Receiving Holy Communion
Editor's note: The following article is adapted from an earlier version published in the Catholic Exponent, official newspaper of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.
At their meeting in November 1996, the bishops of the United States approved revised guidelines for the reception of Holy Communion. This is the statement that is usually found on the inside cover of missalettes used in Catholic churches. The wording has now been revised to reflect recent liturgical and ecumenical statements, but the fundamental teaching of the Church on this matter has not changed.
The basic principle is this: Only Catholics may receive holy Communion, and Catholics who do receive holy Communion must be property disposed. Let's try to understand the consequences of this very important and sensitive issue.
The guidelines state, first of all, that "we welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters."
The statement urges us to pray that the action of the Holy Spirit will overcome the sad divisions which have separated us. This is a clear realization that while Christians share a common faith, there are still significant issues and practices that keep us apart. Someday, God willing, they will be resolved.
The guidelines teach us, however, that "because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy Communion."
The guidelines point out that other Christians may receive holy Communion in "exceptional" cases but only with the specific permission of the bishop and only when very particular conditions are in place. From a Catholic perspective, members of Orthodox Churches and Polish National Churches are permitted to receive holy Communion. Sometimes, however, their own disciplines do not permit them to do so.
To some people, I am sure, these restrictions seem harsh and unnecessary, a violation of the ecumenical spirit of our age. The question is, "Why are there so many restrictions about receiving holy Communion if people are of goodwill and the Eucharist is so helpful for us?" That's certainly a legitimate question, motivated by good intentions.
We should emphasize, first of all, that the directive that only Catholics may receive holy Communion is not a suggestion that Catholics are better or holier than other people. The reasons are more subtle than that.
The first reason, as the guidelines suggest, is that the reception of holy Communion is not just an expression of belief in the Lord Jesus Christ but also an indication of membership, "communion," in a particular church, a church that shares "oneness of faith, life and worship." Unity among Christians is not yet complete, and the reception of holy Communion in churches of other denominations ignores that important reality.
The second reason is that the reception of holy Communion in a Catholic Church presumes Catholic belief about the Eucharist. Catholics believe in the doctrine of "transubstantiation," that the bread and wine become, in a substantial way, the Body and Blood of Christ. Catholics also believe that the Eucharist is a veritable sharing in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
Many of our fellow Christians, while having a high regard for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, do not share our belief in the substantial and sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. The reception of the Eucharist in a Catholic church presumes an acceptance of Catholic teaching of what the Eucharist is.
Now, perhaps you have heard that on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals, some priests will invite all those in church, including those who are not Catholic, to receive holy Communion. For reasons already cited, and for other good reasons, this practice is improper and theologically unsound. While a priest certainly might have good intentions — such as a desire to extend Christian hospitality, an ecumenical instinct, or the desire to avoid hard feelings — the invitation for everybody to receive holy Communion is inappropriate. Inviting members of other churches to receive holy Communion shows a lack of respect for their beliefs and the beliefs of Catholics as well.
While the motivation for inviting everyone to holy Communion might seem to be "ecumenical," in the long run the practice does more harm than good to authentic ecumenical relationships. The most detrimental thing we can possibility do to achieve legitimate Christian unity is to "paper over" our differences with other religions.
It's somewhat akin to two people entering marriage before they've gotten to know each other, before they've resolved all their differences. A good marriage, in personal life or ecumenism, demands that differences have been courageously addressed and resolved, and that there is true understanding and acceptance by each party. That's the solid foundation on which the union can be built. Experience has taught that couples who live together without the benefit of marriage have a higher divorce rate than those who are more patient with their plans. An important lesson for our ecumenical endeavors, I believe!
I am convinced that a premature invitation to holy Communion removes one of the most compelling incentives for people to join the Catholic Church. There are many stories, many true stories, of people being attracted to the Catholic Church by our belief in the Eucharist, and their desire to receive the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the spiritual magnet that draws people to experience the riches of our Catholic faith. If anyone can receive the Eucharist, why bother joining the Church?
Another very serious pastoral problem when priests invite non-Catholics to receive holy Communion is the awkward practical problem that is caused for those priests who try to follow the law of the Church. How many priests have been challenged by parishioners or visitors who say something like, "Father so-and-so is a really nice guy and he allows everyone to receive holy Communion. Why don't you, Father?"
This kind of liturgical inconsistency causes confusion for the faithful, scandal within the Church and a real morale problem among priests. In short, it's just not fair! (The same can be said, by the way, of other liturgical abuses.)
Only Catholics should receive holy Communion, but we long for the day, and pray for the day, when authentic Christian unity will allow all Christians to meet at the Lord's table with clear understanding and good faith.
The guidelines also remind Catholics that the reception of holy Communion is a great and holy privilege, and that they, too, must be properly disposed. As the guidelines say:
We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. . . . A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged by all.
The point here is that in holy Communion, we are receiving a precious gift. And while we know that we are never worthy to receive the Lord, we must be as well disposed as possible for this sacred encounter. Most people are very reverent in receiving Communion, and that is very edifying. But I, probably like many distributors of the Eucharist, am occasionally disturbed by the casual manner in which some people approach the altar of the Lord — half-asleep, failing to respond, abruptly grabbing the sacred Host from the priest, talking to the person next to them, chewing gum. We need to examine our conscience in this matter: How do I receive the Body of Christ? And - . . how do I distribute the Body of Christ?
Finally, in completing our survey of the guidelines, we note that they contain brief paragraphs addressed to non-Christians and to others who are not receiving Communion. These people are warmly welcomed to the liturgy and encouraged to "express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus" and to pray "for the peace and the unity of the human family."
As early as New Testament times, St. Paul reminded Christians about proper reverence in receiving the Body of Christ:
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 [I Cor 11:27-28].
In that same spirit, let us resolve to receive holy Communion often and to receive it well.
BISHOP TOBIN is the bishop of Youngstown, Ohio.
The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750.
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