Withholding Communion at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Withholding Communion at Mass

ROME, 12 SEPT. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was at a Catholic wedding where the priest only gave the holy Eucharist to the two newlyweds. Later I found out that he did this because he feared a mixed congregation — some who might not be Catholic or who might be in the state of mortal sin — and didn't want to risk giving the holy Eucharist to such a person. However, there were many faithful there who felt hurt and offended that we couldn't receive the Eucharist. Was this an appropriate action on the part of the priest? — J.S., St. Louis, Missouri

A: While the priest showed commendable respect and reverence for the Eucharist, I do not believe he acted correctly in this case.

In diverse societies such as the United States, celebrations such as weddings and funerals almost always convene people of many stripes and different faiths. Therefore the danger of someone incorrectly receiving Communion is very real.

But it is not a new problem, and parishes across the country have found many viable solutions.

In some cases the pastor or another person makes an appropriate announcement either before Mass or before Communion. This announcement tactfully explains that, because it is central to our faith, Communion is reserved to Catholics in the state of grace.

Another means is to clearly print the requirements for Communion and distribute it to those present or even include it in the special booklets that are usually prepared on occasion of weddings.

If he has taken appropriate steps to inform those present of the importance of receiving Communion in the state of grace, then responsibility for an unworthy Communion falls exclusively upon the conscience of the person who receives it.

It is not the priest's task to take pre-emptive action against possible offenses against the Eucharist by limiting the distribution of the sacrament.

Also, the priest should not deprive the faithful who are in the state of grace of the opportunity of fully participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass by receiving Communion. In doing so, he unjustly deprives them of their rights as baptized Catholics.

In conclusion, I offer an excerpt from a sample text to be printed in participation aids. This very useful (document is published by the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.

"Guidelines for the Reception of Communion

"For Catholics

"As Catholics, we fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when we receive Holy Communion. We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (canon 916). A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged for all.

"For Other Christians

"We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ's prayer for us 'that they may all be one' (Jn 17:21).

"Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 § 4). Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of communion by Christians of these Churches (canon 844 § 3).

"For Those Not Receiving Communion

"All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.

"For Non-Christians

"We also welcome to this celebration those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ. While we cannot admit them to Holy Communion, we ask them to offer their prayers for the peace and the unity of the human family." ZE06091223

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Follow-up: Withholding Communion [9-26-2006]

In light of our piece on withholding Communion (Sept. 12) I wish to address a question from a priest writing from Yangon, Myanmar (formally Burma): "Does the real presence of Jesus remain in the Blessed Sacrament when it is consumed by an unbeliever?"

A distinction needs to be made: Christ's real presence in the Blessed Sacrament derives from the consecration and does not depend on the personal belief of the person who receives.

The Real Presence thus briefly remains in any person who receives the sacred Host.

Another factor altogether is the increase of sanctifying grace which accompanies the reception of holy Communion. In this case only the baptized believer receives a spiritual benefit; the non-baptized lacks the initial gift of sanctifying grace which is developed by holy acts such as receiving Communion.

If an unwary nonbeliever receives holy Communion in good faith, God may freely grant him or her special actual graces corresponding to the sincerity of the intentions with which the Host was received.

Among such graces could be to awaken interest in the meaning of this gesture for Catholics and a desire to know more about the Christian faith in general, eventually leading to embracing the faith.

Of course, this would depend on Divine liberality and such a remote possibility may never be used to flout the Church's norms on intercommunion.

According to these norms, Communion may never be given to someone who is not baptized.

For the non-Catholic baptized, we have mentioned the norms in our columns of Aug. 17 and 31, 2004. ZE06092623

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