Reflections On Teaching the Worthy Reception of Communion

June 7, 2010

From Archdiocese of Washington

In the last two days on the blog comments I have noticed consternation by some that more stress is not placed on receiving communion worthily. I understand the concern they express but also feel the need to approach this issue carefully. This is because two important goods are at sake that must be kept in balance:

  1. Frequent reception of Holy Communion which is a great and necessary food for us as Jesus insists in John 6:50-55, 
  2. Worthy reception which the Holy Spirit through Paul warns is also necessary in 1 Cor 11:27ff. Let’s look at these texts briefly.

SCRIPTURE:  Jesus was very clear to teach that the Holy Eucharist is a necessary food for us:

This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”…..Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (John 6:50-53)

Hence it seems clear that it is essential to receive Holy Communion frequently, if not every week. The Church’s practice of celebrating Mass every day (or every week as in the Eastern Rites) and offering Holy Communion at each Mass confirms this interpretation of the Lord’s words that the Eucharist is a necessary food for the Faithful to receive with high frequency, preferably every week. This practice also distinguishes us from Protestant notions wherein the frequent reception of Holy Communion (even if they had it) was largely set aside.  The “Unless” in this text is a rather strong word that cannot easily be ignored. Jesus in effect teaches that Holy Communion is a sine qua non (“a without which, not”, an essential)  for having life. In other words it is an essential food without which we are dying spiritually. So here is one value the Church must advance, frequent reception of our necessary food.

But the Scriptures also teach the necessity of receiving worthily, that is, without knowledge of grave sin in oneself. And here too the wording is quite clear and strong:

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. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by (the) Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world  (1 Cor 11:27-31)

So, Scripture considers unworthy or unmindful reception of Holy Communion to be a very serious matter since it is a sin directly against the Body of the Lord. St. Paul links it to some rather severe punishment from God: sickness, even death. All who sin such bring judgment upon themselves that at the very least requires discipline from the Lord and perhaps condemnation. This text along with Tradition has meant that the Church warns any of the faithful conscious of mortal sin to refrain from Holy Communion until such time as they are reconciled through Confession. In such wise the Church is not “mean” or “restrictive” as some say. Rather she is faithful to Scripture and also charitable in warning the faithful against things that many bring them under the judgement of condemnation.

The Church has struggled over the centuries to keep the faithful balanced in regard to these two values. Frankly for many centuries people stayed away from receiving Holy Communion, receiving only very rarely. I remember my Grandmother (who was born in 1896) once telling me that when she was a child almost no one went to communion. In a Church filled with hundreds of people often no one would go to the rail. Even despite confession, many felt unworthy. This infrequent reception had led the Church in the Middle Ages to insist on the “Easter Duty” which required the faithful by way of precept to receive Holy Communion at least once a year in the Easter Season after Sacramental Confession where necessary. During the Middle Ages even monks and nuns received only a few times per year! More recently, at the turn of the last Century, Pope Pius X had also encouraged more frequent reception of Holy Communion by among other things moving the age of First Communion much earlier. You can read more on this topic here: Frequency of Holy Communion.

Rare Reception was one extreme. Lately we seem to have the other extreme wherein almost everyone attending Mass receives Communion but only a very small percentage of them have recently been to confession. To  receive Communion worthily means to be free from mortal sin. Today, very few of the faithful have any notion of  the requirement of receiving communion worthily. This is due to poor catechesis as well as a muted sense of sin in general and of mortal sin specifically. Many in fact are not all that clear on what constitutes mortal sin. I was surprised to learn early in my priesthood that many younger people had the no idea what the expression “mortal sin” meant.  Some figured it meant that you had killed someone. I tried referring to it as serious sin, but also discovered that many people don’t take a lot of things very seriously.

Most pastors are aware that a great deal is needed to rectify this situation. Simply saying “go to confession more”  doesn’t often work since many, although admitting the presence of sin in their lives do not see their own condition as serious. “After all no body’s perfect Father” is about as deep a sense of sin as some have. Again, poor catechesis and bad preaching  is partly to blame.

How Did we get here?  I want to  propose that we are also experiencing a reaction (actually an over-reaction) to the understanding of sin in the 1950s. I was born in 1961 and,  not having been alive in the 1950s, let alone a priest, I must rely for  my information on that period in the Church from older clergy, older people in general and also on aspects of that time that still echo in the confessions and thinking of older people today. From these sources it is my assessment that in the 1950s and before a very objective notion of sin was emphasized that took little account of circumstances and/or  personal factors.

