Monday, September 05, 2022

Tensions in the Catholic Tradition on Frequent Communion

Recently a friend was talking to me about his and his family’s discernment that led to their decision to receive Holy Communion once a month instead of more regularly as they had done before. He explained it this way: for many centuries Communion was taken with the utmost seriousness, because Catholics really believed it to be the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, Whom one would not dare to approach without the most thorough preparation and deliberateness, including a sacramental Confession of one’s sins after an examination of conscience.

Historians may lament the infrequency of Communion in previous ages, he went on, but the infrequency came with a certain benefit: when Catholics did make their obligatory Communion, it was a much bigger deal. Similarly, even religious, who had consecrated their entire lives to Christ and strived to live every moment for Him, would not receive Communion every day, but had to ask permission of their spiritual directors. The reason was not necessarily a harmful scrupulosity or the noxious fumes of Jansenism, but simply an awareness that approaching the divine Bridegroom for the most complete union possible in this life is not something to be done lightly or, as it were, by routine.

Lastly, my friend noted that even Pius X, or rather the document Sacra Tridentina issued by his authority, had established stipulations, which tend to be forgotten. Among these was the following: “A right intention [for communicating] consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.” Is it realistic to think that most people will be this conscientious and not fall into routine if they receive practically every time they go to Mass (and even more, if they go daily)? On the contrary, said my interlocutor, ever since he and his family lessened the frequency and intensified their preparation, the times of Communion have grown in importance and, for lack of a better word, impact.

One might cite in defense of such a view the following passage from St. John of the Cross:

There are others, again, who, because of this gluttony, know so little of their own unworthiness and misery and have thrust so far from them the loving fear and reverence which they owe to the greatness of God, that they hesitate not to insist continually that their confessors shall allow them to communicate often. And, what is worse, they frequently dare to communicate without the leave and consent of the minister and steward of Christ, merely acting on their own opinion, and contriving to conceal the truth from him. And for this reason, because they desire to communicate continually, they make their confessions carelessly, being more eager to eat than to eat cleanly and perfectly, although it would be healthier and holier for them had they the contrary inclination and begged their confessors not to command them to approach the altar so frequently: between these two extremes, however, the better way is that of humble resignation. But the boldness referred to is a thing that does great harm, and men may fear to be punished for such temerity. [1]

St John of the Cross, St Bonaventure, St Pius X

Now, although it is undeniably true that the Holy Eucharist was received less in past centuries, we can still find many great saints who recommended more frequent reception, which can be seen as the background for Pius X’s encouragement for the same — even for daily Communion, provided one is in a state of grace and fulfills the other conditions. I have taken up this topic in other places [2], but I would like to offer just one medieval witness, namely, St. Bonaventure (1221–1274), who takes a line that is, one might say, between the rigorism of St. John of the Cross and the apparent relaxedness of St. Pius X:

If a person were always prepared, it would always be beneficial for him to receive this sacrament; provided, that is, that the abode of his soul is pure and he can receive this food with reverence and devotion. In the early Church, therefore, when Christians were clean through baptismal innocence and fervent with charity through the gift of the Holy Spirit, it was proper for them to communicate every day. But later on, as charity grew cold and many lost their baptismal innocence by sin, it was left to the judgment and conscience of each individual to receive when he felt himself suitably disposed, lest otherwise he receive to his damnation.
          If he sees himself in the condition of the primitive Church, he is to be praised if he receives daily. If he finds himself in the state of the present-day Church [!], namely, cold and torpid, he does well to receive rarely. And if he believes he is in mid-way, he should act accordingly, that is, at times stasy away from Communion in order to restore his devotion. For this Guest is to be received with due honor and love. So that as a man finds himself inclined in one direction or the other, he should act accordingly — which is to be learned by experience. Consequently all the reasons given in favor of the first class (i.e., daily reception) are to be understood with the proviso that worthy dispositions are present — a condition which is generally fulfilled in very few cases. [3]

Another medieval scholastic, Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328), imagines a Christian raising a heartfelt objection, and then gives a response:

Now you might say: Sir, I find that I am so empty and cold and worn out that I dare not go to our Lord. And I shall say: then all the greater is your need to go to your God, for it is in Him that you will be warmed and kindled, and in Him you will be made holy, to Him alone will you be joined and with Him alone made one, for you will find that the Sacrament possesses, as does nothing else, the grace by which your bodily strength will be united and collected through the wonderful power of our Lord’s bodily presence, so that all man’s distracted thoughts and intentions are here united and gathered together, and what was dispersed and debased is here raised up again and its due order restored as it is offered to God. . . . For we shall be transformed into Him and wholly united with Him so that what is His becomes ours, and all that is ours becomes His, our heart and His one heart, our body and His one Body.[4] 

