Responding to Parishioners who request Sacramental Ministry

Fr Hugh MacKenzie FAITH Magazine July-August 2006

In the previous instalment of this feature Fr David Barrett offered some introductory thoughts about the increasingly frequent phenomenon of lapsed parishioners requesting sacramental reception. He highlighted how orthodoxy and gentle openness naturally go together in a priest’s initial encounter with such members of our flock, who are probably innocently confused and genuinely searching. The further question is the conditions under which a priest actually ministers the sacraments to those who request them, but who, perhaps unwittingly, publicly exhibit a serious failure to practise the faith. This might be a failure to come to Sunday Mass, an irregular union or a public stance against definitive Church teaching. For a priest who wants to be faithful to Church teaching this can sometimescreate a difficult dilemma.

We are not considering here those who simply present themselves for Holy Communion while in such states of life. This is also an increasingly frequent phenomenon, whether on a Sunday, at a funeral or at a school Mass, but it needs a separate reflection from the current one. Neither will we be discussing here questions about giving sacramental absolution in the confessional.

The sort of challenges for parish priests which we are envisaging include the request for baptism of a baby from parents who come infrequently or hardly at all to Church; for confirmation from baptized teenagers who do not seem to be coming to Mass; for marriage from a couple who give the same address on the pre-nuptual enquiry form; for reception into the Church from those in irregular relationships; for the anointing of the sick from a housebound person whose situation may have been irregular at some point - perhaps well in the past.

As David Barrett highlights, priests are often encouraged by the fact of the person’s approaching them in the first place, while at the same time being saddened by any lack of “proper disposition”. They hope that their ministrations will provide occasions for the Holy Spirit to strengthen struggling consciences and eventually elicit a wise, grace-filled response. They therefore need to hold together those profoundly complimentary virtues of faithfulness and compassion.
Below we offer some general considerations for responding to such apparent dilemmas. In future columns we will consider in more detail some of the specific sacraments which are touched on in this regard.

Basic Canonical Principles

Canon 843 states that “Sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” “Proper disposition” envisages subtly different things for each sacrament, though proper “instruction” is required for all. Candidates for adult baptism “should be tested in the Christian life over the course of the catechumenate “ (Can 865). Confirmation of adults who request it should only be deferred for a “grave reason” (Can. 889). Those to receive anointing and holy communion must not be “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” (Can. 1007 & 863).

In our tradition, this last phrase seems to encapsulate the minimum condition for sacramental reception which does not publicly undermine incorporation into and building up of the Mystical Body of Christ. The state of “manifest grave sin” involves doing or teaching something seriously wrong in the ‘public forum’. “Obstinately persevering” would seem to imply continuing in this state even after having receiving the mandated “proper instruction”. This means then that priests should not administer sacraments (save possibly for marriage) to those who, having received a catechesis which has coherently called for appropriate conversion, persevere in a public state of life which seriously contradicts Catholic teaching.

It should be noted here that what is not envisaged in Canon Law is turning a blind eye to the issue of sacramental reception by those without a “proper disposition”. The hope for healing and conversion is presumed, as is the priest’s responsibility to pass on Christ’s call to deeper faith and growth in holiness. For this goes to the heart of our faith and Christ’s work for us.

Basic Pastoral Principles

But what does this mean in parish practice? David Barrett established that this does not involve presenting the lapsed who request a sacrament with an “ultimatum”. After all God could treat us that way, but fortunately for all of us, he does not. This surely also applies to those who are in an objective, public state of “grave sin” not because of missing Sunday Mass but because of their marital state or political actions. Clearly such parishioners have a right, often denied them, to integral Catholic catechesis. Their parish priest should do his best to find an appropriate way of convincingly communicating the Church’s teaching to them. But once they have received such catechesis, a manifest failure in conversion of life may be a reason to delay sacramental reception. This would imply athree step generic process, more or less appropriate to a particular parishioner who approaches their priest without being properly disposed.

1. Catechesis

We should hope to have a background of parochial preaching and teaching which attempts, over time, to inform parishioners about the obligations of Church teaching and discipline. Beyond this we have immediate sacramental preparation, which may be done in groups or individually, briefly or at length, according to circumstances and the availability of resources.

Those who might appear not to have the required disposition should be advised - as sensitively as possible - of the conversion that is implied by their desire to receive a sacrament. This could be contextualized by some or all of the following considerations, as appropriate:

-by bringing them to this point, God has placed the parishioner in an exciting and important place in his work of healing and giving life. They are on the front line!
- on the other hand, scandal and even sacrilege can result from entering the sacramental life while taking this call lightly.

