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Who Can Receive Communion?

  • FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

I was wondering if you would address a question about the Eucharist. When can a non-Catholic receive the Eucharist? I do volunteer work in a nursing home and the priest who came to say Mass wanted to offer Communion to non-Catholics. I do not understand this because they have their own services and did not ask to receive the Eucharist.


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One of the great fruits of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism (No. 1396), is that the Holy Eucharist makes the Church: "Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body — the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism." Therefore, the reception of Holy Communion truly unites in communion the Catholic faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments, and leadership.

A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion, and anyone aware of being in a state of mortal sin must first receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance (Catechism, No. 1415). Therefore, a non-practicing Catholic who has negligently not attended Mass or who has abandoned the teachings of the Church is not in a state of grace and cannot receive Holy Communion. A non-practicing Catholic who receives Holy Communion commits the sin of sacrilege — the abuse of a sacrament — and causes scandal among the faithful. St. Paul reminded the Corinthians: "Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes! This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor 11:26-28).

What then about non-Catholics? Sadly, since the time our Lord founded the Church upon the apostles, we have witnessed divisions, the first major one being with the Orthodox churches in 1054 and then followed by the Protestant churches beginning in 1517. While all Christians share many beliefs — for instance in Jesus Christ, in Baptism, and in the Bible as the Word of God — and can work and pray together in serving the mission of our Lord, major differences in beliefs still do exist, including the primacy of the Pope, the sacrificial priesthood, and the nature of sacraments, including what the Holy Eucharist is. Indeed, much progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council to discuss these differences with various Christian groups. Nevertheless, these differences still "break the common participation in the table of the Lord" (Catechism, No. 1398). Here we find some distinction. Concerning the Orthodox churches, who primarily disagree with Catholics over the authority of the Pope, Vatican II's "Decree on Ecumenism" ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 1964) stated, "These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all — by apostolic succession — the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy." A certain communion in sacris including the Holy Eucharist, "given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged" (No. 15). Along these lines, the Code of Canon Law stipulates that the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick may be administered to members of the Orthodox churches if they ask on their own for these sacraments and are properly disposed (Canon 844, No. 3).

Besides rejecting papal authority, Vatican II recognized that the Protestant Churches "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic Mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders" ("Decree on Ecumenism," No. 22). For this very reason, the sharing of Holy Communion between Protestants and Catholics is not possible (Catechism, No. 1400). This statement does not suggest that Protestant churches do not commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in their communion service or believe that it signifies a communion with Christ. However, Protestant theology differs with Catholic theology concerning the Holy Eucharist over the real presence of Christ, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the nature of the priesthood. Nevertheless, the Code of Canon Law makes an exception in emergency cases: "If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments [Penance, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick] to other Christians... who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest the Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed" (Canon 844, No. 4).

In regard to those who are not baptized, e.g. a member of the Jewish or Moslem faith, Catholics welcome them to share in prayer, but cannot extend to them an invitation to receive the sacraments. This restriction is obvious since the sacraments are intrinsically linked to the fundamental belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

We must continue to pray that the divisions which separate Christians will be healed. Until those differences are healed and out of respect for each other's beliefs, a real "intercommunion" cannot take place. We must remember that to receive communion does not depend simply on what a person individually believes; to receive communion aligns a person to a church and binds him to what that church teaches.

Granted, as the priest mentioned in the question stated, everyone is a child of God, but that does not entail that everyone has the same privileges or obligations. We must be careful not to let our hearts simply get the best of us and make blanket statements like, "Jesus loves everyone. Everyone is welcome to receive Communion." Yes, our Lord indeed loves everyone; however, we in turn must appreciate and respect the gift of the Holy Eucharist in order to receive our Lord with genuine love and devotion. I think those individuals who disregard the Church's regulations, if they are Catholic especially, have a lack of appreciation not only for Catholic theology but also for Church history. They forget the great examples of St. Edmund Campion or St. Margaret Clitherow and many others who were tortured and put to death under the reign of Elizabeth I because they celebrated or attended Mass, believed in transubstantiation, and were loyal to the Holy Father. They forget the examples of great saints, like St. John Neumann or St. John Vianney, who implored their congregations to use regularly the Sacrament of Penance so as to be in a state of grace when receiving the Lord.

By observing the Church's regulations concerning receiving Holy Communion we will better appreciate the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, respect each other's beliefs, and work towards unity — here is true charity. Ignoring these regulations will only build a false sense of communion and a shallow expression of love, which is really the great act against charity.

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Acknowledgement

Saunders, Rev. William. "Who Can Receive Communion?" Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

The Author

saunders1saundersFather William Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope parish in Potomac Falls, Virginia. He is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns, and Straight Answers II.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald
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