What I Want is Mercy, Not Sacrilege: The Dangers of “Routine Communions”
Fr Timothy Finigan FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2014
Next month marks the centenary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the great papal promoter of frequent communion. While infinite graces have flowed from this pious practice, Tim Finigan now assesses the dangers that can arise when the Eucharist is viewed as a human prize rather than a divine privilege.
For someone who believes in the grace of the sacrament, it is a great trial to be unable to receive Holy Communion. Unfortunately, receiving Holy Communion now seems to have become a prize to be fought over. The current discussion over the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried focuses on their being permitted to receive Holy Communion, as a means of recognising, tolerating or approving their state of life. In another example earlier this year, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth quite properly explained that politicians who vote in favour of abortion or same-sex marriage, thus demonstrating a lack of communion with the Church, should not receive Holy Communion.
Conor Burns MP publicly described this as a lack of welcome, something hurtful to him. Bishop Egan was hung out to dry with indecent haste when Greg Pope, head of parliamentary relations for the Bishops’ Conference, wrote to MPs saying that there were no plans to deny Holy Communion to those who voted in favour of same-sex marriage. One is left wondering how long it will be before the European Court of Human Rights issues an edict safeguarding the right of pro-abortion MPs to march up to the altar rail, and whether Bishop Egan will be left alone contra mundum in opposing it.
Why Focus on Just One Group?
What seems to be forgotten is that there are actually many people whose state of life is such that they may not receive Holy Communion, not only the divorced and remarried. When parishioners come to arrange the baptism of their baby, a pastorally minded priest will enquire about the union of the parents. Many are cohabiting without being married, others were married civilly in a hotel or on a beach somewhere. I used to be sceptical about claims not to be aware of the Church’s law, but when the grandmothers began to protest that they did not know that Catholics were bound to celebrate their marriage in Church and that a merely civil marriage was invalid, I had to admit that our Catholic education and catechesis had indeed failed to that degree, and that the ignorance was genuine.
One of the insidiously damaging aspects of the present debate about the divorced and remarried is the failure to say anything about the proper dispositions required for a non-sacrilegious communion, and the general acquiescence in everyone coming up to receive the Eucharist regardless of their state of life, state of soul, or faith in the real presence.
The priest can explain that a quiet wedding in the Church need not cost very much, or, in the case of invalid civil marriages, that a convalidation or sanatio in radice (a retrospective decree of validation from the bishop) can be easily arranged. In both cases, it needs to be pointed out tactfully that the Catholic partner should not receive Holy Communion until things have been put right. Cases of cohabitation and of a merely civil marriage are far more common than cases of divorce and remarriage. There are very many couples in our parishes who have chosen, or drifted into, a state of life which is incompatible with receiving Holy Communion.
When applying to Catholic schools in England, parents are asked to fill in a supplementary form regarding their Catholicity. The form often asks: “Do you attend Mass: weekly, most weeks, occasionally, or never?” It would be more instructive to ask: “Do you neglect the grave obligation to attend Sunday Mass: never, sometimes, often, or always?” There are still some good Catholics who become scrupulous about having missed Mass when there was a reasonable excusing cause, such as illness, lengthy travel or the care of the sick, but far more common is the lack of any sense that there is a grave obligation to assist at Mass on days of precept and that it is a sin to miss Mass without a good reason. Once again, there is a large group of Catholics for whom it is necessary to explain that coming to Holy Communion requires living in accord with the Church’s teaching.
We also seem to have settled into the assumption that nobody ever commits a mortal sin and that St Paul was speaking in purely hypothetical terms when he warned against receiving Holy Communion unworthily (1 Cor 11:27). Addictive sins, particularly sexual sins, seem to have been given a free pass. It is assumed that full consent is lacking because of the force of habit, though perhaps the damage caused by internet pornography might give us occasion to rethink. Most men could see without too much persuasion that looking at pornography and masturbating are incompatible with receiving Holy Communion without first obtaining sacramental reconciliation with God and the Church.
By seeking the sacrament of penance before receiving Holy Communion again, such men could be helped in their firm purpose of amendment, and their struggle with a damaging compulsion, both by being reminded of the need for serious and sincere repentance, and by experiencing the joy of receiving the Lord with a heart that has been purified by the grace of God.
Rather than take the difficult pastoral road of reminding people that there are circumstances in which some change needs to be made before receiving Holy Communion, we seem to have accepted that everyone should routinely present themselves for the sacrament every time they attend Mass. One of the insidiously damaging aspects of the present debate about the divorced and remarried is the failure to say anything about the proper dispositions required for a non-sacrilegious communion, and the general acquiescence in everyone coming up to receive the Eucharist regardless of their state of life, state of soul, or faith in the real presence.
