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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  • Ronald King

    Once again, I agree with you, Henry. I know that when I receive Christ in Communion I am being called to live the sacrificial life that He lived along with the sacrifice of Mary and Joseph.
    Does it mean that I am a disciple of Christ’s if I receive Communion? If so, does it mean that I have to give up everything for Him? What does it mean in actuality to give up everything? What am I holding on to that prevents me from being a disciple?
    If I am not giving up everything should I receive Communion?
    If I value my comfort more than sacrifice should I receive Communion?
    There are a lot more questions I could ask.

  • sean

    I think you are on to something important. Taking Communion at Mass has become casual and routine. I think the Church fails and has failed to emphasize the preparation and thought that should be involved in receiving Communion.

    It is also related to the lack of attention paid to Confession. I find that it is rarely mentioned.

    We also have the American problems of outsized self regard and lack of humility. Another American problem is efficiency. When I was a child in the 70’s I remember the change in how people went to Communion. It used to be random, people getting up everywhere and getting in line helter skelter. This was cumbersome and inefficient. So we started processing rows, one at a time from the front to the back. This process provides an extra “push”, clearing out the row and putting everyone in line lest they be the only “sinner” not going. This practical drive for efficiency saves time but clearly has devalued or reduced reverence for the sacrament.

  • A good post, asking very worthwhile questions.

    HK writes, “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?”

    I don’t know about Christians having trouble finding anything holy and sacred in the world. But I think there is certainly a connection between the de-mystification of the mass and the de-mystification of the Eucharist:

    The casual attitude of a priest (in violation of the rubrics but nevertheless quite common) giving a homily while strolling around among the pews; the removal of communion rails, which used to set off the sanctuary as a holy and sacred (i.e. not common) place; the virtually universal practice of receiving communion in the hand in a standing position; no longer kneeling after the Agnus Dei (which according to the GIRM is supposed to be a time of humble preparation for the reception of communion), etc.

    Then of course you have to ask why these things were changed to become the way that they are.

  • What led to this post were two conversations I had recently with people. One involved the belief that one should receive communion if one goes to mass, that is the point, unless one feels the need for confession. They thought their friend (and mine) was being too self-judgmental for not going to communion. I had to explain how and why that is not the case, and why we shouldn’t try to guess what was going on.

    The other was a discussion on how frequent communion led to such a disassociation with the sacred nature of the eucharist. The one I was talking to said he had noticed that those who went to daily communion (and often ended up being EMs) often tended to be the most familiar with the eucharist.

    As for liturgical celebration — I don’t think that is the answer. I find the problem exists in Eastern Christendom as much as in the West.

  • If the issue is people not treating the Eucharist as sacred (which you referred to as the de-mystification of the Eucharist), then I’m not sure why you would think that liturgical actions expressing a casual attitude would not be relevant.

    Could it be a chicken-and-egg thing? Do people frequent communion because they feel it’s not sacred, or do they feel it’s not sacred because they receive too often? How certain can you be that it’s the latter and not the former?

    I think one thing is behind both: The same philosophy or attitude that resulted in mass becoming a casual-seeming affair, also resulted in a decline in catechesis as to the sacred and mysterious nature of the Eucharist (leading to more casual reception). For example, the extremely common reference to the Eucharist as a family meal — who doesn’t eat at a family meal? — and the much rarer (in recent times) teaching of the Eucharist as an appeasing sacrifice.

    And the communal meal emphasis leads to such things as the use of baskets and sacred vessels made of clay and glass (in violation of the GIRM), rather than gold and silver; vestments with cartoonish drawings of wheat and grapes, compared with the more intricate and ornamental styles of vestments that were used more often in the past. (I’ll refrain from commenting on modern mass music. : )

    I don’t think there can be any question that such things contribute to the de-mystification of the Eucharist; and frankly, the de-mystification of the faith as a whole, since lex orandi, lex credendi.

    I think you’re absolutely right in putting your finger on de-mystification as the underlying problem. But I think if we want to re-mystify the Eucharist, we should be willing to use all means available — starting, of course, with correct catechesis as to the nature of the Blessed Sacrament (referring to it by that name might help too), but continuing with an emphasis on liturgical behavior that underscores what we say we believe.

  • Since moving to Crawfordsville, I attend the Spanish language liturgy, where I lead the music. In the Mexican community, communion is usually shorter than offertory, precisely because many who attend mass faithfully, rarely take communion. By the way: this post also reminds me of the extent to which the rise in Eucharistic devotion has undermined the incarnate Word in the liturgy and elsewhere. Great post.

    Sam

    • Thales

      I think Henry has a thoughtful post — I don’t have any answers for ways to counter the “de-mystification” of the Eucharist and of the sacred, but I’m open to the idea of less frequent communion.

