Friday, December 26, 2014

Why can't non-Catholics receive Holy Communion?

Happiest second day of Christmas to you and yours. Ours was salvaged by an 11th hour recovery from the flu of death and a sprinkling of magical, legitimate Christmas snow.

We spent Christmas Eve with my side of the family, as we often do, attending 4:30 Mass in my hometown. And by attending Mass I mean perching in the window sill of an overflowing school gymnasium balancing still-ill babies on hips and shushing angry toddlers in increasingly uncharitable stage whispers amidst the dulcet tones of the pitchy children's choir. (All honesty though, lead female soloist KILLED it on the Ave Maria. Solid gold.)

I wonder if anyone has had a similar experience attending Mass at Christmas time or Easter, when the (not)church/auditorium/parish hall is stuffed to the gills with worshipers in varying arrays of holiday finery, kneeling or not kneeling at all the wrong moments and just bringing a general sense of chaotic merriment and outside-the-normness to the moment, marking this day as something altogether different from any given Sunday?

When I was younger and even more selfish than I am now, I resented the crowded pews and the, um, let's go with "eclectic" dress code. I was a brat, and I wanted a seat, darn it, and don't I deserve a seat for coming every single Sunday and not just twice a year?

(Prodigal son's older brother, anyone?)

Now that old age, motherhood, and sleep deprivation have mellowed me somewhat, and probably due to an enriched understanding of the meaning and nature of evangelization, I actually really look forward to the C & E crowd. I love the overstuffed church, the chaotic parking lot (okay that part might be a stretch) and the haphazard feel to a liturgy filled with participants who may not quite be all the way there, so to speak.

"The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" (Ad Gentes, Vatican II)
There's never more of a missionary feel to my parish church than during our major holy days, when the doors are flung wide and everyone from agnostic Uncle Tom to gay Cousin Jeff gather with family to attend and to worship (or to stare in confusion/wonder/boredom) as a family, as a body of Christ.

Yes, it's inconvenient. Christianity is inconvenient through, and I make the too-frequent mistake of forgetting that I exist for it and not it for me.

The Church does not owe me anything. Jesus didn't die for my sins in order that I may vaguely acknowledge Him in some kind of moral therapeutic deistic fashion. So what if I have to stand in a drafty gym for 90 minutes on Christmas Eve, so that the visitors who have swollen our attendance by 400% can have a seat for their biannual pilgrimage -- isn't it worth it?

Because what if somebody does come back because of Christmas? What if this year is "the year" that something clicks in their heart and head and the blinding light from the manger cracks open a channel  of grace into their soul and...oh, holy night.

Wouldn't that be something?

And then, oh what joy, if that revert or convert-to-be were to formally approach the Church via RCIA and ask to be received into full communion, to become one with the Bride of Christ and to be welcomed into the mystery of the Sacraments.

That's what it's all about.

I'm wandering far from my title here, but that backstory is important because it lays a foundation for understanding the difficult beauty of the Catholic Church's teaching on the Eucharist.

It is He.

When we approach the altar to receive Communion, we truly believe we are receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We don't celebrate a symbol, but a Sacrament.

We don't merely recreate a reenactment from a story in the Bible, rather, we are ushered in a mysterious, time-bending way into the one, eternal sacrifice He made of Himself.

And because He is truly there, dwelling among us, present in the Eucharist, humble and unexpected (kind of like a peasant child lying in an animal's feeding trough), we only dare to receive Communion if we are properly disposed to do so, which looks like this:

1. Am I a practicing, baptized Catholic,

2. In a state of grace (i.e. recently confessed, no mortal sins on my soul)

3. living in accordance with the Church's teachings (i.e. I believe in and consent to her dogmas?)

If the answer to those conditions is affirmative, than one may worthily receive the Eucharist.

Or at least, as close to worthily as any of us poor sinners may hope to be.

This is emphatically not a condemnation of anyone who doesn't meet the conditions. On the contrary, the teaching of worthy reception of Communion is a great mercy intended to save a person from committing the grave offense of receiving unworthily.

St. Paul warns us "whoever shall eat this bread or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord."

There's also the small matter of Communion being an act of, well, communion among members of the body of Christ. 

And just like you (hopefully) wouldn't throw back the covers and invite just anyone into your marriage bed, the Church joyfully opens the doors to her sanctuary for any and all who wish to enter, but reserves the ultimate expression of intimacy, Communion, for practicing Catholics, aka fellow members of the body of Christ.

So that awkward paragraph on the back page of the missal? That imperfectly phrased blurb in the bulletin that made Grandma squirm? That moment when you try not to fall into your cousin's lap while extricating yourself from the crowded pew to join the communion line? All evidence that there's work to do yet, and that we all share in the call for a new evangelization.

The beauty of the Gospel is that it is for everybody. 

The Church is for everybody. And even if you can't yet receive the Eucharist, please know how very welcome you are, and that we're looking forward to the day when you are able to.

(And if you could maybe find it in your hearts, could you please forgive my children for that noise they made during the entire homily. You know the one, that sustained whine in f minor, punctuated by increasingly threatening motherly whispers? I promise, it's not like this every Sunday.) 



