Stop Comparing The Communion Line With The Confession Line

Stop Comparing The Communion Line With The Confession Line April 23, 2014

A story: much of my family is Traditionalist Catholic. One of the many things Trads hate is receiving communion in the hand. Truth be told, I’m not a fan either. Anyway, there I was, at a wedding of one of my family members. At the reception, after the Mass, one of my aunts sought me out, and said something like, “Oh, so you think the Body of Our Lord is like a piece of gum?” Indeed, at the wedding Mass, I had received communion in the hand. One of the reasons why I was so shocked by this was that, precisely during this Mass, after receiving communion I had had a powerful prayer experience. I had cried a lot, and I had deeply felt the power of the Real Presence. This made her comment not just rude in a superficial, social way, but deeply uncharitable–particularly at that moment, the idea that I had disrespected the Body of Christ revolted me with a righteous passion. It was many many years ago, and yet the moment is perfectly etched in my memory. The point is that only God knows our hearts, and focusing on outward signs of spirituality is a grave error, for countless reasons which should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Gospel. Maybe for some people–maybe even a majority!–the choice to receive communion in the hand bespeaks an improper lack of reverence for the Body of Christ. But not always. Not always.

I often think back to that moment when I hear a line that is often heard in some Catholic circles in some version, but always in reproach: “The communion line is a lot longer than the confession line.”

Now, this line starts from a whole bunch of sound premises. That we should indeed “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29) and come to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb with a heart full of grace; that, indeed, the obligation to do so tends to be seen by most faithful in the wake of the Vatican II Council as a mere guideline. And yes, there’s been a dramatic slide in confession, with disastrous spiritual consequences, and people should go to confession much more often, much more regularly. And, of course, it’s impossible to encourage people too much to go to confession. All of this is true.

But here’s the thing. You don’t know people’s hearts. First of all, (low, booming voice) as a matter of canon law and infallible dogma, perfect inward contrition confers the same graces and the same divine forgiveness of sin as sacramental confession. And the words of the liturgy invite all those present around the table to this act of perfect contrition (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”), they don’t ask if anybody went to confession. In your parish, you may have long communion lines and short confession lines, but you do not know who came to the table with a contrite, grace-filled heart and who didn’t. For that matter, you don’t know who, under the grace of the spirit, ran into the closest church over their Friday lunch break and got the best confession in their life and has been on cloud 9, floating in a state of grace, the whole weekend, and for whom receiving the body is a spiritual fireworks.

In reality, are our confession lines short and our communion lines long because most people nowadays have a dilettantish spiritual life? (Note: it’s perfectly possible to go to confession with clock-like regularity and still have a dilettantish spiritual life.) Yeah, probably. Almost certainly. But you. don’t. know. what is going on with this communion line and this confession line, and this brother and that sister. And the Lord our God did not give you authority to judge them. Just like you don’t know if your brother received communion in the hand because he was disrespecting the Body, or because he’s never been shown better, or because he was so deep in prayer while in the communion line that he didn’t think and just did what the person in front of him did.

By all means, encourage people to go to confession all day, every day. It is such a wonderful fount of living water. But please, stop comparing the communion line with the confession line.


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  • Jeff

    Nice post. One of my favorite sections of Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium runs along these same lines:

    The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak… Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

  • Micah Murphy

    I’ve been trying to figure out for many years why so many traditionalists insist on Confession before Communion. I understand, of course, the requirement to go when a person is conscious of mortal sin, but my grandmother never received Communion unless she first went to Confession that day, and knowing her, I doubt she was in a state of mortal sin. We are permitted to receive with venial sin on our souls.

    While it is difficult to believe that everyone who receives is in a state of grace, especially given the widespread use of contraception and other common sins, I know that for many faithful Catholics, mortal sin might be rare or even non-existent. It seems very rash to judge people based on something as irrelevant as sheer numbers. If this assumption that folks are so full of mortal sin that all but the absolute saints must go to Confession immediately before Mass, it’s no surprise they judge so harshly.

    • Right. Although, it’s impossible to go to confession too much.

      • Micah Murphy

        In itself, yes, though a good confessor may place reasonable limits the confessions of, say, a scrupulant who came very often to confess “small” sins out of anxiety alone.

  • John Brungardt

    “You don’t know people’s hearts. First of all, (low, booming voice) as a matter of canon law and infallible dogma, perfect inward contrition confers the same graces and the same divine forgiveness of sin as sacramental confession. And the words of the liturgy invite all those present around the table to this act of perfect contrition (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”), they don’t ask if anybody went to confession.”

