About a month ago, I wrote about the prerequisites for receiving the Eucharist at any given Mass. One of the most important things we Catholics need to be attentive to is whether we have committed any mortal sins and if we find that we are indeed aware of having done so, to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving the Eucharist. But what about all those venial sins? Should we receive the Eucharist if we have venial sins, especially if we have particular ones that make us feel especially guilty and unclean?
The short answer is ‘yes.’ It is actually, in some sense, necessary to be aware of venial sins, or at least our tendency towards falling into them, in order to receive the Eucharist. That may seem like a strange thing to say. But if we look at our practice of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, we can see why.
You can probably recite the words of the priest from memory, “Brothers and Sisters, let us acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries.” Every Mass, we hear these words and then spend a few moments in silence. Obviously, these few moments are not enough time to do a full or even cursory examination of our lives and to enumerate mentally all the different times and ways we have sinned. But it does give us an opportunity to align our whole beings in humility towards God. We see in Scripture in various places that having an attitude of true sorrow for our sins is necessary for offering God sacrifice. We see, for example, in Psalm 51, “For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.” This passage and passages like this one have long been interpreted to mean that offering God praise and Sacrifice must start from a place of humble awareness and repentance of our sinfulness. And so, our ‘Sacrifice of the Mass’ must begin with this explicit moment of orienting ourselves in a spirit of true repentance and asking for God’s forgiveness. Maybe, we can’t bring to mind any sins. Maybe we even went to confession just before Mass started. Should we still embrace this penitential act or just let everybody else do it while we clean our fingernails? All joking aside, it is still very important to engage in the penitential act. First, it is entirely possible that we have committed a venial sin even in that short amount of time. When we use the Confiteor version of the penitential act, we say, “I confess to almighty God and you, my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts, in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Notice the last phrase. If we look in Scripture, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is one of those things that we ‘fail to do’ in a huge variety of ways all the time in action, word, and thought.
But even if a person truly has no venial sins at the time, it is still important to say the penitential act. Even free from the presence of sin, we are still weak creatures who struggle against the allure of sin. We know that going to confession does not magically make us able to love God and our neighbor perfectly at every moment (though it does help). We still suffer from concupiscence, that inner tendency towards selfishness, worldliness, and pride. To acknowledge this reality is to humble ourselves in the presence of God and acknowledge our constant need of his Grace. This attitude is the ‘humble and contrite spirit’ that we see in Psalm 31. And it is this attitude that, in part, makes us ready to receive the Eucharist, which is food for our souls and constantly works to transform us and purify our desires and actions. The Eucharist is like a burning fire, cleansing and refining us from the inside. With an attitude of humility, we invite Christ in the Eucharist to transform and purify even our innermost attitudes and tendencies through his Grace, giving us strength to resist sin and to give ourselves more fully to God at every moment. It is this very attitude of contriteness that opens us up to the Grace and power of the Eucharist to do its purifying work in us.
And so, to be ready to receive the Eucharist and to allow it to be more fruitful in our lives, we ask God’s forgiveness in the penitential act and bring our hearts “to their knees” so to speak, in humility. One might ask at this point, “but what if I commit a small sin during Mass? What if I have a bad thought about somebody and linger with it a bit? What if I lash out in anger in some small way towards my children?” Don’t worry. The Church tells us that the reception of the Eucharist itself has the power to forgive and cleanse our venial sins.