The meaning of Our Lord’s words is quite clear: if we wish to be saved, then we should receive Holy Communion.
Holy Communion is the most intimate and wonderful encounter with God that is possible in this life. Participation in the Mass means that we are united with Our Lord’s Passion and Death. In the Offertory we place ourselves (with all our joys, sorrows and especially our personal sacrifices) spiritually on the paten with the bread and in the chalice with the wine. This is so that when the Sacrifice of Calvary is made present through the separate Consecration of bread and wine we are united mystically but in a very real way with that Sacrifice.
It is Our Lord’s Risen Body that is made present in the Sacred Host. This really means that the Mass somehow contains the whole mystery of our salvation. The Word becomes Flesh, His Sacrifice of Atonement is made present, and we kneel before His Risen Body; and it is in receiving His Risen Living Body that we participate most completely in the Mysterium Fidei.
But how often should we communicate? Historically the frequency of receiving Holy Communion has varied widely according to time and place. The Acts of the Apostles suggest that in the early Church daily Communion was normal among the faithful in Jerusalem, while elsewhere the Blessed Sacrament was certainly received on Sundays. By the 4th century, however, it seems that many Christians consumed Our Lord’s Body only on the rarest occasions, perhaps just once in a lifetime as Viaticum (food for the journey) when dying.
The great 4th Lateran Council of 1215 ordered sacramental confession at least once a year and the reception of Holy Communion at least annually at Easter, on pain of excommunication and exclusion from Christian burial. This ‘Paschal Precept’ ensured regular Communion, at least for the law-abiding, but frequent Communion remained rare throughout the ‘Ages of Faith’. St Louis, King of France from 1226 to 1270, was considered uncommonly pious for approaching the altar rail six times a year.
Even St Philip Neri, who is hailed as an apostle of frequent Communion, usually insisted that his penitents went to confession more often than they received the Blessed Sacrament. He allowed certain of his spiritual children to communicate three times a week, but others who pressed for frequent Communion were told to be patient because it was “better to come thirsting to the fountain.”
Nevertheless, by the time of St Philip, Rome was beginning to promote more frequent Communion as a matter of policy. In 1562 the Council of Trent expressed the wish that “at each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire, but also by the sacramental partaking of the Eucharist, that thereby they may derive from this most holy sacrifice a more abundant fruit.”
Debate on the appropriate frequency of Communion came to a head in the following century. The Jansenists of Port Royal, with their dismal emphasis on limited salvation, tried to reserve the reception of Holy Communion only for those who were in a state of exceptional spiritual perfection. In his best-selling De la Frequente Communion published in 1643, the Jansenist guru Antoine Arnauld argued that the purity of those who receive Communion on earth must be equal to the perfection of the saints in Heaven.
The disastrous result of this forbidding doctrine was that wherever the Jansenist weed took root, reception of Holy Communion was smothered, to the extent that in some places the faithful were too frightened to fulfil their Easter duties and many souls were even dispatched to their Particular Judgment without the nourishment of Viaticum.
It was while the plague of Port Royal was at its most virulent that St Margaret Mary Alacocque was favoured with a series of visions at the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, in which Our Lord confided to her the mission to establish devotion to His Sacred Heart. In these apparitions Our Lord revealed His Heart to be aflame with tenderness for wounded humanity, and promised “that my all powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the First Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance: they will not die in my displeasure, nor without receiving the sacraments; and my heart will be their secure refuge in that last hour.”
Despite the spread of Devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the consistent condemnation of Jansenist rigorism by the popes of the baroque period, the first generation of Oratorians who came to Brompton in 1854 still found it necessary to weed out scruples which had their roots in Port Royal. Fr Dalgairns’s treatise The Holy Communion of 1861 lacerated Jansenist severity and heartily promoted frequent Communion as the ultimate means of sustained intimate union with Our Lord and His Sacred Heart in this life.
In 1905, frequent Communion received its ultimate approbation in Pope St Pius X’s decree Sacra Tridentina, which declared it to be “the desire of Jesus Christ and of the Church that all the faithful should daily approach the sacred banquet” in order to receive forgiveness from venial sins and strength to avoid grave sins.
In other words, Holy Communion should be seen as a most effective means to growth in holiness in this life rather than as a reward for spiritual perfection. Anyone who is free from mortal sin may receive the Blessed Sacrament on the condition that he does so with the right intention. Sacra Tridentina defines this right intention as “the wish to please God, to be more closely united to Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects”. That is to say, to receive Communion in good faith we should take care to avoid doing so out of mere routine.
So the answer to the question ‘How often should I receive Communion?’ must be ‘It depends’. It depends on the situation of the individual. If he has a ‘moral certainty’ that he is in a state of grace (i.e. he is unaware of any unconfessed mortal sin) and his desire is to nurture friendship with Our Lord then yes, he is encouraged to receive Communion.
At most Masses there will be some members of the congregation who do not go up for Communion. It is not our business to speculate why. It might be that they have not kept the one hour fast, or perhaps they have already received Communion that day. If we concentrate on making a ‘good Communion’ ourselves, then we shall not give in to the distraction of judging anyone else’s dispositions.
And while Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, we should remember that the Church still only insists that we must receive Communion once a year around Easter. This must surely be to ensure that whenever we do communicate, we fulfil the minimum requirement of being in a state of Grace. There is a proper sequence in the Sacraments. If we have sinned gravely, we need to be resurrected from the death of sin in the Sacrament of Penance, so that we might look forward to that encounter with Our Risen Lord in Holy Communion with the greatest joy and confidence.
In order to foster a ‘right intention’ we have to make some basic preparations. ‘Remote preparation’ involves the way we conduct our lives: praying, practising the virtues, examination of conscience, Confession and regular repentance of venial sins. The frequent communicant might be advised to seek spiritual direction in order to derive maximum benefit from his Communions.
‘Proximate preparation’ includes modest dress, observing the one hour fast (there is nothing to stop us fasting for three hours or from midnight as long as we do not try to force this on others as if it were a precept), and arriving on time for Mass. Keeping ‘custody of the eyes’ when approaching the altar is also important. We must aim to receive Our Lord with maximum humility and reverence.
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us that Holy Communion must never become routine. Since Corpus Christi 2008, those receiving Holy Communion from the Holy Father at papal Masses have been instructed to do so kneeling and on the tongue. His Master of Ceremonies explained that this “better sheds light on the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, it helps the devotion of the faithful, introduces them more easily to a sense of mystery; aspects which, in our time, speaking pastorally, it is urgent to highlight and recover.” Perhaps this is why he has reinstated the practice of receiving Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue at all papal Masses.
If we really want the full benefits of the Sacrament, we must also make a thanksgiving afterwards. The minutes after Holy Communion are a time of close intimacy with Our Lord. Saint Philip Neri noticed that a parishioner habitually left the church immediately after receiving Holy Communion. One day he instructed two acolytes to accompany the man with lighted candles as he walked home. When the man returned to St Philip to ask why, St Philip replied, “We have to pay proper respect to Our Lord, Whom you are carrying away with you. Since you neglect to adore Him, I sent two acolytes to do the job for you.” Realizing his fault, the man knelt and made proper thanksgiving after Holy Communion.
Fr Julian Large