On Frequent Communion

On Frequent Communion February 7, 2011

One of the most unusual elements of modern Catholicism is the frequency in which Catholics receive communion. To be sure, one can find other times and places in which this also took place. For example, daily communion has often been encouraged in monasteries. Or, in times of triumph when a particular persecution against Christians had been stopped, the joy of a triumphant Christianity led to a healthy, vibrant liturgical life. In both of these examples, and in probably many more one can bring up from history, such frequent reception of communion was done after unusual spiritual formation. The eucharist was seen as a reward, as a sign of victory. The reverence given to the eucharist was real and heartfelt.

In other times, reception of communion became rare; sometimes, perhaps more often than not, the ordinary person would receive only once a year. Christians knew it was holy and sacred. It was set apart for when they were prepared for it. Great Lent, for a short period of time, made one imitate the ascetic life, and so it allowed one to receive the gift of communion at the Paschal Feast. Even if one didn’t perfectly follow through with Great Lent, one still felt called to receive something which they understood was holy, as a gift of Christ for them, calling them to partake of communion so they can better work through their spiritual needs for the next Paschal feast.

Communion became more frequent when there were more priests capable of attending to and pasturing the Christian populace. Christians still felt there was something special about communion; they didn’t partake of it every week, but they would partake of it more often because they would have access to sacramental confession, and it would give them a sense of purity which allowed them to receive communion, even outside of Eastertide. They didn’t feel as if they had to partake of communion as if it was some sort of social necessity to do so, when they celebrated their liturgical obligations. We might see people receiving more often than before, but at each Mass, it is likely that most people would not go up and receive. There was no expectation that if you went to Mass, you would receive communion. There was no sense that, if you didn’t go up and receive, there was something wrong with you.

Now, things have changed a great deal. The Church encourages people to receive communion frequently. The Church properly expressed the graces associated with communion, but it did not consider the social dimensions, the symbolic expressions, which changed with such encouragement. People forget the spiritual preparations one should follow to receive it and receive it in a holy act. So now, people receive frequently but not in the right frame of mind. The more they receive communion, the more familiar they become with the eucharist, the less special it becomes to them. One can say such familiarity has led to disenchantment with communion. People end up feeling as if there is nothing sacred left with the eucharist, not because of any dislike with the liturgical service, or what the priests do or do not do right according to the rubrics; there is nothing sacred because people feel as if communion is treated as something ordinary, as a right without any expectations placed upon them to receive it. Indeed, if there is any expectation, it is that one takes of it if they want to be a part of their church community. People end up becoming more interested in fitting in with those around them than the sacred nature of communion.

Yes, I understand the arguments for frequent communion. But, as you can see, I wonder if frequent communion is something we are prepared for today. There are times and places where it works, and it has value. And certainly, I will not deny graces are being given out with such reception. But if we want the eucharist to be seen as for what it is, for the great and sacred mystery which is the highlight of the Christian liturgical life, we need to reconsider the benefits of frequent communion. Can one receive communion improperly? Yes. And we are not talking about reception of communion with the stain of mortal sin on one’s soul. We are talking about taking communion without any reflection, care, or concern for what they are taking. If one takes like this, do they cut themselves off from those graces, lessening them and making them more potential than actual in their lives? I think that is something we must consider. Sure, grace perfects nature, but one must still cooperate with grace. Grace does not override the person, but perfects them. If the person is closed off to grace, what then? And if one treats the eucharist as something ordinary, are they really open to the grace they are receiving? What are we telling people, in a society which has difficulty in experiencing the sacred, when we tell them the most sacred of gifts is common and easily taken? Is there any connection here between the de-mystification of the eucharist, with the way Christians have trouble finding anything holy and sacred left in the world? What do you think?

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