Receiving Communion has been much in the news lately. This post will cover what the Church teaches about when the faithful should receive Communion, as well as the Scriptural basis for this teaching. In all honesty, I went to Catholic school for twelve years, and I don’t remember being taught this. Maybe it wasn’t covered, and maybe I just don’t remember. But I’m grateful that our bishops are taking this moment to re-catechize the faithful about when to receive Communion.
One of the precepts of the Church is that faithful Catholics should receive Communion at least once a year, preferably around Easter. Why is only once a year the requirement? Aren’t we required to go to mass every Sunday, where we receive Communion? We are required to go to mass, but we are only to receive Communion if we are in a state of grace. Or put in negative terms, if we have committed a grave sin, and we haven’t been absolved of our sin through the sacrament of Reconciliation, we should not receive Communion. We should only receive Communion after the sin has been absolved.
Like every teaching of the Church, this doctrine is rooted in Scripture. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he admonishes the Christians there for how they celebrated the mass. The Corinthians seem to have combined the mass with a regular meal, and Paul seeks to correct this (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). He first reminds the Corinthians of the meaning of the Eucharist:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
This is the earliest written account we have of the Last Supper. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians between 50 and 55 A.D., probably at least ten years before the gospels were written.
Paul goes on to the say that, if we are uniting ourselves to Christ by receiving His body and blood, we must be worthy of receiving Him.
“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 Christ. 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 among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by [the] Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-31)
The sobering reminder here is that when we receive Communion unworthily, we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. Paul cites illness and death among the Corinthians as signs of God’s judgement. But Paul doesn’t say the Corinthians are being punished. Rather, they are being disciplined, so that they may not be condemned. Our sufferings are a powerful means for God to draw us closer to Himself. Because of our sinful nature, sometimes suffering is the only way God can get through to us.
The Church cites this passage from Corinthians to explain her teaching on the Eucharist: “To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience… Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1385)
The sacrament of Reconciliation is not a punishment. It is an opportunity to receive God’s mercy, to receive His grace, to be restored in our friendship with Him. It is right and just that, if our friendship with God is broken, we allow Him to repair the friendship by humbling ourselves in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Only then can we properly receive Him, body and blood, soul and divinity, the King of Heaven veiled in the Host, to unite Himself with our little souls. As Jesus told Saint Faustina:
“I desire to unite Myself with human souls; My great delight is to unite Myself with souls. Know, My daughter, that when I come to a human heart in Holy Communion, My hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give to the soul. But souls do not even pay attention to Me; they leave Me to Myself and busy themselves with other things. Oh, how sad I am that souls do not recognize Love! They treat me as a dead object.” (Diary of Saint Faustina, 1385)
Image: Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).