The history of the Church’s practice regarding the receipt and distribution of the Eucharist is an interesting one. The Apostles received communion daily (Acts 2:42), and St. Paul led the disciples in Mass each Sunday, where the Eucharist was shared (Acts 20:7). Many of the Church Fathers (notably St. John Chrysostom) advocated for daily Eucharist. St. Augustine noted that some received the Eucharist daily, whereas others received it weekly. In short, regular Communion is an ancient practice of the Church.
But for curious historical reasons, during Middle Ages, lay people typically received Communion only one time a year. The most common practice was to receive Communion during Easter after having gone to Confession. Catholics attended weekly Mass, but due to rigorous fasting requirements and a lack of availability of confessors, lay Catholics did not typically receive the Eucharist each week. This does not mean that the Medieval Catholic was unconcerned about the Eucharist. To the contrary, the Real Presence in the Eucharist was taken extremely seriously, as Catholics who felt unworthy to approach the altar rail would crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the Host.
The reduced frequency of Communion did not represent a change of Church teaching–theologians (including Thomas Aquinas) had always encouraged frequent (even daily) Communion. However, partly a result of available resources, and partly due to the utmost reverence given to the Real Presence, receiving Communion and weekly Mass attendance were not connected like they are now.
Thankfully, Church leaders continued to encourage more frequent Communion. Famously, Pope St. Pius X in 1905 took special care to encourage regular and even daily Communion. No one in a state of grace was to be denied the Eucharist. Pope St. Pius X wanted the faithful laity to avail itself of the Graces of the Holy Sacrament. Over a century later, I cannot question the wisdom of Pope St. Pius X (or St. Thomas Aquinas, or the Twelve Apostles).
So, why this blog post? Betteridge’s law is at play here. Of course, there are innumerable Graces from regular Communion. But I think it is important to reflect on our Church’s practice in view of our post-modern reality.
First, familiarity breeds contempt. We have become too familiar at Mass. Regardless what you think about guitar masses and casual clothing, it’s undeniable that there has been a diminishing of the reverence with which we treat the Eucharist. As my parish priest often says, the lines for Communion are much longer than the lines for Confession, and that is problematic. Our people have become too unconcerned about the meaning of the Real Presence and the graces of receiving the Eucharist.
Second, we are living in an age of radical inclusivity. Bewilderingly, exclusion is synonymous with hate. And it seems that our Church is uniquely struggling with this issue today. I am thinking about the permitting of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion based on a wide interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, and Fr. James Martin wishing to extend the same to practicing gay and lesbian Catholics.
The two problems create a vicious circle that degrades our faith. If we do not take doctrines like the Real Presence seriously and are not reverent towards the Eucharist, how can we expect faithful practice concerning the distribution of Communion? If the Communion lines remain longer than the Confession lines, how can we tell divorced and remarried or gay Catholics that their mortal sins (which are visible) make them unworthy, whereas everyone else can come to Communion as they please?
Back to the question of this blog post. Of course, I think that daily Communion is desirable. But we need to restore the sacredness of Communion. Unlike the radical inclusivists who wish to remove all barriers to Communion, I want Catholics to internalize St. Paul’s warnings about receiving the Eucharist unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:26-29).
What can we do? I think we need to lead by example. We should conduct an examination of conscience before each Mass. If you’re like me, and go to Confession every 2-3 months, there’s a good chance that at least one Sunday, you are not in a state of grace worthy to receive Communion. If we want others to take the Eucharist seriously, abstaining from the Eucharist must become a more common and visible practice. Men acknowledging that they have fallen short this week and are therefore abstaining from Communion will be a visible sign that the Eucharist matters. While the Medievals may have been unnecessarily restrictive, there is some wisdom in their practice.