    Sentence 1: true.
    Sentence 2: true, iff you add that this inward contrition comes with the resolve to go to sacramental confession (Can. 916;
    Sentence 3: true, but if you are able to receive, this act of contrition before communion is efficacious against venial sin (

    Implication when put together: it seems dangerous to suggest these three sentences in this order without the proper qualifications.

    I agree with Jeff’s quote from Evangelii Gaudium; but it’s worth stressing that Pope Francis says “nourishment for the weak” not “nourishment for the dead.” The Eucharist is a “sacrament of the living” (even if and especially those weakly alive).

  • mochalite

    A good message! Scripture tells us so often not to judge, mostly because, as you say, we’re not equipped for it. “…for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man
    looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16:7)

    You didn’t do any Catholic-Protestant contrast here (nice restraint!), but one occurs to me. I am sorry that reformation meant doing away with individual confession. I understand that the reformers thought that it meant appealing to
    a Jesus intermediary for forgiveness and relying on our works in addition to his work on the cross, and I understand that they were protesting systemic abuse, but I still think we’ve lost something.

    In my church, we do a corporate confession, followed by the Kyrie. The liturgist
    then reads one of the forgiveness passages from Scripture and says, “Friends,
    believe the Good News,” to which we respond, “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!”
    This is followed by the Gloria. It’s good liturgy and is the center of worship for
    me. Beyond that, though, confession is considered a completely private matter,
    between individuals and God; but it’s so little addressed that, as you said of
    your side, it probably doesn’t happen very much. I think there’s something
    tangibly healing in being able to verbally confess to another human being, one who is set apart for that purpose, and I wish that we Pros could find our way back to it.

    • Rosie

      I’m a Catholic convert and I always loved the part of our Protestant liturgy where we had a corporate and then silent private confession of sin followed by the absolution by the pastor- “know surely, this day that your sins are forgiven” then “thanks be to God! our sins are forgiven in Jesus name!”. My preschool aged daughter loved it too and would smile up at me. Like you though, I still always felt this strange urge to want to tell my sins to the pastor and hear audibly and tangibly that my specific sins were forgiven. I appreciate the communal aspect of the Protestant liturgy (trying to bring the whole congregation into the liturgy instead of just the clergy) but sometimes I felt that with all the emphasis on the community, I was missing out on that personal relationship with Christ. It’s funny now as a Catholic to say that I have a more personal relationship with Jesus than I did as a Protestant, but it’s true. I am curious what might be keeping you from entering into full communion with the Church. Blessings.

      • I think collective/corporate confession is a good idea. There is a tradition of it in the Eastern Churches, so the Catholic Church could conceivably do it (as I understand it). The problem would be that some people might see that as a contradiction to personal communion, which obviously it is not.

      • Kasoy

        I think group confession is allowed in the Catholic Church. I see some Redemptorist priests do it when there are so many people who like to go to confession and the priest has insufficient time to give confession to all. But the requirement remains that people should take he first opportunity to go to a personal confession later.

        Some of these cases include emergencies when the priest has to give the absolution to so many people in a very short time (eg, plane about to crash or major disaster where a lot of people are seriously wounded), or more commonly during a special feast in the Church or local to the parish or town when so many people line up for confession but t he priest has to say Mass soon.

      • Kasoy

        Actually, during Mass the priest and participants say certain penitential prayers 2 or 3 times during the Mass for the forgiveness of sins of all those in attendance (eg, “forgive us our sins and brings us to everlasting life…”, Kyrie, penitential rites, prayer before communion, The Our Father). This is always an opportunity to make a sincerely contrition and promise to make confession to a priest later. (see my earlier comment)

      • mochalite

        Ashley, you expressed both experiences well! I would say what prevents me is resistance to another change, paired with contentment. I grew up evangelical Baptist, moved to evangical Presbyterian as an adult; then, exhausted by the evangelical wars, moved to more liturgical Presbyterian seven years ago. My smallish church is an amazing combination of great biblical discourse, musical fabulousness, spiritual depth, and service. The last line in each of our Sunday bulletins is “Now the service begins.” I love them (so does my husband) and would purely hate to leave them. But, as God is always telling us, “it ain’t over till it’s over, and it’s never over,” so who knows what the future will bring? Thank you for the blessing … To you as well!

      • My Canon Lawyer of a Pastor makes us do the Confiteor at least once a month, once a week during Lent. I actually really appreciate it, but I have to wonder, as all the people around me are beating their breasts silently, what they must think of my excessive guilt and loud thumping.

  • Joe

    Excellent post! I also enjoy receiving communion on the tongue and i agree with you that “Trads” make much too big a deal of people receiving in the hand. Here is a pretty handy quote form Cyril of Jerusalem form his Catechetical Lectures
    “In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it,Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof ; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?”