A great spiritual writer who addresses this topic in many places is Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament (1614–1698), who was well connected with all the currents of spirituality in the Grand Siècle. Here are some excerpts, written to laywomen:
He wants to come to you and nevertheless you do not receive Him. You have many small weaknesses that will be eradicated only by availing yourself of this Eucharistic bread. Why deprive your soul of an infinite good? Listen to the voice of this marvelous Savior who calls from the depth of your heart, “Aperi, aperi, mihi soror, mea sponsa. Open to Me, open to Me, My sister, My bride, My beloved, your heart, that I may make My eternal dwelling in it and take My rest in you.” He wants to be united to you, in order to make you entirely one with Him… Surely, if you do not listen to this divine voice I will be a thousand times more aggrieved than if I were condemned to death. I see the moments passing, the weeks and months, and, by I do not know what temptation, you delay your eternal happiness. I beg you not to go on any longer like this, for fear that, when you desire to receive Communion, you are no longer able; and meanwhile you deprive your soul of the divine life. [5] 

My desire would be to see you receive Communion often… You cannot give yourself too much to Jesus Christ, nor can you surrender too much to His intentions to possess you through this adorable Sacrament. You need to drown your weakness in His divine power and in the desire to be completely filled with Him. “As I live for My Father,” says Jesus Christ, “so all those who receive Me live for Me.”3 O blessed life, to live for Jesus Christ and from Jesus Christ, to be nourished and sustained by Him! This is why He is in the Host and will be there until the end of the world. And His desire is to be received now, so that He may continually work the effects of His love and His mercy, that He might live in us and we in Him — in short, that we be transformed in His love, being completely engulfed in the divinity and made absolutely one with Jesus Christ. It seems to me that a soul who communicates frequently receives a great deal more strength, grace, and blessing than those who refrain. [6] 

[T]here is a temptation to refrain, under the pretext of seeing yourself little disposed to receive it. Go to God with trust and love, do not deprive yourself of Him out of fear. Alas! What presumption to think that we are able to prepare for Communion! It is God alone who can prepare us by His graces and His mercies. Accordingly, you have nothing and can do nothing unless God gives it to you. Present yourself to Him so that you may receive what He desires to give you, and ask Jesus to receive Himself in you and to glorify Himself there, since you are incapable of being able to do this well. Let His love supply for everything. And in this simple disposition, receive Communion often. [7]

We will never be worthy of Communion, having no such power in ourselves; but Jesus Christ, through His part in Holy Communion, has sanctified ours and has merited for us the grace to receive Communion. Do not allow this favor which Jesus Christ granted you to be fruitless. [8]

Mother Mectilde adds a new aspect by reminding us that Communion has a “cosmic” purpose that goes beyond anything we can do by or for ourselves. It is, in fact, the heaven-supplied way in which we can allow Our Lord to do for us and in us what we can never do:

In the Mass, all the mysteries of Jesus Christ Our Lord are represented to us. A soul who is a little enlightened finds there all the dispositions with which He acted and suffered during the course of His holy life. The Mass is an ineffable mystery in which the eternal Father receives infinite homage: in it He is adored, loved, and praised as much as He deserves; and that is why we are advised to receive Communion frequently, in order to render to God, through Jesus, all the duties we owe Him. This is impossible without Jesus Christ who comes into us in order to accomplish [in us] the same sacrifice as that of the Holy Mass. [9]

A saint closer to our times, St. Gemma Galgani (1878–1903), was madly devoted to receiving the Lord Jesus daily, to such an extent that her confessor had to forbid her to think about the next day’s Communion, otherwise she would get no sleep! She, as a mystic of the Passion of Christ, understood far better than most of us will ever do the gap between man and God: “It [Communion] is a question of uniting two extremes: God Who is everything and the creature who is nothing; God Who is light and the creature who is darkness; God Who is holiness and the creature who is sin.” This thought afflicted her, but the thought of the love of God overcame her fears. In her own words:

Yes, I know, Jesus, it is better to receive Thee than to look at Thee, but I am afflicted because I feel that were I to prepare myself for years and years like the Angels, yet I should never be worthy to receive Thee. O Jesus, it is sweet to confess my misery before Thee. Help me, O Lord! Ah! I can still cast myself at Thy feet. I still love the Faith, and a thousand times I repeat and will continue to repeat, it is always better to receive Thee than to look at Thee. [10]  


[1] Dark Night of the Soul, Book 1, chapter VI, paragraph 4 (Image Books, 1959).

[2] See, e.g., here, here, here, and here, all of which migrated into my book Holy Bread of Eternal Life; see especially “The Blessings—and Dangers—of Holy Communion,” which quotes, inter alia, Augustine and Aquinas on our question.

[3] In IV Sent., dist. 12, pars 2, a. 2, q. 2 (Opera omnia [Paris, 1866], 5:535).

[4] From Rede der underscheidunge, chapter 20; translation adapted from that of Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and Bernard McGinn in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981), 271, and that of Oliver Davies in Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings (New York: Penguin, 1994), 34.

[5] The Mystery of Incomprehensible Love. The Eucharistic Message of Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020), 34.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid., 54. To a nun she writes: “Do your utmost to not abstain from taking Communion. You must go to God for Himself, so that He may come into you to fight for His interests Himself” (ibid., 36).

[9] Ibid., 30–31.

[10] From The Life of Gemma Galgani by Fr. Germanus of St. Stanislaus (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2012); see 288–90, excerpts of which may be found here.

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