Voce mea ad Dominum

Random thoughts from an amateur theologist.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

To receive or not receive, that is the question.

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. - Luke 24:35

Today I think I am going to follow the lead of my pastor, Fr. John Talamo, and discuss a somewhat touchy subject, and that is why people who are not Catholic cannot receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Mass.

First of all, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. (I was received through confirmation on April 2, 1988.) I was baptized Presbyterian, attended a Methodist Church for much of my early years because the town I lived in did not have Presbyterian Church, and attended an Episcopal Church in college because the nearest Methodist Church was about a mile away, but the Episcopal Church was on campus. I have always been a Christian, and so it puzzled me that as a Christian, I was not allowed to receive Holy Communion when I attended Mass with my then girlfriend (now wife), Kriesha. All the churches I attended openly invited "anyone who was a baptized Christian to the table of the Lord." What made the Catholic Church different? I used to think, "What arrogance!" I even wrote a letter at age 18 to Pope John Paul II, and believe it or not he answered it, albeit through Jude Speyrer, the Bishop of Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was through meditating on his response and the scriptures that I came to the conclusion that not only was the Catholic Church not arrogant, but she was (gasp!) right in the practice of reserving reception of Holy Communion to her members, and the only thing that was preventing me from receiving Holy Communion in the Catholic Church was, well, me.

This is nothing new. Let me quote St. Justin Martyr who was born about the year 100 A.D., converted to Christianity about 130 A.D., and was martyred about the year 165 A.D.:

No one may share the eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ. We do not consume the eucharistic bread as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

In other words, according to St. Justin Martyr, three criteria must be met in order to receive the Eucharist: believe the teaching on the Eucharist (that it is not ordinary bread and wine but the body and blood of the risen Lord), be baptized, and live a life according to teachings given by Christ to the Church. Those three criteria are the same today as they were in the second century.

Catholics believe that when we receive Holy Communion, we are partaking in the most sacred thing imaginable, the body and blood of the Lord himself. This is not a medieval Catholic invention, it has been believed since the beginning according to the teaching of the Lord himself. It is not merely partaking bread and wine and remembering fondly the last supper like we remember eating Christmas dinner at grandma's house back in the day. As a matter of fact, after it is consecrated, the bread and wine are no longer even there, the only thing present is the Lord. The bread and wine through the power of the Holy Spirit have undergone a transformation, and through this transformation, the sacrifice at Golgotha on the cross is brought forward in time so that we can participate in it. Now, our senses tell us that it smells and tastes like bread and wine, but our faith tells us, "this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is not just a symbol, it is really Jesus.

Non-Catholic Christians do not hold this belief, although it is puzzling to me as to why they do not. All churches which can trace their roots to the Apostolic era (the Catholic Church and the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches) all hold the same belief in the real presence of Jesus in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar. Beginning with Martin Luther, this belief was watered down to the point that many evangelicals today reject sacramental theology completely and, therefore, the Catholic Church's teaching on the real presence. This is the main reason that non-Catholics are not to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.

A second reason is that it is through the Eucharist that all Catholics become unified as one body. To receive Holy Communion while denying the belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist implies a unity that does not exist. Furthermore, St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians warns people about receiving the body unworthily which includes not discerning the body, for when they do they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11:28-29). To deny that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of the Lord means that you have not discerned or recognized the risen Lord in the sacramental food that you are eating.

Now, having said all of this, Catholics are required to examine ourselves and decide if we are worthy to partake of something so holy. This is discernment as well, because if you truly recognize the sacredness of the Eucharist and partake when not in a state of grace, then you eat and drink condemnation on yourself by profaning the body and blood of the Lord. If you are not in a state of grace, then you must resolve your grievance with the Lord and his Church through reconciliation prior to reception of Holy Communion. Sadly (for all involved), this is something neglected by many Catholics.

So, how do I respond to a person who says that the Catholic Church excludes them from receiving Holy Communion? Simple. I say, "Why do you exclude yourself?" Because the reality is, all that the Catholic Church requires of us is what she received from the Lord, to profess our belief in the Holy Eucharist, be baptized, and live according to the teachings given to us by the Lord through the Church, and as long as we stubbornly reject these teachings, then we have only ourselves to blame for not participating in the Eucharist.


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