      But I was just surprised by samrocha’s comment about Eucharistic devotion, because I’ve had exactly the opposite experience than samrocha — I think Eucharistic devotion is a good way to “mystify” the Eucharist and, by extension, the rest of liturgy. For me, my impression of the Eucharist and the liturgy has been “mystified” by my experiences of Adoration/Benediction, making me more comfortable with bucking the trend of assembly-line-pew-emptying-communion-reception and NOT receiving communion when I don’t feel spiritually prepared for it.

      • Melody

        We have had perpetual adoration in our parish since 1998. It has not “…undermined the incarnate Word in the liturgy and elsewhere”, quite the opposite, in fact.

  • Kurt

    I appreciate Henry’s posts and feel he and the comments are helpful on this matter.

    I welcome their call to help the lay faithful make better spiritual preparations for reception and better approach reception as a holy act.

    However, I can’t disagree that the point of the Mass is communion for the faithful. This is the heart of the Liturgical Movement, going back to the monks of Solesmes and Maria Laach and universalized by St. Pius X and Vatican II.

  • Melody

    Thomas a Kempis put it better than I could:
    “Without thee I cannot be, without thy visitation I cannot endure to live. And therefore I must needs often draw near unto thee, and receive thee for the medicine of my soul; lest haply I faint by the way, if I be deprived of this heavenly food….It is needful for me, who so often fall into error and sin, and so quickly wax dull and faint, that by frequent prayer and confession, and receiving of thy holy body and blood, I renew, cleanse, and inflame myself, lest haply, by long abstaining, I fall away from my holy purposes….For the imaginations of man are prone unto evil from his youth, and unless some divine remedy help him, he quickly falleth away to worse things. For if I be now so often negligent and cold, when I communicate; what would become of me if I received not this remedy, and sought not after so a great a help?”
    I am so thankful for the opportunity for frequent Communion. My grandmother told about when she was a child, that they only had Mass once a month, when the priest rode the train out to their little mission parish from a town 70 miles away. Later, when they had a resident priest, she went to daily Mass and Communion. She impressed on me what a great gift the Mass was, never to be taken for granted.
    I think if we find that Communion is less special when we receive every time we go to Mass, the answer is not to receive less frequently but to adjust our attitude.

  • I agree with you, Henry. Reception of the Eucharist is taken far too casually. Most people do it without any reflection whatsoever. Our catechism classes have avoided conversations about sin and worthiness, not to mention right-mindedness, for too many years. We need to recover a sense of our own sinfulness. This end is more easily achieved if we teach people about sinful actions, instead of avoiding the conversation and playing “I’m alright, you’re alright” like the rest of us moderns do.

  • Harry

    I am a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we celebrate the Holy Supper every Sunday and it is with joy that I am receiving the forgiveness of sins when I receive Christ’s very Body and Blood in the bread and wine.

  • Zach writes, “This end is more easily achieved if we teach people about sinful actions, instead of avoiding the conversation and playing “I’m alright, you’re alright” like the rest of us moderns do.”

    I agree. Too much comforting and reassuring, not enough admonishing.

  • I have to second with Sam that amongst Mexicans living in the US, many don’t receive Communion, even if they still attend Mass every week. Young men are the most noticeable element in this regard.

    I am a crypto-Jansenist, and only receive Communion once or twice a year. I go to Mass every week, but I say what is the use of showing up to receive every Sunday if I am just going to be the same son of a bitch every other day of the week.

  • Elizabeth00

    My $.02 as an habitual sinner and (of late) frequent communicant…Communion is a little like Carnival. It makes us laugh at and with ourselves in the realization that it all – the Eucharist itself and our own worthy reception of it – comes from beyond. Any sense of purity or of being better or more worthy than anyone else is quite fatal. I think the point of Lent is return us to this position of humility in recognition of our common humanity and dependence on God – we’re all dust, ultimately. This is the best preparation for receiving communion, supernatural life from the same source for all of us, and then going on to practice it in our lives.

    It is, as I’ve said before, the eye of the needle – abandonment of pride – which is as big as the whole world.

    All that said, it’s hard to practice and maintain an attitude like this, especially when so many habits and thoughts are wound around the desire to get ahead or to have the satisfaction of being better than others. The aim seems to be to be good without even knowing it. Quite a conundrum for my blonde head 😉

    Really, I think less frequent communion could go either way – it could steer us in this direction of humility, or in the other direction of pride.

    • sean

      In America no one is better than anyone else, but some are clearly more equal than others.

  • Kurt

    This is an important matter, but I have to ask my friend Henry, will he be following up with a post on the problems of too frequent confession and the resulting lack of reverence? 🙂

    • Kurt,

      Actually, though I find it is a good spiritual tool for me, you are right in pointing out confession also became much more frequent in the modern era. The difference I see is that confession is, by its nature, a combination of self-humility [however weak] and pastoral counseling. There is, in a good confession, spiritual work done to prepare, and the priest will guide the one confessing, making sure they are ready for absolution. Y

    • Harry

      What you said is the same argument that some Lutheran use because they don’t like Communion every Sunday or they say ” isn’t that too Catholic” especially if they have been influenced by pietism.