  • Kasoy

    1. Receiving communion in the hand.

    The official stand of the Vatican is to receive communion on the tongue, not hand, whenever there is no strong reason to do so by hand. One strong reason to receive by hand is when there is an outbreak of flu that could get transmitted if people receive communion in the tongue (as the priest’s hand can accidentally touch the communicant’s tongue or lips).

    However, it would not be sinful to always receive communion in the hand. There is no reason why people should worry or make a fuss of it.

    I just like to point out the rationale about preferring to receive by tongue. When we receive in the hand, it is possible that some small particles of the host will be left in the hand after putting the host in the mouth. These particles of the host are still the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus no matter how minute these are. Most likely we would just brush these particles off our hand which some meticulously pious people find disrespectful to Jesus. My practice is to receive communion in the tongue unless the community prefers to receive in the hand for (health or sanitary) reasons. After I put the host in my mouth, I lick(!) my hand to comfort myself that I did not leave any particles of the host in it.

    2. Short Confession Line, Long Communion Line

    True, only God can judge who are worthy to receive communion and who are not. No one should ever think that many people in the communion line are not worthy to receive it.

    But I wish Catholics should understand that receiving communion in the state of mortal sin is sacrilegious – a grave sin. We should also understand that venial sins are not hindrance to receiving communion. At various stages in the liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we recite penitential prayers which wash us of our venial sins (eg, Kyrie eleison) and the priest prays for the forgiveness of the participants’ sins.

    Now, do we always need to go to confession whenever we are in a state of mortal sin before we receive communion? Now, we need a Canon Law expert to tell me if what I am about to say is correct or not.

    This is what I think. If we are in a state of mortal sin, we can receive communion if:

    a) we confess our sins to a priest and we sincerely resolve not to do it again (of course, it is entirely possible that we will commit them again some time in the future), OR

    b) we can do an act of sincere contrition by asking God to forgive us our mortal sins and sincerely resolve not to do it again AND we promise to go to confession at the first opportunity we get.

    Contrition may be perfect or imperfect.

    Imperfect contrition is being sorry for our sins because of (a) fear of punishment or hell, and/or (b) fear of loss of reward or heaven. Imperfect contrition is sufficient to be forgiven by God and/or the priest. With it, we gain back grace (remove the stain of venial or mortal sin), but we still need to pay for the penalty for our sins in Purgatory in case we die at that moment.

    Perfect contrition is being sorry for our sins NOT because of the fear of hell or loss of heaven, BUT because we feel so ashamed of offending an infinitely loving God, of being a persona non-grata, an ingrate. Perfect contribution brings us back to the state of sanctifying grace, ie, if we die at that moment we will go to heaven (by-passing Purgatory). If we have perfect contrition, even confession is not necessary.

    So next time you see a long line of communicants, think of this and just pray to God that all of them have been perfectly contrite for all their sins or at least promised God that they will go to confession at their first opportunity. And stop worrying about it and concentrate on the reality that you yourself are about to receive Jesus in your hearts and thank God for His great mercy and love. After receiving communion (worthily), imagine all the angels in heaven looking at your souls with awe and admiration for they all see God in your souls.

    • Lord save us from dour-faced saints and legalists.

    • FrJPH

      One problem. You said, “Contrition may be perfect or imperfect.” That is true in the confessional. But forgiveness of grave sins outside the confessional requires perfect contrition. And even then, one who is conscious of grave sin and has not confessed according to kind and number, is not to receive unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.

      At the risk of being a legalist, I would refer you to Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law (which all Roman Catholics are bound to follow): “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

      • Kasoy

        Thanks for the reference!

    • I don’t think I’ve ever had imperfect contrition, by that definition. I’m either sorry for my sin because of the effect of the sin on my relationships with other people and with God, or I don’t actually recognize it as a sin to begin with. I have no fear of hell- if my Lord Jesus Christ wishes me to go there, I shall go there gladly singing praises of Him who sent me. I have no real hope of heaven either- at least not directly. The best I can hope for is purgatory and a burning away of my sinful desires.

      I go to confession because that can shorten the amount of burning needed in purgatory.

      That might be the Asperger’s syndrome, now that I think about it.

    • Raguel

      Actually in the case of an outbreak of disease it would be far more sanitary to receive on the tongue. The less hands involved, the less chance of disease spreading around. And if it is only the priest dispensing communion, for example at an alter rail, then for the sake of practicality he could be vaccinated for further protection.

