On Taking Communion While Not Catholic: A Primer

The holidays always bring out these sorts of conversations. A Catholic friend who confesses to being “lukewarm” to the faith “because it’s so crazy, with all the people who are not welcome” expressed some consternation at the idea that there are actual “rules” about receiving Holy Communion. The rules, she complained, “get in the way of a person and Jesus.”

Once upon a time, I believed that, too.

I am still not one to go bug-eyed and cry “heretic!” if someone receives Communion “unworthily” — partly because I don’t know the state of another’s soul, partly because in my life I’ve received “unworthily” too — but mostly because I figure if someone is that determined to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, then I can safely trust Jesus to work on them in ways I cannot imagine. My job, at that point, is to pray for them, that they are willing to receive what He will bring, and to charitably try to bring reason into the vat of sentimentalism driving such behavior (because it is always sentimentalism, and the primacy of one’s feelings — “what do you mean, I can’t? I’m a good person!” — that fuels it).

That was the case, in fact, back in 2009, when Brutally Honest’s Rick Rice wrote about how he and his wife were joyfully partaking in Communion (“willingly, guiltlessly!”) while rejecting Catholicism** and I, hot off a great retreat, wrote something in reply.

So, in anticipation of you perhaps having a similar conversation during your New Year’s celebrations, I give you a partial resposting of what I wrote, then. Maybe print it out and keep it as a handy cheat-sheet if someone lurches your way and says, “so what if I didn’t go to Mass or whatever, or I used to be a Methodist, who is the church to stop me and besides, who are you to judge?”

This isn’t about judgement at all. Most times at Communion, I bawl like an idiot because I’m so aware of all of my own failures. It just is what it is.

A little scripture to get you going:

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58

And…

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.*
— 1 Corinthians 11:26-27:

Jesus was an observant Jew who followed the rules++ of Judaism, and when he healed a leper, he told the leper to partake of the prescribed cleansing and show himself to the priest. And while he welcomed all, he never said, “mow down others and their rules” to get to him. Jesus never said “disrespect authority” (especially authority he himself put into place) to get to him. When the hemorrhagic woman dared to touch his cloak, he still wanted to know who had approached him in faith; he still wanted her to account for herself and her approaching him. He healed her. He had mercy on her. But he wanted her to declare herself to his face, and before all the rest. It was not enough for her to simply be anonymous in the crowd, and partaking of him for herself.

My question is this: if you want mass and you want specifically Catholic Communion, do you or do you not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Communion? If you do — if you can accept that great mystery — why would the rest not follow, including the sacraments and Paul’s anger against those who “eat and drink of the Body of Christ unworthily?”

If you do not believe this is the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Christ, then why would you (regardless of the goodness of your heart) go into a church, say, “no, I don’t believe this is the Body and Blood of Christ but you’re going to let me and my wife have it anyway!” I’m thinking there is not great or edifying love, there. And that attitude, more than anything, should get in the way of your receiving communion. I’m not sure how receiving communion with a heart full of love for Christ and defensive disdain for the rest of it equals adequate spiritual comportment for the reception of His Majesty’s own Body and Blood into your own body, your own blood.

People like to say Communion is “a meal” and “a banquet” and it is those things, but it is much, much more. Communion is a face-to-face, one-on-one with Christ. It is actually intercourse with Him, too, in the sense that he comes into us and we become ONE FLESH. He is the bridegroom and we, his church, the bride. This is nothing to engage in lightly.

I have long thought that “no one should stand between a man and Christ” and once even wrote a short story about it.

But we ourselves have a responsibility to stand between ourselves and the reception of Christ in the Holy Sacrament, if we are not rightly disposed toward receiving him. That means not only that we be free of the stain of grave sin, but that we also bring ourselves to him in humility, and part of that humility is to consider all of scripture — including Paul’s admonishments — and not simply take what we want and leave the rest.

It seems to me that in a mature and respectful faith, if you want what the Catholics have, you go about partaking of it the Catholic way. To do less is profoundly disrespectful and, dare I say it, immature. It would be like me coming into your house, sticking my head into your fridge and grabbing the thing you’d prepared for a family event, scarfing it down and saying, “what, it’s for everyone, right? Why should I wait? Why shouldn’t I have it now, when I want it?”

If you want Catholic stuff, be a Catholic. If you don’t want to be a Catholic, don’t take their stuff. Especially don’t take their stuff while saying, “screw youse, I’m taking your stuff, because it’s deeply meaningful to me, but all the rest of your stuff is stupid.”

