Beginning last weekend, the Church’s lectionary (the cycle of readings that we have at Mass) gives us four straight weeks of readings from chapter 6 of the gospel of John. This chapter, as you have hopefully already seen, is the all-important telling of the events leading up to and including the bread of life discourse, where Christ reveals for the first time his plan for the Eucharist.
So for the next couple of weeks, I will use this Liturgy Corner to give us some reminders about various theological and practical topics concerning the Eucharist. Today, in continuity with last week’s article on why Mass is still worth attending even if we don’t or can’t receive the Eucharist, I’m going to give a refresher on who can/should and who can’t/should not receive the Eucharist and why.
The first criterion is somewhat obvious; with a few exceptions, only Catholics should receive the Eucharist. We may be quite used to this idea, but seldom do we step back and ask ourselves why? If Jesus wants to be with everyone in that deep communion, why would we hold him back from people simply because they don’t belong to our Church? The main reason is the understanding of the Eucharist as Communion. When we hear the word ‘communion’ in Mass, we immediately think of the Eucharist, but if we try to think about what the word means in a general sense, we come to see the implication: Receiving the Eucharist means, in a deep and profound way, affirming and actualizing a deep unification between the person receiving and Christ himself. This union of his body, blood, soul and divinity is what makes us the body of Christ. As members united to his body, we are also united with each other. Hence, we the Church, the body of Christ, are made by the Eucharist. The Eucharist is meant to spiritually solidify the unity of faith, of belief, of mind, body and soul that we claim by being an external member of the one Church that Christ made. As Jesus said in prayer to the Eternal Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one,” (John 17:22-23a)
Christ gives us His glory through the Sacraments, and especially through the Eucharist. And not just for any old reason; that we may become completely one. So, if an adult is not at the very least spiritually accepting of the idea that they be united to Christ, his whole truth, and the whole Church, they should not receive the Eucharist (I say ‘adult’ because, in various eastern Catholic rites, the Eucharist is given to babies who cannot yet assent, similar in reason to why we baptize babies even though they cannot choose it yet.) I sometimes explain it this way. When we say “Amen” before we receive the body of Christ, we are actually saying, “I believe” or “I give my whole consent of mind and will to what is being presented to me.” To say that to receive the Eucharist is to say that we believe it is Christ’s body, that we believe in the ability of the priest to consecrate the Eucharist, that we believe that this ability is given by the bishop who received his ordination from another bishop and on and on going back to the Apostles, which is also to imply that the Catholic Church in its teaching is handed down from Christ himself. To assent to the reality of the Eucharist as the body of Christ is to assent to the whole thing. This reflection applies not only to non-Catholics but Catholics as well. We must be spiritually prepared to receive the Eucharist. Now, we should distinguish between deeper spiritual preparation and minimal preparation here. I am not telling you that you need to have deep reflective ponderance or lofty mystical experiences like some great saint before every reception of the Eucharist. It is not only praiseworthy but highly encouraged by the Church that we spend some significant time in prayer before Mass to prepare ourselves, but if one cannot, it does not mean you should necessarily abstain from receiving. There is, however, a certain minimum for a person to receive. As for spiritual preparation, even if it is only on the way up or at the moment of receiving, we should reflect on what we are doing and who we are receiving. We should also fast for an hour to bodily prepare ourselves for the reception (Yes, this is still a requirement.)
But the biggest criteria for receiving the Eucharist is that one not be in a state of mortal sin. I won’t get into the depth of explaining mortal sin here, but essentially it is a sin by which we cut ourselves off from God’s presence and salvific grace. By our own device, we create a breach between us and God that, barring an extraordinary means of God’s grace beyond our ability to predict or expect, can only be healed through the Sacrament of Confession. To receive the Eucharist in such a state is to, in a way, commit an act of spiritual violence. We have broken the relationship off with Christ and committed a great act of evil and injury against him in the mortal sin, and yet without acquiring forgiveness and reconciling that relationship, we try to enter into communion with him.
This reality puts a responsibility on us all. We have a responsibility to learn what is and isn’t a mortal sin and how to do our best to discern between them. And when we are aware of having committed a mortal sin (hopefully, it is extremely infrequent, but we are all in different places in our journey of conversion), we must seek out the Grace of the Sacrament of reconciliation before receiving Jesus.
All this being said, if you are a Catholic who is in doubt about whether you should receive communion on a particular occasion but do not have a concrete and fairly sure reason, it is best to simply trust in the mercy of God and speak from your heart and mouth, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”