is primarily the sinner’s, conscience, formed by the Church, which indicates what should be done. Of course, a priest may always be asked for advice. With acts that are presented to the priest in confession, or which are public, the Church will always judge the nature and the consequences. We already see this in the early Church:

“If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector. ‘In truth I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18).

  • When in doubt about receiving Communion, you may always entrust your own judgements to a good spiritual counselor.
  • Of course, Communion also has a social aspect. Saint Paul says that he will eat certain kinds of meat, but does not does so to avoid giving scandal to the weaker (Romans 14:20, 2 Corinthians 6:3). It could happen that one has permission from the Church to receive Communion, but would cause public scandal with it. It is then wise to avoid receiving Communion in a church where one is known. One can receive Communion in a place where one is unknown.
  • But priests have their own responsibility. About this, the Second Vatican Council says, in a positive way, “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”[5]
  • The public aspect of sin and the scandal it may possibly cause can also mean that the priest, or the person distributing Communion, and who is therefore “entrusted with the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), may have to prudently take his own responsibility. “I ask everyone, especially ordained ministers and those who, after adequate preparation and in cases of genuine need, are authorized to exercise the ministry of distributing the Eucharist, to make every effort to ensure that this simple act preserves its importance as a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus in the sacrament” [6]. A minister of Holy Communion therefore has his own responsibility and will not randomly refuse someone Communion, without any prior knowledge. If a person’s way of life is clearly contrary to Catholic faith and morals he can’t allow that person’s to receive Communion. In certain public cases of serious scandal, in which the meaning of the sacrament is seriously undermined, he will then have to warn a person, prior to the celebration, to not come forward for Communion, and in special cases will even have to refuse Communion [7].
  • And what if there is no minister of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, and the serious sin is not publicly known? Then you can receive Communion, provided you have prayed a personal act of contrition and have the intention to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation at the earliest occasion.
  • It is important to realise, even if you know that you can’t receive Communion, that there are ways to unite yourself to Christ. There is the option to come forward with the other people as the Communion is handed out and then, with arms crossed over your chest, receive a blessing. One can also unite oneself spiritually with Christ and so receive spiritual Communion. It is not shameful to not come forward… on the contrary, it shows your appreciation and respect for the Holy One among us.

Notes:

[1] Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum (2005), n. 80: “As for the Penitential Act placed at the beginning of Mass, it has the purpose of preparing all to be ready to celebrate the sacred mysteries; even so, “it lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance”,[162] and cannot be regarded as a substitute for the Sacrament of Penance in remission of graver sins.”

[2] Cf. Summa Theologica, III, 89,3

[3] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr. 1755

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1756, identifies blasphemy, perjury, murder and adultery as intrinsically evil. The Second Vatican Council says the following: “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed” (Gaudium et spes, n. 27; cf. Evangelium Vitae, n 80).

[5] Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 11.

[6] Cf. Sacramentum caritatis, n. 50.

[7] Cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 84: “Furthermore when Holy Mass is celebrated for a large crowd – for example, in large cities – care should be taken lest out of ignorance non-Catholics or even non-Christians come forward for Holy Communion, without taking into account the Church’s Magisterium in matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline. It is the duty of Pastors at an opportune moment to inform those present of the authenticity and the discipline that are strictly to be observed.”

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