THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST (CORPUS CHRISTI) (B)
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Yet for many people the Eucharist can seem like a source of division. Consider this not uncommon scenario. You have been talking with a friend about your faith. He is not Catholic, but has been asking questions about Catholicism. You have been sharing what you know, and what the faith means to you (especially your love of the Eucharist). You are excited by his interest and want to encourage him, so you invite him to come to Mass with you next Sunday. To your great joy, he accepts. You go to Mass together, but before you enter the church you remember something you need to tell him. "Oh, before I forget," you say, "During Communion, when everyone goes up to receive, you can't. That's just for Catholics. Non-Catholics can't receive Communion in our Church."
His face looks crestfallen. He was excited about attending his first Mass, and now, despite all your efforts to be welcoming, he is met at the door by a message of rejection. He gets offended, feeling he is not welcome at your table. What can be done here? How can we be welcoming and invitational to others (which is a necessary component of evangelization), while respecting the laws of the Church regarding reception of Holy Communion?
First of all, when bringing someone new to Mass with you, right before you sit down in the pew is probably not the best time to bring up the matter. Talk with them well beforehand about what the Church teaches regarding who may and may not receive the Eucharist. And make sure you know what that teaching actually is.
The "Order of the Mass" booklets we have in the pews in our campus chapel contain this statement on the inside cover. Most worship aids and pew missals used in other parishes will contain something very similar.
It is very important to understand that this is not a simple matter of "Catholics get to receive the Eucharist, non-Catholics don't." If that were all it was, it would be exclusionary and divisive. But this is not the case, and it is important that the newcomer you bring to Mass, and you yourself, understand this point clearly.Reception of Holy Communion is open to Catholics in a state of grace (not conscious of any mortal sin), who have fasted for at least one hour prior to reception. (Water and medicine do not break the fast. The elderly and those who are sick as well as those who care for them, are not obliged to fast.) Non-Christians, and those Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, are welcome to worship with us, but should not present themselves for Communion. We invite you to pray for Christian unity.
The invitation to the Eucharist is open to all. But, as the Catechism reminds us, "To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and holy a moment" (CCC 1385). The Catechism then goes on to quote from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.
Christ promises life to those who eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn 6:53), but Paul warns that those who do so unworthily risk receiving spiritual death. The Church therefore, out of care for the souls receiving the Eucharist, wants to ensure that those who do so are adequately prepared.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 any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29).
This means, first and foremost, being in a state of grace. In other words, the one receiving is not conscious of any mortal sin. If one has committed a mortal sin (which includes neglecting the Sunday Mass obligation), one needs to have recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), to repent and receive the Lord's forgiveness before receiving the Eucharist. In this way you make your soul a welcoming home for the presence of the Lord.
Secondarily, you must also prepare your body. This means observing the Church's fasting requirements. Currently, one is only required to fast for one hour before receiving Holy Communion (past generations had stricter requirements).
So, if a Protestant Christian believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is not conscious of having committed any mortal sin, and fasts for one hour, can he or she receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church? The answer is still no.
The reason is that the Eucharist is not just one aspect of the Catholic faith which non-Catholics can take or leave. The Eucharist is the faith. Again, we turn to the Catechism, which reminds us that the Eucharist completes Christian initiation (CCC 1322). "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch" (CCC 1324).
We call the Eucharist "Communion" because it is both the sign and means of our communion not only with Christ, but with the Church (which, not insignificantly, is also called the Body of Christ). In other words, it is by reception of the Body of Christ (the Eucharist) that our union with the Body of Christ (the Church) is made complete.
Those Christians who remain outside of the Catholic Church are, by definition, not in full union (communion) with the Catholic Church. We wish them to be. We strongly desire them to be. And we hope, though our witness and our welcome, and the Holy Spirit working through us, that they may seek to be united with the Catholic Church. If they do so, then receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist will be the completion of that unity. But until that time, reception of the Eucharist by a non-Catholic is a dishonest act.
I find marriage to be a helpful metaphor here. As Catholics we believe that the sexual act between a husband and wife is a beautiful, holy, life-giving act. It is a supremely good act, but one that belongs properly only within marriage. By that act the husband and wife are saying, "I give myself completely to you." This is why premarital sex is wrong, because you are saying with your bodies "I am united completely with you," while in fact you are not united in marriage. It becomes a dishonest and sinful act.
Likewise non-Catholics who receive the Eucharist, as well as those Catholics not in a state of grace, are saying with their body, "I am in full union with the Church," when in fact they are not. Reception of the greatest gift Christ intends to give to us therefore becomes an act of dishonesty and occasion of sin. One begins to understand why St. Paul warned against this so strongly.
We don't just want non-Catholics to receive Communion in the Catholic Church. We want them to be in communion with the Catholic Church, and receive all the graces that entails. So the next time you bring a non-Catholic to Mass and have "the conversation" with them about the Eucharist, make this point. We care for their spiritual good, and it is for that reason the Church cannot admit them to Communion. But we desire to; moreover we want them to desire to. And if they do so desire to receive the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, that path is open to them. It is a path to unity with His Church, to the fullness of the faith, to the source and summit of the Christian life.
- For those interested, you can read what Canon Law has to say about reception of the Eucharist on the Vatican web site, here.