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Friday, April 02, 2010

Receiving Communion Worthily Teaches Us about God's Love

On All Saints' Day, I attended Mass at a local Catholic high school. The celebrant, the pastor of a nearby parish, started the Mass by saying to the student body of about 800 kids: "Is everyone here sorry for all the sins they've committed? Good. Did you know coming to Mass means your sins are forgiven? So everyone here should come up for Communion today."

In those few sentences, that priest was wrong on at least three levels. Can you name them? Answers in a moment.

Two weeks later, on November 14, the Catholic bishops of the United States, gathered at their annual meeting in Baltimore, released a document called "Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist."
For today's American Catholics, many of whom lack the most basic understanding of the Eucharist, this short document provides simple and understandable explanations about the beauty and glory and importance of it all. It emphasizes one particular topic: when we should and should not receive Communion at Mass, and why.

The document explains what used to be understood by every Catholic elementary school kid: "In order to receive holy Communion we must be in communion with God and with the Church. If we are no longer in a state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the Church."

As examples of such sin, the document mentions "committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia," harboring hatred of others, and abusing others sexually, physically, or psychologically. It then points out other "serious violations of the law of love of God and of neighbor," including swearing a false oath, skipping Mass on Sundays, serious disobedience of proper authority, sex outside of marriage, stealing, slander, or using pornography.

Strong Words

Take a look next time you're at Mass, at how many people sit out Communion. If you're at a typical US parish, almost no one will. Now, we Catholics are fine folks, but let's be realistic.

The Bible has very strong words for those who receive Communion in a state of sin: "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27).

In other words, this is not the teaching of some fuddy-duddy old bishops. It's God, teaching us the reverence we must have for the Holy Eucharist. With this new document, the American bishops are being faithful to their role to teach the faith, whether or not it's what people want to hear.

That priest at the school Mass I attended, the one who called the whole world up to Communion, was wrong for at least three reasons:

1. He was presuming everyone was sorry for their sins. Just because you ask a crowd of 800 people if they're sorry doesn't mean every one of them is.

2. The teaching that going to Mass forgives yours sins applies only to venial sins (less serious ones), not mortal sins like those mentioned above: skipping Mass, sexual sins, sins of hate. (Of course, no high school kid would ever commit any sins like that, right?) For mortal sins, we need to go to confession.

3. The teaching about going to Communion in a state of grace applies only to Catholics. Because the Eucharist is an expression of a unity that we sadly do not have with all Christians, only Catholics should receive Communion at Mass.

More to the point, I was offended by his invitation, not just because he misled 800 students, but because in a single statement, he belittled and cast aside the serious efforts that many folks, trying to be good Catholics, make to observe these obligations toward the Eucharist.

When Compassion Is in Error

Early in our marriage, my wife and I went through a period of refraining from receiving Communion for five years. As a result of some difficult circumstances and poor decisions we had made earlier in our lives, our marriage was not a sacramental one during that time. With the help of diocesan officials, we went to great length to fix our situation, and eventually we were able to do that. Throughout those five years, though, our pastor, aware of our circumstances, was encouraging us to receive Communion at Sunday Mass. He, like the guy at the school Mass, was wrong.

They both think they're being nice guys, compassionate and all, but they're not. They're teaching people that sin is not significant, which I'm sure Jesus would like to have heard before He died on the Cross because of it.

They think they're making life easy for people, but they're denying people the chance to know the joy of God's mercy. Only people who are aware of their own sinfulness can ever truly know His merciful love.

I'll never forget the day I went to Communion after five years without it. I felt like a guy dying of thirst who found an oasis in the desert. I knew in a tangible way that I was fully reconciled to God whom I had earlier disappointed in a serious way. It was a very joyful day.

Following our bishops' lead in this new document will offer all of us opportunities to encounter God‘s merciful, Eucharistic love more deeply.

By Barry Michaels
Barry Michaels is the author of Eucharist: The Church's Treasure (Pauline, 2004) and At the School of Mary (Pauline, 2004), both prayer and study companions to documents of Pope John Paul II. His third book, New Novenas for New Saints, was published by Pauline Books in spring 2007.

(This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor)

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