N THE MONTHS since the publication of Amoris Latitiae, there has been significant discussion about the state of grace and the reception of Holy Communion. One sometimes gets the sense in discussions about this topic that the ability to receive Holy Communion is part of some hypothetical Catholic “Bill of Rights,” never to be deprived of anyone.
This unreasonableness was especially notable in the vociferous local response to Archbishop Chaput’s very good and very pastoral directives in my home Archdiocese of Philadelphia. These guidelines, which stress the need to minister effectively to those on the fringes and in difficult situations while upholding basic Catholic teaching, were erroneously labeled “unchristian” by our mayor.
I recently encountered a relevant passage from another post-synodal exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, released in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. The document has a lengthy section devoted to the topic of actuosa participatio. I would like to quote a significant portion here that relates to the subject I have just introduced:
Personal conditions for an “active participation”
55. In their consideration of the actuosa participatio of the faithful in the liturgy, the Synod Fathers also discussed the personal conditions required for fruitful participation on the part of individuals. One of these is certainly the spirit of constant conversion which must mark the lives of all the faithful. Active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life. This inner disposition can be fostered, for example, by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession. A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible. The faithful need to be reminded that there can be no actuosa participatio in the sacred mysteries without an accompanying effort to participate actively in the life of the Church as a whole, including a missionary commitment to bring Christ’s love into the life of society.
Clearly, full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful approach the altar in person to receive communion. Yet true as this is, care must be taken lest they conclude that the mere fact of their being present in church during the liturgy gives them a right or even an obligation to approach the table of the Eucharist. Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. In such circumstances it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion, praised by Pope John Paul II and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life.
This text makes clear that one’s inability to receive Holy Communion does not make one unwelcome at the Eucharistic sacrifice. Quite the contrary, the Church is teaching that a person who is not able to receive Holy Communion, for whatever reason, still has something to offer at Mass and something to receive at Mass.
There is great wisdom in this passage, which encourages us to place the reception of Holy Communion in its proper context. Just as it is not the only matter addressed by Amoris Latitiae or by Archbishop Chaput’s guidelines, so it is not the only manner in which the faithful participate fruitfully at Mass. That, in itself, could be a fruitful meditation.
Perhaps now more than ever, the reception of Holy Communion needs to be seen not as a political right, but as a sacramental encounter.