There are some exceptions: the usual suspects from new movements, traditionalist groups and families who live the teaching of Humanae Vitae ask for confession, and abstain from Holy Communion if they have broken the Eucharistic fast or if they are aware of having committed a serious sin. They do not go around complaining about how hurt they are because of this, or how unwelcome they feel; and their spiritual life tends to be healthy.
At weddings, funerals, first Communions and Confirmations, many priests will try to give some guidance on who may present themselves for Holy Communion. A while back, I made a passing remark that I found to be surprisingly effective. After explaining that it is practising Catholics, living in accord with the teaching of the Church and attending Sunday Mass every week who go to Communion, I added that there are always plenty of people who, for various reasons, cannot receive Communion and so there is no need to be embarrassed about remaining in the bench. My hunch was correct: at those public occasions, if you do not explain that there are required dispositions for Holy Communion, people will come up simply to be polite, in case it might be rude not to. Such is the result of our failing to educate the faithful on the proper dispositions for Holy Communion.
The Catechesis That is Needed
The impact of explaining to people, however diplomatically, that they should not receive Holy Communion until they have made certain changes in their life is aggravated by a failure of catechesis generally, and catechesis on Holy Communion in particular. Obviously the first and fundamental truth to emphasise is the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist in the fully Catholic sense, stressing that the Eucharist is not bread, blessed bread, or super-blessed bread but the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This truth is emphasised by the reverent use of external signs of devotion and particularly by the practice of kneeling to receive communion. We should also not shy away from giving gentle but persistent encouragement to receive Holy Communion on the tongue. Bishop Schneider’s celebrated short book Dominus est: It is the Lord! is most helpful in marshalling the historical and theological arguments in favour of these practices.
The debate on who should and should not receive Holy Communion needs to be re-framed according to classical Catholic spiritual teaching. Nobody wants to see frequent Holy Communion disappear from the lives of Catholics, but it is equally necessary that Holy Communion should once again be understood as a sacrament to be received with due preparation, in a state of grace, and in a state of life that accords with the teaching of Christ and the Church.
Priests who speak on these matters will probably be confronted by the protest “Are you saying that I am being irreverent by standing and receiving communion in the hand?” It is time that we stopped caving in to this childish passive aggression, in favour of helping the majority of ordinary faithful to benefit from external signs of reverence that they quickly recognise as helping reinforce belief in the real presence.
Catechesis on Holy Communion should not be limited to the real presence. We also need to speak of the grace given in Holy Communion and the awesome privilege of receiving our Blessed Lord. Holy Communion unites us with Christ more intimately than any other act, it separates us from venial sin and fortifies us to resist temptation. It strengthens us to carry out works of charity and to evangelise, and it is a pledge of future glory and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
Preparation and Thanksgiving
Routine communions are also associated with a lack of any preparation or thanksgiving. All Catholics, priest and bishops included, need to examine themselves before receiving Holy Communion and, if aware of unconfessed grave sin, should refrain from receiving the sacrament before receiving sacramental absolution. In the case of priests or bishops who are committed to celebrating a publicly scheduled Mass, awareness of grave sin
should be seen for the doom-laden prospect that it is, and the obligation of sacramental confession as soon as possible (Canon 916) must be regarded as a grave and urgent necessity.
In addition to this necessary basic examination, each communicant should make some devout preparation for Holy Communion, and ensure that some time is reserved for thanksgiving afterwards. The rush for the door at the end of Mass usually includes most of those who have minutes ago received Our Lord. Discussion over this usually descends to practical considerations, especially for priests who may be required to attend to people’s pastoral needs immediately after Mass, but is it not true that actually we have largely forgotten the need for preparation and thanksgiving for Holy Communion? Do we really see thanksgiving as something that might need to be deferred but not omitted? The priest’s leadership in this matter is highly effective.
At this point, I can almost hear the cry from some quarters of “Jansenism! Jansenism!” St Francis de Sales (one of the first to see the dangers of heresy at Port Royal) and other saintly spiritual writers who advocated frequent communion saw it as a practice requiring regular confession and serious preparation. The debate on who should and should not receive Holy Communion needs to be re-framed according to classical Catholic spiritual teaching. Nobody wants to see frequent Holy Communion disappear from the lives of Catholics, but it is equally necessary that Holy Communion should once again be understood as a sacrament to be received with due preparation, in a state of grace, and in a state of life that accords with the teaching of Christ and the Church.
Christ quoted the word spoken to Hosea desiring a real change of heart, and not an empty external ritual. We could reword His call without disrespect: “What I want is mercy, not sacrilege.”
Fr Tim Finigan is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Blackfen, Southwark Archdiocese, and a visiting tutor in sacramental theology at St John’s Seminary in Wonersh. He is also a member of the Faith Editorial Board.