There are thousands of articles explaining “how to receive communion,” and thousands more explaining who may receive communion. But there are few articles about how to not receive the Eucharist.
Notice I say “receive the Eucharist.” I hate the phrase “receive communion.” Communion is not a thing to be received, but a condition at which to arrive. Catholics participate in the Eucharist, through which we attain communion—with God, the Saints, the Church, and with our fellow Christians—by receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is not a vapid symbol of grace and universal brotherhood; it is the immediate, intimate, physical, and spiritual penetration of your person by the very flesh of Jesus Christ. It is a shocking act of self-gift. The Eucharist scandalized Christ’s disciples (John 6), baffled the few who remained, and beggared the imaginations of the saints. Nothing is more sacred. Nothing could be.
Thus, St. Paul warned (1 Cor. 11:27-30), “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat the bread and drink the cup.” Catholics understand this to mean that any person conscious of mortal sin must not receive Christ without first making a sacramental confession (Trent Ses. XIII, Can. 11). To try to enter this Holy Communion, while objectively sundered from it by mortal sin, would be a lie, told with one’s entire being, to Christ himself. “Sacrilege” is an understatement.
Most Catholics will, at some point in their lives, be unworthy to participate in the Eucharist. Even with frequent confession, some Catholics may routinely find themselves on Sunday guilty of sins that are, at minimum, grave matters. Young people, in particular, are growing up in the age of Internet pornography and binge-drinking. Many do not spend much time in the state of grace. (I certainly didn’t.)
The Church used to have a better handle on this. Prior to the twentieth century, it was uncommon to receive the Eucharist every time you attended Mass. In medieval times, communion was so revered that some never received, so the Vatican had to make a law requiring all Catholics to participate in the Eucharist at least once per year (Lateran IV, Can. 21). My grandmother used to tell me how, growing up in the 1930s, communion was unthinkable if you hadn’t been to confession within twenty-four hours. In parts of the Orthodox Church, even today, it is customary to fast for three days before receiving Christ. Reception has often been the exception, not the rule.
This was, in many ways, unhealthy. The Eucharist is Christ’s greatest gift, to be received as often as possible. But, after Vatican II, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Eucharistic participation became not only encouraged but expected. Americans, in particular, replaced the old altar rail with an efficient and orderly system of communion lines, supported by many “Extraordinary” Ministers, to ensure that everyone in the congregation is offered the Eucharist speedily. This has the side effect of making those of us who aren’t receiving stand out like a sore thumb. It can feel like everyone in the church is looking at you, wondering what your sins are, and (more importantly) why you’re messing up the line. The pressure to conform and receive Christ anyway can be strong.
Some readers may think it is silly to be so worried about what people think. It is silly. Yet it is a real fear that leads to much sacrilege. I know that it took me years to work up the simple courage not to receive, especially with my family looking on. My second-grade religion class spent weeks drilling me on proper reception, but nobody in nineteen years of Catholic schooling taught me about proper refusal! From conversation with adult Catholic friends, I know others felt the same. So, here are a few pointers on not receiving the Blessed Sacrament:
- File out of the pew normally, then take a step backwards to allow everyone behind you to process out into the communion line. Once your pew is empty, re-enter the pew, go to the other end, and wait for your pew-mates to come back. You might get an odd look or two, but this is minimally disruptive and mostly invisible. You can just remain seated in your pew, but people may have a hard time getting around you.
- If, for whatever reason, you are particularly embarrassed, excuse yourself from your pew at the Lamb of God, as if going to the restroom. Head for the back of the church and wait there until your pew has filed out for Eucharist, then return as the rest of your pew does. (Alternately: actually go to the restroom.)
- For those who have the option, it can help to go to a less-populated Mass, where you can have a pew to yourself near the back. On a few occasions after I learned to drive, I even went to Mass at a different parish, where I didn’t know anybody.
- Canon law mandates that one abstains from food or water for an hour before communion. As a practical matter, it’s really a fifteen-minute fast, since Mass itself lasts nearly an hour and nobody’s eating during Mass. It’s so lax, it’s nearly impossible to break! (Insert your own Spirit of Vatican II joke here.) But I have been known, on occasion, to eat a piece of candy or cereal just before leaving for Mass. Then, if asked why I didn’t receive, I could truthfully answer that I had broken the fast, leaving my unmentionable shame… well, unmentioned.
Through prayer and a continuing relationship with the sacraments, you will eventually stop being so afraid of what others think of you. The truth is that few of your fellow parishioners notice, much less care, whether you receive. They recognize that refusing the Eucharist is a sign of reverence. The irrational fear and shame we feel is drummed up by Satan to drive us to despair and further sin. Seeing you remain in the pew during communion is a powerful reminder of the ancient traditions of prayer, fasting, and holy fear that the American Church has largely abandoned … and, of course, the particular reasons you choose not to receive are between you, Christ, and your confessor. (If someone pries, you are free to say so.)
Above all, don’t talk yourself into committing sacrilege because you’ve already committed one mortal sin and may as well pile on. God is mysterious and merciful, and the essential elements of mortal sin (knowledge and consent) are hard to pin down precisely anyway. Show contrition by refraining, resolve to confess soon, and you have many reasons to continue hoping for salvation. But profane the sacrament because you don’t want your parents to figure out you got drunk at the party last weekend? Do not expect this excuse to fly at the Last Judgment! And do not expect to keep your faith if you don’t take your own sins seriously.
Pastors, you can help! Are you offering sacramental confession as often as you are offering the Eucharist? If not, why not? Have you preached on the importance of confession? For that matter, have you preached about worthy reception of Christ’s Body and Blood? Is it possible to offer confession during Sunday Masses? These are hard questions, which I do not presume to answer, but I get the sense that many parishes aren’t even asking them. It can be a lifeline to a teen with many sins and few real opportunities to confess them.
Promoting confession is not the only way you can help! My childhood parish priest, Fr. Patrick Lannan, instituted a chaotic system of communion distribution wherein Extraordinary Ministers were posted all over the place and traffic was deliberately routed in bizarre, unpredictable directions. This was deliberate. Fr. Lannan was trying to make it easier for non-communicants to remain unnoticed. It only slowed things down a little bit, and our parish penitents loved it. If you’ve ever been to Mass in St. Peter’s Square (or, really, most parishes in Italy), you know a little communion-line chaos doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Even the saints among us could do with a Eucharistic celebration that feels less like an assembly line and more like what it is: the coming of Christ, the envy of angels, and the salvation of the world.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Blessed Bread” painted by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929) in 1885.