-we are aware of the confusion and ignorance out there ‘on the street’, and even ‘in the pew’ and now want to offer the support and clarity of teaching which God’s people have a right to receive as well as a duty to seek.

Sometimes such catechesis are better done in a group, sometimes individually. If resources, time or the ability of a candidate to attend preparation sessions are limited, catechetical preparation may have to be correspondingly limited. But at least a bare minimum should be done to announce the Good News, perhaps with the help of reading material and other suggested follow up. The new Catholic Truth Society leaflets, for instance, cover: “Why we should go to Sunday Mass”, “Examination of Conscience” and numerous issues surrounding marriage, such as cohabiting. They are well presented in terms of content and accessibility. Of necessity, the preparation might end up being the barest minimum of one brief meeting. So be it; we must trust in God, but we must also pass on the call of Christ to“repent and believe” as best we can.

2. Discernment

Having made such a call, we would hope to be attentive to manifest signs of conversion. However a lack of their immediate appearance cannot necessarily justify presumption of a failure to change. Such a negative judgment should, at the very least, only follow discernment of the canonical “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin”. In the case of adult Baptism something more may be hoped for from the “test(ing) … catechumenate”. Intrusive questioning is not usually justified -at least outside the confessional. The discernment called for by canonical requirements does not imply any judgment of personal culpability, nor of private behaviour. It is based on reasonable judgment of objective behaviour in the external forum.

The period between catechesis and sacramental reception ought to allow a person time for conversion. But in practice it may not allow a reasonable period for the manifestation of signs of such conversion. Sacramental celebration is usually envisaged fairly soon after the course of preparation for infant baptism, confirmation and marriage programmes (again it is not necessarily so normal in the case for adult baptism). This short time-scale does not of itself justify delaying reception of the sacrament. Good faith must often be presumed, as we do with most of our congregation most of the time, however in reality, much this might be ‘hoping against hope’ in our increasingly secularised context. And further down the line more communication and catechesis may well be possible, indeed highlydesirable.

In situations such as irregular marriage states, for which objective action on the part of the priest is required, some form of delay will probably be called for. Someone in the process of becoming a Catholic may need to sort out their marital situation. Such would be one of the few binding reasons for delay. Gently encouraging unmarried parents of infant candidates for baptism to “sort things out” is to be hoped for, but delaying the service until this has happened is certainly not called for. It is arguable that if they have received the catechesis outlined above, then it is possible to have a “founded hope” (Canon 868) concerning the promise they make during the baptismal rite: “We clearly understand what we are undertaking”. Only obstinate and manifest lack of proper marital,political or ecclesial disposition needs to be respectfully challenged with the threat of delay.

3. Decision

THE POSITIVE DECISION to administer a sacrament is always a generous one in any circumstances, for every sacrament is an undeserved gift of God. In reality there are often disappointments for the pastor. Many confirmandi and engaged couples do not start to fulfil their grave obligation to come to Sunday Mass after the actual reception of the sacrament. In effect they maintain some form of private mental reservation, more or less culpably, about the catechesis received. If such lack of belief during preparation and subsequent lack of practice is public knowledge, then scandal may indeed result. As mentioned above, this can and perhaps should be addressed during catechesis, but the risk of such scandal itself - even if significant - cannot be a reason for denying the right to the sacramentsto a Catholic who has not been proved to be Canonically obstinate.

But there will be some who respond. Some will go to confession and try to live in an integrally Catholic life, up to reception of the sacrament. For example some engaged couples will try living as brother and sister up to the time of their marriage. Suddenly starting to live apart may not be realistically practical. If really necessary, in order to avoid scandal, the possibility of holding back from communion in the place where they are well known, even after a good confession, could be proposed as a more practical solution which is less likely to cause friction than asking the couple to live apart.

THE NEGATIVE DECISION to delay (i.e. temporarily refuse) a sacrament, including holy communion, always remains an option for the pastor. This should probably be combined with the offer of some form of further catechesis. The parishioner concerned would be strongly encouraged to keep coming to Mass and to be part of the community in other ways. The venerable tradition of making a spiritual communion would be highlighted. (We plan to have an article on this practice in an upcoming issue).

This option should not be presented as a punishment, but as a way of moving forward, a way of participating in the Cross of Christ for our own good and for the good of our suffering world. None of us are perfect. We are all called to move forward gradually in different ways. It follows from the nature of Holy Communion -and analogously of the other sacraments -as a public manifestation of the union and communion of the Church that sometimes people must hold back from receiving it for varying reasons. This situation should not be seen in wholly negative terms, but as a call from God to begin an important work of conversion for Him, bringing healing to the world. It should always be undertaken in a spirit of trust that God can and will find a way forward for the individual in His - and inthe individual’s – good time.

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