On a Wednesday evening this past Lent, I joined a dozen Catholic young adults for an evening of prayer and friendship at an apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. After we finished praying the rosary, the pizza arrived, and a vigorous conversation ensued. They were hungry to learn, to sink their teeth into the meat of Catholicism. As our discussion turned to the Mass, a young woman shared her own experience and stated that the whole point of Mass is to receive Communion. I offered a different perspective: The primary purpose of Mass is to worship God, to give him the glory and adoration that are his due. That holds true whether or not we receive Communion at Mass.
We commonly refer to the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life, and so it is. And yet, the objective value of the Mass has, at times, been obscured by the subjective value of Holy Communion. If you conducted a “man in the pew” survey of average Catholics, and asked them if they had to choose, on a given Sunday, between attending Mass without receiving Communion, or receiving Communion without attending Mass, I would guess that the majority would choose the latter. They would have chosen poorly. The Church’s teaching and practice point us in the other direction: We are obliged to receive Holy Communion only once a year (the Easter duty), but we must attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day (up to 58 times a year). The Church makes it clear which is more important.
For many Catholics, though, Mass is a means to an end, something they have to sit through in order to receive Communion. Some Catholics, who are well-catechized enough to know that one should only receive Communion in the state of grace, have told me that they don’t go to Sunday Mass if they happen to fall into mortal sin and therefore cannot receive. This approach aligns with my friend’s statement, carried to its inevitable conclusion: If one can’t receive Communion, why go to Mass?
It often happens that every adult Catholic receives Communion at a typical Sunday Mass. And indeed, the Catholic in the pew faces pressure to do so, whether he is properly disposed or not. Let’s take the hypothetical example of a young man living in a big city. He goes to Mass weekly, participates in some parish social events, takes his prayer life seriously. This past week, temptation got the better of him and he fell into mortal sin. He knows he needs to go to confession, but here he is at Mass, and it’s Communion time. The well-intentioned but misguided usher gestures for him to get in line; the possibility of someone not receiving Communion doesn’t occur to him. The young man doesn’t want to seem uncooperative, and if he stays in the pew, his friends will wonder what sin he must have committed. Perhaps he shouldn’t care about that, but he does.
One of the “solutions” proposed for those who are not receiving Communion is to cross their arms and receive a blessing. I have never denied a blessing to someone who did so, but neither do I encourage this innovation. Everyone in the church will receive a blessing moments later at the end of Mass. The practice can lead to the bizarre situation wherein the priest ends up blessing people, mostly little children and non-Catholics, while the extraordinary minister distributes Communion (assuming he or she does not simulate a blessing—a common occurrence in itself). This cannot be what the Church envisions. The invitation to receive a blessing instead of Communion also reinforces the mentality that everyone has to “get” something—if not Communion, then the liturgical equivalent of a participation trophy.
The requirements for Holy Communion are few: to be in the state of grace, and to have abstained from food and drink (except water) for an hour before receiving. From the ancient Church until the middle of the last century, the Communion fast began at midnight. I remember my grandparents recalling how, at parties they would throw on Saturday evenings, they would ring a bell just before midnight to alert all the revelers (whose number often included priests) that the eucharistic fast was about to begin for those who were going to receive Communion in the morning. It was not common for Catholics to receive Communion on a regular, weekly basis, especially if they attended a later Mass. One of the benefits of the lengthier fast was that it gave those who were not going to receive a way to save face; perhaps they were staying back because they simply hadn’t fasted.
Every physical hunger we feel is a reminder of the spiritual hunger we should feel—a hunger for the one food that completely nourishes and satisfies us. The fast increases our awareness of what we are receiving, and prompts us to assess our own preparedness. Today’s one-hour Communion fast has been reduced to the point of practical meaninglessness, such that the law can humorously, but sadly, be referred to as, “Don’t eat in church.” Many people nowadays observe the fast without even realizing it. The result is that Communion becomes reflexive and routine.
The prevalence of Communion services has also contributed to this imbalance between Mass and Communion. These services, resulting from the shortage of priests, are led by a deacon or religious sister or layperson, and usually offer the readings from the Mass of the day and the reception of Holy Communion. When Communion services are regularly scheduled, it can make Mass seem like mere “window dressing,” analogous to the “long form” option of a reading—a nice ideal, but dispensable. These services sow confusion among an already under-catechized laity. I’ve had people tell me, at parishes I’ve visited, how much they prefer “Sister’s Mass” because it’s so much shorter.
The popes of the last century encouraged more frequent Communion, lowering the age to receive and mitigating the fasting requirements. One wonders, though, if we have become the victims of our own success. While recognizing the benefit of frequent reception, we also want to foster a sense of reverence for the Eucharist. Ironically, less frequent reception of Communion may be a key step toward that goal. The Eucharist remains the source and summit of our Catholic faith; at the same time, the Church is correct to prioritize attendance at Mass over reception of Communion. The two realities are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing: the more fully we understand and enter into the worship we give to God, the better disposed we are to receive sacramental grace from God. Our aim should not be to make receiving Communion onerous or more difficult, but rather to revive our belief in and reverence for the Eucharist by anchoring it more firmly in its proper context.
Fr. Brian A. Graebe is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is the author of Vessel of Honor: The Virgin Birth and the Ecclesiology of Vatican II (Emmaus Academic).
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