Holy communion — to receive, or not to receive?
Everybody’s favourite blogger (or mine, anyway), Max Lindenman, posted more confessional gold this week. I swear, the man has to publish his memoirs.
The title alone of his latest post commands attention: My First Grave Sin: A Christmas Story. However, I’ll just hone in on the ultimate paragraph:
Maybe in the hope of expiating the sin of that first, unworthy, Communion, I rarely commune at all now. Three or four times in a given year is a lot for me. If I can’t make a firm purpose of amendment, I don’t even bother — who would I be fooling? I suppose abstaining does keep me cut off from the primal, life-giving, genius-stoking stuff of Catholicism, but I get another facet of the Catholic experience in spades. That taste of cardboard was my first taste of unworthiness, and by extension, of Catholic guilt.
This raises a very interesting point. A moot point in my case, since I’m a priest, who is obliged to receive communion every time I say Mass. But that’s not true for most Catholics. The Church mandates the faithful receive communion once a year. For the rest of the time, the faithful are free to assist at Mass — which brings countless graces — while abstaining from communion.
The popular practice these days, of course, is to equate Mass with communion. Pope Pius X wished to see more Catholics receive communion more regularly. And why not? When we receive communion, it pleases our Lord. He wants us to approach him, to invite him into our lives, to enter into communion with him. Hence this advice from St Josemaría Escrivá:
He has stayed here for you. It is not reverence to omit going to Communion when well disposed. It’s irreverence only when you receive him unworthily.
But there is also a venerable tradition of “eucharistic fasting,” strong among the Fathers. Pope Benedict treats this in his Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith.
When Augustine felt his death approaching, he “excommunicated” himself and took upon himself ecclesiastical penitence. In his last days, he set himself alongside, in solidarity, with the public sinners who seek forgiveness and grace through the pain of not receiving Communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for Him, the righteous and gracious One.
I’m reminded of Simone Weil, who prayed daily in front of the tabernacle, but denied herself the sacraments — even baptism — partly in fear of committing idolatry (seeking the Church’s human consolations in place of God), but also in solidarity with the marginalised.
Ratzinger goes on. Apparently eucharistic fasting was once a common practice.
Probably since the time of the apostles, eucharistic fasting on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of Communion. Not receiving Communion on one of the most holy days of the Church’s year, which was celebrated with no Mass and without any Communion of the faithful, was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Passion of the Lord: the sorrowing of the bride from whom the bridegroom has been taken away.
Aha! I’d have to consult the books on this one, but it’s conceivable that the priest himself might exercise eucharistic fasting on Good Friday, even while making communion available to the congregation. It could be a good catechetical point, fostering esteem and awe of the Real Presence, and solidarity with those outside communion.
With characteristic acuity, Ratzinger notes the necessary qualifications:
Such fasting — which could not be allowed to become arbitrary of course, but would have to be consonant with the spiritual guidance of the Church — could help people towards a deepening of their personal relation to the Lord in the Sacrament; it could be an act of solidarity with all who have a yearning for the Sacrament but cannot receive it . . .
. . I would not of course wish to suggest by this a return to some kind of Jansenism: in biological life, as in spiritual life, fasting presumes that eating is the normal thing to do. Yet from time to time we do need a cure for falling into mere habit and its dullness. Sometimes we need to be hungry — need bodily and spiritual hunger — so as once more to comprehend the Lord’s gifts and to understand the suffering of our brethren who are hungry.
Spiritual hunger, like bodily hunger, can be a vehicle of love.