It is true, ultimately, that no one can stand in your way to Christ, but I have to wonder what Christ thinks of it all: “Happy to be with you and in you, [my child] and I’m glad you love me; I love you too. Can we talk about how you’re treating the Catholics, now? If you’re not willing to take the ritual bath of confession and show yourself to the priest, should you be doing all this? I love you, but you know, that doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you. ‘Go and show’ is like ‘go and sin no more’ — I said these things for a reason.”

[We do not “gorge at the banquet”] because Communion is more than a meal. [And the one who says that] “this is the gift to every Christian” is both correct and incorrect. Communion is Christ’s gift to every Christian. But there are ways of reception that are clearly spelled out, not written thoughtlessly or capriciously but reasoned and prayed about over many years, by the very church Christ himself instituted, through Peter and the apostles and their successors.

Jesus either meant the things he said or he did not. He either meant that we were supposed to actually eat his flesh and drink his blood, or he was just (uncharacteristically) talking nonsense, but he did not try to clarify himself to those who rejected that message as “too hard” to take. He didn’t say, “hey, wait, you guys…I was speaking figuratively, not literally!” He either meant that Peter had the keys to the kingdom and was the head of his church on earth (‘what you hold bound on earth, is bound in heaven…’) or he was (again, uncharacteristically) saying nothing that needed heeding.

If Jesus didn’t want a church for this stuff, he wouldn’t have started one. How can you go to communion and say, “Jesus I love you and am happy to commune with you, but your church kind of sucks…”

That is of a piece with saying, “God, I believe you’re big enough to make the world in six days, (or in one instant) but don’t believe you can turn bread and wine into your Body and Blood.” These things either are or are not.

[I say all of this in peace, but] consider that you are not the only ones involved, here.

You are engaging in a great mystery of ponderous depth. Jesus is also involved. So are the people around you who are withholding themselves from Communion because — for one reason or another — they know they are not currently in a fit state to welcome His Majesty into themselves. You might call that “the church standing between Christ and a person.” Some of us might call that, “giving Christ his due.”

[Let’s be honest. You would not be trying to engage about this] if you did not know, within yourself, that you are NOT being 100% honest on this issue.

“No one can come to me, unless the Father draws him…” Jesus told us this. If you are being drawn to Him in Communion, through the beckoning of the Father, and if you believe that you are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ – and if you want this in its fullness – why not at least explore the idea that you are being drawn forward for a purpose beyond your immediate gratification, and that this drawing forward is not meant to be a half-measure?

The Holy Eucharist has real power; it is the Source and Summit of our whole life of faith because it is truly the physical Presence of Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine. It is frankly, not to be messed with. For God to have placed a hunger for this within you suggests that God is working powerfully in your life. But God cannot contradict himself, and there are no negatives in Christ, which suggests that one cannot receive Him in Communion while harboring negative notions and then expect the full imparting of grace, blessing and completeness one seeks.

These things either are, or they are not. What you believe of the Eucharist you are receiving should compel your behavior beyond anything your human reasoning (no matter how gifted-and-faulty) can devise. If you believe the Eucharist is Holy, that it is the true Presence of the All in All, then you must go all in, or you insult His Majesty and lessen yourself.

If you do not believe it, then what are you doing?

[How do we] receive Him with due reverence and humility if we are simultaneously defiant to our surroundings?

**Rick Rice and his wife are now happy and faithful Catholics, very involved with their parish and recently returned from a devotional visit to Rome! God works as He will, as long as the lines are kept open, yes?

++ Let’s also bear in mind that, while Jesus was an obedient Jew, he also healed on the Sabbath and spoke to Samarian women. He was obedient, but not rigid, acknowledging that sometimes circumstances warranted something else, for the sake of the Gospel. This is precisely what currently drives some Catholics crazy about Pope Francis. We are to follow the rules and honor the doctrines — this is what allows reason and faith to find each other and commingle — but sometimes, the wounds must first be seen and treated before the teaching can begin; sometimes the lost must first be located, and (as Pope Benedict XVI said) must hear the words “it is good that you exist,” before anything else will be understood.

Food for the World, lain in a Food Bin. Image copyright Dayna More, courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Food for the World, lain in a Food Bin. Image copyright Dayna More, courtesy of Shutterstock.com

UPDATED:
Fr. Michael Duffy
with a piece on how to receive a blessing from the Communion line if one is not to partake of the Sacrament.


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