When most people go on their honeymoon, their highlights entail something like parasailing, scuba diving, or eating exotic foods. While all of that’s great, for me one of the highlights my wife and I shared was getting to meet the bishop of the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. We were walking around the island of St. Thomas when we came upon the large cathedral which was at the time going through rehab work. As we were talking to the rector of the cathedral we turned around to see the bishop walking toward us with his hard hat on. We exchanged pleasantries and he showed us around, detailing all the work he was hoping to get done.
He showed us a couple of beautiful, pre-conciliar confessionals that he had brought in from Germany. Inside the priest’s portion of the confessional were a number of circular objects, no larger than the button on a suit coat, attached to a wire, making it easy to slide the objects from one side to the other. The bishop asked if we knew what these objects were. We racked our brains, but hadn’t a clue. The bishop explained that each time a penitent would come and receive absolution, the priest would take one of the “buttons” and move it to the other side. Once Saturday night rolled around, the priest would count the number of buttons he had moved to the one side, and then he would know precisely how many Hosts he would have to consecrate on Sunday morning during Mass.
Suffice it to say that I was caught off guard by this explanation. Contrast this with what we see in our own parishes today. Priests have no use for such counters in most parishes in the Western world because the sacrament of confession is often forgotten or neglected. As many priests are wont to point out, confession lines are short, but lines for Holy Communion are long. What’s wrong with this picture? What has changed so drastically in our religious practice as Catholics, and most importantly, what does this change mean for our preparation to receive our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist? Should we just walk up the aisle at any time to receive Communion? It seems like some more soul searching might be in order before we approach the Eucharist.
St. Paul’s Warning
First, it’s important to look at St. Paul’s words in Sacred Scripture when considering our worthiness to take part in the Eucharist:
“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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”(1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
Clearly, we see a proof here for belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. If it were a mere symbol, then there would be no problem with anyone and everyone receiving Communion whenever they please; Catholic or not, or having been to the sacrament of confession or not. If we look at the need for the counting device in confessionals that priests had just a few decades ago, we can determine that more than a few Catholics had taken St. Paul’s words seriously. It would seem that the generations immediately before the Second Vatican Council were more properly catechized on the Eucharist than we are today.
‘Not a Prize for the Perfect’
The recent study from Pew Research backs this up, with seven out of ten Catholics denying the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of the Eucharist. If this truly is the case, how can we expect those that don’t understand the very nature of the Eucharist to understand the need to prepare for a worthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament through an examination of conscience and sacramental confession?
Now it must be acknowledged that the Church encourages frequent reception of Holy Communion. The Eucharist gives us life, and without the graces that flow from it, we as Christians cannot live. Such encouragement goes back to Pope St. Pius X when he lowered the age for children to receive the Eucharist for the first time. The Church also teaches that the Eucharist is restorative. As the Catechism states:
“Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins.”CCC 1416
Pope Francis has also mentioned that “the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” If a person is sick, they need to be healed, and there’s no better source to go to than Christ himself. Sin makes us weak, and we must be fortified by the supernatural graces given to us in the sacraments. However, we must determine the difference between someone who is spiritually sick and someone who is spiritually dead.
Mortal Sin Necessitates Rebirth
There’s an image in the second edition of the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism showing that healthy people can eat, and even sick people can eat with some difficulty, but if one is dead it is clear they are no longer capable of eating. It’s the same with Holy Communion. The Baltimore Catechism illustrates this succinctly:
“Only the living can eat bodily food. So, too, only those living the life of grace can be nourished by the food of the Eucharist. If someone in mortal sin goes to Communion, he receives no more nourishment than a dead man would if food were forced down his throat. It would even be worse, since it would be a sacrilege.”