  • Damien Schiff

    It is interesting that the Church only requires the reception of the Eucharist once a year, during Eastertide. Could therefore more frequent reception be, shall we say, presumptively presumptuous? Sure, Pius X encouraged frequent reception, but I dare say that at that time the problem was that everyone was going to confession and hardly anyone to communion, whereas today it’s precisely the other way round.

    • There’s something to that. I don’t think people should necessarily receive communion less or more, but be more mindful of the question–for sure.

  • Mike

    Totally agree…excellent and yes save us from dour faced saints!

  • Mike

    Ok serious q: why are “re-married” Catholics asked to refrain from the sacrament while people who vocally and publicly denounce Catholic teaching not, or is this framing wrong? I am looking for the canonical and theological reason i guess.

    • FrJPH

      Any Catholic is asked to refrain from Holy Communion when they are guilty of grave sin, not just “‘re-married’ Catholics”. If a Catholic persists in manifest grave sin (a serious sin which is public in nature and which the Catholic continues to commit, despite having been instructed of the grave sinfulness of the action) then the pastor or the bishop may refuse Holy Communion to that person according to his discernment.

      • Mike

        Ok i thought that was the case: that not any one was exempt.

        Follow-up: say you are guilty of grave sin but you’ve confessed it and received absolution, can you then go up and receive the sacr.?

        • FrJPH

          Part of the act of contrition that is necessary for absolution is a firm purpose of amendment – a serious intention to avoid sin in the future (recognizing that all of us are sinners and will sin again). This firm purpose of amendment would mean doing whatever is necessary to rectify what had been a persistent sin. So if this firm purpose of amendment has been made, then yes, one can and should receive the sacrament.

          In the case of re-marriage outside of the Church this firm purpose of amendment would certainly mean refraining from engaging in the marital embrace in the future, since there really is no marriage. Any additional steps as to how to avoid the scandal of appearing to live as husband and wife should be taken in consultation with one’s pastor.

          • Mike

            Aha that’s the part i was missing the firm purpose…ok thanks very much for this.

  • Venal vs Mortal sin is the reason. Venal sin is very common, mortal sin more rare. We *should* have longer communion lines than confession lines.

    Having said that, I am extremely scandalized by the many people who deny the faith in their secular lives, who still go to communion on Sunday. I try to remind themselves that nobody else needs Christ’s mercy more.

  • mochalite

    Oh, Disqus, way to be inappropriate! The discussion here of how to receive communion (hand or tongue) is accompanied by an “around the web” pop up entitled “French kissing … How to do it right”

  • Sandi

    I stumbled on this and it’s rather fascinating to read this blog and the comments, as I am decidely non-“trad”. You all live in a whole different world.

    From reading this, someone who didn’t know better would think most Catholics receive communion on the tongue (as far as I know, that hasn’t been true since sometime in the late 60s or early 70s) and that it is somehow “suspect” to receive communion in the hand (which was for very a very long time the tradition in the early church, actually, a practice that was restored after Vatican II). Some of us remember that as kids, the most insulting thing you could do was to stick your tongue out at someone. I always HATED receiving communion on the tongue – it felt awful to approach the priest and stick my tongue out, it was the same gesture as an insult and seemed so disrespectful, and I also can’t imagine how unedifying it is for the poor priest and eucharistic ministers to have to look at all those tongues, and sometimes encounter people’s saliva directly. Communion in the hand is so much more respectful. (Do “trads” have eucharistic ministers? How about wine?)

    I have been to many, many churches all over the US and in Europe since the 1960s, and I have never even once seen someone take communion on the tongue -not since the late 60s. I guess the commenters here are part of a self-selected minority who have found parishes that are throw-backs to the 50s.

    But to each his or her own. If receiving on the tongue makes you feel better, by all means receive communion on the tongue. I’ll continue to show my respect for Jesus and the priest and myself by taking communion in the hand. Neither one is “superior” or “holier” or “more respectful” than the other, but personal preference.


    p.s. The church’s law says that confession is not necessary before communion unless one is aware of being in a state of mortal sin. A whole lot of people do manage to avoid that state, actually.

  • Michael Brooks

    I think a better way to look at it is just to mind your own spiritual life. Catholicism, as we like to remind ourselves, is the rational religion. It is too hard to square the circle of no one/very few going to confession and everyone going to communion plus general turmoil in the church for the past few decades.

    So instead of trying to rationalize the whole thing: canon law teaches this, the Church teaches that. I prefer to rely on the charity that says it is none of my business, except insofar as I drop a prayer for all my fellow Catholics. And not because I am not the Pharisee who is better than them, but just because, hey, we all need it.

    Be at peace, watch your own p’s and q’s, and you will be much happier.

    A Proud Traditionalist Who Is Nauseated by All Elements of the Modern Church