One of the more difficult tasks faced by a hospital chaplain is the careful discernment of where a patient is in his or her relationship to the Church, and whether it is appropriate for Holy Communion to be offered. The Church's laws clearly state that if a person is conscious of grave sin it should be absolved in sacramental Confession before that person receives Holy Communion. This is what the Catechism actually says: 1385 Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.
A large number of Catholics seem to have totally forgotten this very serious requirement. In the wards I am regularly asked for Holy Communion by patients who have not practised their faith for many years. When patients in neighbouring beds, as well as their visitors, are listening in on the conversation things can get very delicate. But it's a catechesis moment. The priest has to bite the bullet and present the teaching of the Church as clearly, fully, and lovingly as he can.
I've found it's usually best not to tackle the question head on but to take the conversation back a few steps and somehow invite the patient to speak of his relationship to the Church. A question like 'So which parish are you from?' or 'Do you come from Sydney or are you from the country?' will often initiate a lengthy conversation which actually ends with the patient admitting they have been away from the Church and that 'maybe I should go to confession first'. Of course, not all exchanges end so happily and yet, having said that, very few end unhappily. Many patients, when a clear explanation is given, will say 'Father, I actually knew all that, it's what I was taught as a child, but some people tell me things have changed.'
Why do you think the Church is so careful about the worthy reception of Holy Communion, remembering, of course, that on one level not one of us is really worthy? Some people never go to Holy Communion because they say they are not worthy and yet are not conscious of grave sin. This is simply a sad scrupulosity which is not pleasing to God. These people are trying to be more humble or more holy than Christ and his Church want them to be. Not a good way to go. Again let me quote the Catechism:
1388 It is in keeping with the very meaning of the Eucharist that the faithful, if they have the required dispositions, receive communion when they participate in the Mass. As the Second Vatican Council says: "That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's Body from the same sacrifice, is warmly recommended."
So, to go back to my question, why do you think the Church is so careful about the worthy reception of Holy Communion?
St Paul gives us a very clear answer: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1Cor 11:27-29)
The imperatives are clear; we must 1. examine ourselves beforehand, 2. discern the body, and 3. receive in a worthy manner.
Discerning the body is the core issue. We'll let the Catechism speak again:
1376 ... "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God ... that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation."
In simple summary we can say that the bread and wine truly become Christ. It is not that Jesus lives or exists 'in' the bread and wine, but that the bread and wine truly become Jesus. This means that when you approach the altar and hold out your tongue or your hands, you receive Jesus - Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity - the whole Christ, into your own body.
The person who accepts this teaching has 'discerned the body' and will examine himself to make sure he is not conscious of grave sin. If he is, then he will not receive communion until this sin has been forgiven in the sacrament of Reconciliation. A quick act of sorrow is not enough when Reconciliaton is available, and in Australia it generally is, even if you have to wait a few days or longer to get there. Mortal sin is only forgiven by virtue of the sacrament of Confession and we are obliged to go. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!
The final link in the chain is, of course, the acknowledgment that we are indeed conscious of mortal sin. This always makes people unconfortable, especially if for some years they have believed that what they were doing was not a mortal sin. It is not my intention to draw up, yet again, a long list of common areas of grave sin. Let me content myself with just one - the solemn obligation we have to attend Mass each Sunday (or Saturday evening).
The Catechism teaches: 2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.
It's a shame a priest like me should find himself obliged on a wonderful feastday like today to restrict himself mainly to speaking about abuses of the Sacrament rather than the wonderful gift that it is, the privilege of receiving it, and the extraordinary graces which flow from receiving it worthily. At the moment it seems this is how it must be.
I ask everyone here to follow St Paul's advice and examine yourselves. Do you believe that what you are about to receive is truly the Lord himself? Have you examined yourself as to your preparedness for this gift? Are you free from grave sin? Have you fasted for an hour before receiving communion?
If you are not able to receive worthily today, don't receive! Go to Confession! I'm available any time you care to approach me, if the regular times don't suit. I will welcome you with great gladness.