This should give us food for thought before we approach the Eucharistic banquet. Think about it. If we have just been cleansed of sin through confession (or maybe it’s our first Communion immediately after baptism!), the state of grace we are in is preserved by the superabundant grace of the Blessed Sacrament. If we are sick yet still living the life of grace, with venial sin on our soul, it’s a bit more difficult to take food, but the medicine of the Eucharist will work to begin conforming us to Christ. But if we are in a state of grave (or mortal) sin, the Eucharist will no longer be of benefit to us until we are brought back to life. Consider what the Catechism has to say on mortal sin:
“Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God …
“Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation …
“It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.”CCC 1855-1856, 1861
The Angelic Doctor’s Prognosis
As we can see, there is a big difference between giving the weak the “powerful medicine” of the Eucharist and giving the Eucharist to those that have killed their souls with a lack of charity. The spiritually weak are alive, yet in a state of grace. The spiritually dead, those without charity in their souls due to mortal sin, are not in a state of grace and are therefore unable to be admitted to the Eucharist until they repent. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, takes this analogy a step further (emphases added):
“Every medicine does not suit every stage of sickness; because the tonic given to those who are recovering from fever would be hurtful to them if given while yet in their feverish condition. So likewise Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin; whereas this sacrament is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin.”ST III, Q. 80, Art. 4, ad. 2
Catholics used to be keenly aware of this, as the bishop of the St. Thomas diocese had mentioned to me. Some parishes, especially those with heavy Latino populations, still are aware of the disposition we should possess when approaching the Eucharist. But by and large, the lines to the sacrament of confession remain short, and the Communion lines long. It’s no surprise then that we have seen many bishops and pastors of souls speaking out, even in our own day, about protecting the Blessed Sacrament from sacrilege. In the case of those in a state of public, manifest sin, we see shepherds caring deeply about the souls of those from whom they must withhold Communion.
Protectors of the Sacrament and Souls
The Church, in her various teachings, Code of Canon Law, and in pastoral practice, encourages all of us sinners to return to the sacrament of confession first before approaching the Eucharist.
Far from being judgmental in these situations, pastors have a duty to protect the Blessed Sacrament, and also safeguard our souls, whether our sin be public or private. We can look to St. Thomas Aquinas again for help in making a distinction between public and private sinners, while still acknowledging it is the pastor’s duty to lead both types of people to an examination of conscience and a true repentance before approaching the Eucharist:
“A distinction must be made among sinners: some are secret; others are notorious, either from evidence of the fact, as public usurers, or public robbers, or from being denounced as evil men by some ecclesiastical or civil tribunal. Therefore Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it …
“But if they be not open sinners, but occult [secret or private], the Holy Communion should not be denied them if they ask for it. For since every Christian, from the fact that he is baptized, is admitted to the Lord’s table, he may not be robbed of his right, except from some open cause… Nevertheless a priest who has knowledge of the crime can privately warn the secret sinner, or warn all openly in public, from approaching the Lord’s table, until they have repented of their sins and have been reconciled to the Church; because after repentance and reconciliation, Communion must not be refused even to public sinners, especially in the hour of death.”ST III, Q. 80, Art. 6, co
The Church, as Mother, always looks toward the care of her children. It is a great mercy when a pastor is able to speak cordially with a member of his flock to let them know they must get right with God before entering into Communion with him. As mentioned above, the Catechism sates, “a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart” must take place so the charity in the soul that was destroyed by sin may be renewed.
But priests cannot read souls. There are very few that can be said to be in a public state of sin as St. Thomas Aquinas described. The default for the priest is to not deny us Communion if we approach. He must assume the best of us if we have not been in the public eye. This means we ourselves must make a thorough examination of conscience so we do not desecrate the Eucharist with an unworthy reception.
Prayers before Communion
So what can each of us do to prepare better for the Eucharist? A nightly examen, especially through the praying of Compline in the Liturgy of Hours would be one step to take.
What also might be helpful is to reflect on what Catholics of the Byzantine Rite pray before each reception of Holy Communion. In the Latin Rite, we simply pray:
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
This is a beautiful, biblical prayer. However, the much lengthier prayer below is said by each and every member of the congregation in Ruthenian Catholic parishes throughout the country. It calls to mind that we must be well prepared before presenting ourselves for the Eucharist:
“O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first. Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I profess you:
Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Master, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Holy One, when you come in your kingdom.
May the partaking of your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation but for the healing of soul and body.
O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly your most precious body and your life-giving blood, which, I pray, make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number.”
Communion and the State of Grace
Never forget that we are part of the Communion of Saints. Those in heaven and purgatory have already been assured of their reward, but we, although with a sure hope, have not been completely assured of our salvation. If we want to enter into Communion fully, we must be like the saints in heaven, full of charity in our souls. Thankfully, our pastors are ready to receive us in the sacrament of confession. Even more importantly, it is truly our Lord Jesus that is there. If we allow him to heal us in confession first, he will continue to sustain us with his divine life through the Eucharist. Let our prayer be the same as St. Joan of Arc’s:
“If I am not in a state of grace, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.