Our spirituality

Confession and Communion

I’m sometimes scandalized by the casual way people go to communion these days, and wonder if it wasn’t better in the old days when communion was not that common. What do you think?

Today, most people who attend Mass also receive communion. The vast majority present themselves in a respectful way. A smaller number may appear casual in their general demeanour, for instance in the way they conduct or dress themselves. However, I don't suppose that this is what our reader has in mind.

Probably what is behind the comment is the way people prepare - or don't prepare - themselves in the course of their daily lives for their celebration of Mass and reception of the Eucharist. A highly recommended way to prepare for communion has always been the practice of frequent confession.

Sacrament of Penance
Just as the large number of communicants at Mass is something to rejoice over, the small number presenting themselves today for the Sacrament of Penance is not. I find myself in agreement with our reader that there was something better in 'the old days'. What was better, however, was not 'that communion was not that common' but that confession was much more frequent.

Deep down, what I think our reader is hankering after is to see a return to the practice of confessions. He is in good company in this. The late Pope John Paul II recommended frequent confession, and deplored its demise in many parts of the world, especially Western Europe and North America. In his native Poland, confessional practice is still widespread. Perhaps the Poles listened more attentively to the exhortations of their great fellow countryman than the rest of us.

State of Grace
There has always been a link between confession and communion. This was based on the idea that you should be in the state of grace before receiving. Probably a text of St Paul was behind this:
'Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord is eating and drinking his own condemnation' (1 Cor. 11:28-29). An over-strict interpretation of this passage led some people in the past to receive communion only a short time after they had been to confession. Some would not even communicate a second time until they had confessed again, which might be months later.

That passage from St. Paul should be balanced with another one from the St. John: 'In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you' (In.6:50). This does not mean that we should always communicate at Mass, but that we should all communicate at some time. The very minimum prescribed in the time-honoured Easter Duty is that we communicate at least once a year.

Participation and Pressure
The normal practice today is to encourage people to give themselves the benefit of the doubt in the matter of receiving communion. Anyone who is making a reasonable effort to live a Christian life, and not conscious of any serious unconfessed sin, should not hesitate to receive when at Mass. We should not forget, however, that sincere participation at Mass is always fruitful, even if a person does not receive sacramental communion.

The future Pope Benedict XVI, while he was Cardinal Ratzinger, expressed dissatisfaction at the system in our churches of going forward to receive communion in serried ranks, row by row. This implies that everyone in the congregation is expected to communicate, he said, and can put undue stress on people who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, are not intending to.

While the 'row by row' system facilitates the logistics of getting people to the altar in a crowded church, it has this other significant negative effect. On occasions like weddings and funerals, people who are not frequent church-goers should feel totally welcome in church, but should not allow themselves to feel pressured into receiving communion.

Frequent reception of the Sacra¬ment of Penance is an excellent preparation for communion. The consoling and beautiful teaching of Pope Pius XII is as relevant today as it was when he wrote about it in his letter on the Mystical Body of Christ way back in 1943. 'For a constant and speedy advancement in the path of virtue,' he wrote, 'we highly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession, introduced by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; for by this means we grow in a true knowledge of ourselves and in Christian humility, bad habits are uprooted, spiritual negligence and apathy are prevented, the conscience is purified and the will strengthened, salutary spiritual direction is obtained, and grace is increased by the efficacy of the sacrament itself.'

He went on to wag a finger at the young clergy of the time, the youngest of whom must be about eighty-seven years old now! 'Therefore those among the young clergy who are diminishing esteem for frequent confession, are to know that the enterprise upon which they have embarked is alien to the Spirit of Christ and most detrimental to the mystical Body of our Saviour.'