  1. I think this is a very good commentary on this issue. As a convert, I have a lot of non-Catholic friends and family who ask this question. I'm glad I have a concise and clear, easy-to-read explanation to share with them. Thank you.

  2. I was one of the C&E crowd (well for a while I didn't even do that) and God really did some his grace on my on a Good Friday in the overcrowed vestibu

    1. vestibule. Sure he was working in my heart before that but that was my watershed moment, the first time I went to Mass in 3 years. I've been a practicing Catholic ever since.

    2. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing Gina!

  3. I misspelled the name, it's actually SCHUTZ, not Schultz. Brother Roger Schutz of the Taize ecumenical community to be exact.

    Ratzinger gave him communion in the funeral mass of John Paul 2. He's also given it to other Protestants.

    1. You mean Cardinal Ratzinger? You're a bit casual in your naming him but not so with Brother Schutz.

      More to the point, how do you know that Cardinal Ratzinger was not aware that Brother Schutz might not meet the conditions?

      Furthermore, I imagine some of the members of Taize are Catholics who meet those conditions. How do we know that Brother Schutz does not meet them?

    2. I think the guy's just spoiling for a fight and looking to engage in some combox combat - I wouldn't bother engaging him.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Sorry Antonio, trolls not welcome in my corner of the internet. Move along.

  4. Well written. Lovely. As a revert who left the Church for ten yrs, I doubt if a day goes by that I don't thank God for his Real Presence in the Eucharist. He sustains me.

  5. I married a Catholic and attended Mass with her throughout the courtship, engagement and first years of marriage. Over time, I was drawn to the Eucharist... so strongly, that I went through RCIA and entered the Church. Soon after I became a (as it was called then) Eucharistic Minister, serving for the first time (appropriately enough) on Corpus Christi. The Eucharist, when embraced in faith is at once, inspiration, encouragement, healing, power infusing, unifying and reconciling. The greatest sadness for me are the many Catholics I've seen who approach it with a casual informality that raises question of whether they really DO believe! That's why I've never understood the "fallen away Catholic" thing... if one truly does understand and believe that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, how could one ever leave it? I believe that's also why you never hear the phrase "fallen away Protestant", because without the Eucharist, there is nothing to "fall away" from!

    1. I'm sure you didn't mean it like this, but the last part of what you wrote implies that there is no substance to a devout Protestant faith. As one who was raised Protestant (and as an adult also converted to Catholicism), I can assure you that I heard the phrase "fallen away" many times! :) I'd say any time someone has any degree of a relationship with Christ, there is indeed much to fall away from!

  6. Thanks for this article! This is an important and sensitive topic indeed. I find the question of non-practicing Catholics to be far more awkward to address within ones own family. Am I supposed to tell my close family members that they're not worthy to receive the Eucharist? Or is that not my business? And I'm not talking about judging their souls, I mean cases when they purposely attend mass infrequently and may not even believe in the real presence. Anyway, the Church doesn't seem enforce the guidelines you've provided, which can be frustrating. I wonder where the responsibly falls then? The overwhelming ptlractice, at least in my experience, is that everyone receives.

  7. I've never understood why this is such a big deal. Many groups and clubs extend benefits to members that they don't extend to non members. Most anyone well intentioned can become a Catholic so it's hardly discriminatory. If someone really wants to receive communion so badly they should think of being a Catholic. That's what I did. There was six months without communion but I attended mass every Sunday. Then as the East Vigil came closer I began to realize how exciting it would be to receive communion and to be able to call myself a Roman Catholic. The journey to that evening was not painful. Plus those things we work for are more precious when they're finally received.

  8. Thank you for this. It was well written, in a charitable manner. Thank you. God bless you and your family. Merry Christmas!

  9. I'm late to the party on this one, but wanted to throw in a different angle than what was presented both in the post and combox. For many devout Protestants, the idea of being unable to receive Communion in a Catholic mass is very, very hard. I have at least two friends who otherwise might consider conversion, but simply cannot get past this issue. I'm not saying the rules should change, I would just encourage all Catholics to be sensitive and understanding to the fact that for God-fearing Protestants who ARE members of the body of Christ (and who are used to being able to receive communion in any new church or denomination they may visit) this is hurtful and offensive. It's important that we talk about it with charity and grace.

    1. I'm sorry if you found this post to be lacking in charity or grace. Obviously not my intent, perhaps it simply struck you wrong due to personal experiences or hurts.

    2. Oh no Jenny, I didn't mean to imply your words were not gracious! They were. I just felt like in both the content and comments the perspective of Protestants was lacking. Based on comments specifically, it seemed like some of us may struggle to understand why this would even be an issue at all.

  10. Hi! I just discovered your blog because of the Shenazing awards... can't believe I hadn't found you sooner! As a non-Catholic who likes the Catholic church but has some serious reasons for not joining, I love this. You are honest. Most writings I've seen about non-Catholics taking communion say that it's because of the church's belief in transubstantiation, and that the Church doesn't want people partaking that believe it to be a symbol. And I would think wait a second! I don't think it's a symbol, and I DO believe in transubstantiation, and while we're being frank, not all Catholics do (that's why you said practicing). So, this makes sense. If I'm not in communion with Rome, then don't take communion. I hate our divisions, but in the meantime I appreciate honesty and clarity. - From an Episcopalian.


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