A couple of examples may illustrate. An older priest told me of a confession he once had wherein a woman insisted she must hear her confession since she had committed a mortal sin on the way to Church. It seems the sin involved breaking her fast. What happened was that a bug had flown into her mouth and she had swallowed it by accident. Although the priest tried to reassure her that she was not to blame she insisted that the bug constituted “nourishment” and that she must be absolved in order to receive Communion. Other older priests tell me similar, though less exotic, stories. This was apparently part of the training of the faithful in the old days. I have had personal confirmation of this sort of thinking over my 21 years a priest as well. For example, twice this past winter we had snowfalls here in Washington approaching 30 inches. Despite this I did not have an insignificant number of older people confess that they had missed mass on those weekends. When I reminded them that it was quite impossible to get out in 30 inches of snow they seemed unfazed. “But it was a sin to miss Mass Father.” I have learned to accept that this was their training. They were taught sin only as  a very objective thing. Circumstances were quite beside the point.

Now while this thinking may have been accepted by many in an older generation it is clear that such mechanistic thinking was rejected by many when the 1960s hit. And frankly the extreme objectification of sin with no reference to circumstances needed correction. Proper moral theology does account for circumstances and personal factors in assessing blameworthiness. For mortal sin to be committed requires not just grave matter, but also sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. It sometimes happens that reflection and/or freedom are hindered and such factors need to be taken into account. Such factors cannot make a bad act good but they can affect culpability (blameworthiness). Modern pastoral practice in taking these things into consideration is set forth in the Catechism. Take for example the pastoral note to confessors  included in the catechism regarding masturbation which, though considered objectively a serious sin,  may admit of certain personal factors:

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. (CCC # 2352)

But older pastoral practice, it seems, took little account of circumstances or of factors such as full consent of the will etc. Official Church teaching DID teach these things but the pastoral practice of the time presented sin in a much more mechanistic sort of a way and other aspects of Church teaching were poorly communicated in the 1950s and perhaps before.  

Over-Reaction Sets in –  To some extent this may have led to the over-reaction we experienced in late 1960s through the 1980s. Rather than refine and clarify their understanding of true Catholic teaching, many simply cast overboard a caricature of Catholic teaching which now seemed unreasonable. And the caricature WAS unreasonable. Sadly too, many Catholic priests and catechists of the time,  rather than clarifying the teaching,  also over-compensated. They highly de-emphasized any objective notion of sin and hyper-emphasized matters such as feelings, circumstances, false notions of conscience and so forth. Now  it seemed that ONLY circumstances mattered, along with personal reflection and feeling and a diminished notion of any personal responsibility

So here we are today with long lines for Communion (good) but with no lines for confession (bad). It falls to us,  to the clergy who preach and catechists who teach to re-establish the connection between frequent confession and weekly communion. But, as I have tried to demonstrate, simply saying people should go does not mean they will go. A proper and balanced foundation also needs to be re-established that restores a healthy sense of sin. The 1950s version, at least as I have described it, was not healthy. But neither is our current version that sees nothing as objectively wrong, nothing as serious, that reduces moral reflection to “how I feel about it” and sets aside any notion of final judgment with platitudes like “God will understand.” 

Part of the re catechizing necessary is to reintroduce a more holistic and less mechanistic sense of sin. Sin includes not just specific acts but also very deep drives and attitudes that can become very significant. We can be very resentful, ungrateful, unchaste, unkind, unmerciful, harsh, greedy, worldly and materialistic. Sin is more than, “I yelled at my kids three times, used curse words several times and was distracted in prayer many times, and engaged in one act of solitary self abuse.” Sin includes those things but it is  also that we are egotistical, thin-skinned, unloving, unforgiving  and sometimes,  just plain mean. We are in deep need of God’s healing mercy and some of these attitudes are much more serious than we like to think. They can cause great harm. At some point, staying away from confession for long periods is to entertain  a prideful delusion that itself becomes a serious sin. Who says he has no sin makes God a liar (1 John 1:10). In trying to insist that people must get to confession before communion if they are aware of any mortal sins, we have to be willing to first expand the notion of what serious or mortal sin is.

The Church will surely need to continue to give guidance by identifying particularly grievous sins, but in the end, the Church can never develop an exhaustive list since circumstances often affect gravity. There are some sins that are always, objectively mortal (ex toto genere suo); sins such as the murder of the innocent. But there are many other things such as gossip that while not always or even usually mortal,  that may become so if reputations are ruined and the intention was  to do so. Since the legalism of the past has largely been rejected it may be better for us to preach a more comprehensive, wholehearted and inclusive sense of sin that accounts for the deep drives of sins and assesses sin in the whole person rather than focus merely on this or that act.

We have a lot of work to do to restore the balance of the two Scripture texts above. Frequent though worthy reception of  Communion has historically been a difficult balance to maintain. Many factors need to be in play for this balance to be found. Simply telling people to get to confession before communion if they are aware of mortal sin may presume a lot of  knowledge that many do not have and premises people no longer share, sometimes through no fault of their own. We have more work to do than simply to tell people what to do. We have to teach and reestablish a healthy sense of sin and a deeper awareness of what is sacred and proper for the worthy reception of Holy Communion.

As always, I request your input to both balance and complete this article. This video was my attempt today to exhort the faithful to worthy reception of communion through frequent confession.