Samuel J. AquilaApril 14, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read another view on the reception of the Eucharist here.

At my first Mass as a priest, and at Masses I have offered since, I have prayed quietly one of two prayers offered by priests around the world before we receive the Lord’s body and blood:

May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.

That prayer echoes the words of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul was encouraging the church to live the faith authentically, entirely and with integrity. Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-30).

These words about the church’s love for those who dare to approach the altar are words of care and mercy, given to us by the Holy Spirit, for protection and healing. But they offer a sobering warning: We who profess the faith of the church must live as the church commands us because through his church Jesus Christ calls us to repentance, forgiveness and holiness. To approach the Eucharist otherwise is to condemn ourselves at the altar of the Lord.

We who profess the faith of the church must live as the church commands us because through his church Jesus Christ calls us to repentance, forgiveness and holiness.

St. Paul affirms the great power of the Eucharist but warns about the danger of receiving it without discernment. It is a holy danger that comes with our freedom to live lives that are coherent or incoherent; to live lives that are consistent with God’s truth and the truths of the church or not. The truth may be hard to speak and hard to hear, but love speaks the truth. To approach the Eucharist casually and without the fear of possible condemnation is to risk one’s eternal salvation.

Today, however, there is little talk about condemnation from us bishops. We have developed a near-exclusive pedagogy of acceptance. Certainly, all of us are called to love each other with heroic love, welcoming the stranger and the sinner into the mystery of God’s infinite mercy. And yet, that love has become in some ways one-dimensional. Love is indeed merciful, but authentic love is also truthful. Jesus in his ministry gives us many examples: Peter and the apostles, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, and the Samaritan woman. Love acknowledges that condemnation is within reach. It recognizes that how we approach the altar and the reception of the Eucharist requires a healthy fear of the Lord.

I offer these reflections after much prayer and contemplation on the state of the church in these challenging times. In recent years, there has been a tremendous amount of focus on politics, economics and global health. Much of our society lives in a world saturated by the news of the hour. Even the church, including some of us bishops, seems to give a certain pre-eminent concern to the civil and physical order rather than the supernatural. While these things are good and should be seriously considered, they do not possess the end for which we were created, the end for which the church exists—which is to share in the mission of Christ the redeemer, to bring souls to salvation and to eternal life.

How we approach the altar and the reception of the Eucharist requires a healthy fear of the Lord.

Framing the Questions

Questions about the worthy reception of the Eucharist are often bound up in political considerations: How best can the church witness to the truth of her reality in a hyper-politicized world? Will bishops using a consistent, clear, coherent witness drive the faithful away from the church? Will such action be exploited politically? These are difficult questions for our modern society, but these questions also frame the issue incorrectly.

The question of eucharistic coherence is not primarily about church law or appropriate discipline, although those questions should not be ignored; rather, it is a question of love, a question of charity toward our neighbor. St. Paul is clear that there is danger to one’s soul if he or she receives the body and blood of our Lord in an unworthy manner. This is true for every Catholic, but it is particularly relevant regarding the false witness that many public officials sometimes maintain relative to the most fundamental truths of the human person.

When the church minimizes the danger of an unworthy reception of the Eucharist, she fails to properly love those who continue to jeopardize their souls. Trading “civility” and “engagement” for eternal life is not a good trade, and it is especially negligent for me, as a bishop, to remain quiet when people I am called to love may be endangering their eternal souls. This is a danger to them and a danger to me. I will be asked on judgment day how I loved my neighbor, and I do not want to have to answer for negligence about preaching Scripture and the teachings of the church because that sort of love was unpopular, uncomfortable or irrelevant to the times.

Bishops, as much as the faithful, should be clear about the condemnation that falls on us if we fail to love those who do not want to hear the truths of our faith.

To care for souls under my jurisdiction is also the definition of my ministry. Bishops, as much as the faithful, should be clear about the condemnation that falls on us if we fail to love those who do not want to hear the truths of our faith.

The public nature of the Eucharist also shapes how the church governs participation in it. Canon law states that those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (No. 915). The laws around the Eucharist are for the good of the faithful and exist to preserve the authenticity and mystery of the encounter that we have with the risen Christ. They exist because the church loves every person and desires every person to attain his or her created purpose of union with God. Church law and love are not mutually exclusive.

From the very beginning, the teaching around the Eucharist from Jesus himself was a challenge. The Gospel of John (Jn 6:52–69) identifies the revelation of the Eucharist as a source of turmoil and division among Jesus’ followers, to the point that many stopped following him. Jesus did not stop them from leaving and did not ask them to remain out of pastoral sensitivity. Instead, he let them go because participation in the Eucharist (to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood”) requires a certain assent of faith and a certain consistency in one’s life, as the church has taught from the very first centuries. We see that assent of faith in Peter’s response to Jesus when he asks the apostles, “Do you want to go away as well?”

“Lord, to whom shall we go?,” Peter answers. “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69).

The Question of Conscience

Today, we often hear of the primacy of conscience in a person’s decision around the Eucharist. Yet, conscience does not excuse any decision simply because a person makes a personal judgment about good and evil. There is a prior obligation that the conscience be properly formed, so that good and evil can be properly discerned. A well-formed conscience submits the person’s heart, will and mind to the will of our loving Father. We must understand, too, that conscience can be erroneous if not formed, and it should never go against God’s law. God, not humanity—and most especially not the government—determines good and evil. One has only to look at the last century to observe what evil governments can bring about when they declare an evil good: Look at the examples of Nazi Germany and Communist regimes.

As a bishop, I have the obligation to assist the faithful in my care to properly form their consciences. I am called to follow the process the Lord gives to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between him and you alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Mt 18:15-18).

I take this responsibility very seriously, which is why I am compelled to address the error that any baptized Catholic can receive Communion if he or she simply desires to do so. None of us have the freedom to approach the altar of the Lord without a proper examination of conscience and proper repentance if grave sin has been committed. The Eucharist is a gift, not an entitlement, and the sanctity of that gift is only diminished by unworthy reception. Because of the public scandal caused, this is especially true in the case of public officials who persistently govern in violation of the natural law, particularly the pre-eminent issues of abortion and euthanasia, the taking of innocent life, as well as other actions that fail to uphold the church's teaching regarding the dignity of life.

While it is likely that many—too many—receive the Eucharist in a state that is objectively separated from God, there is an added obligation on public officials who openly and persistently live in a state of grave sin. Their example leads others into sin and compounds the risk of condemnation that may come their way when they stand before God. If the church truly loves them, as she does, then it is more than appropriate to call them back to an intimate relationship with each person of the Trinity through repentance before receiving the body and blood of Jesus in a way that endangers their eternal salvation.

Charity in speaking the truth

I am afraid that many baptized Catholics do not take the Eucharist seriously because they do not take sin seriously, and this is largely the fault of bad catechesis overseen by me and my brother bishops for far too long. When the Eucharist is treated casually in our liturgy, minimized in the confessional or ignored in homilies, then we should not be surprised by confusion regarding its sacredness. This is ultimately another failure in charity. Genuine charity is always filled with compassion, gentleness and truth. To love our neighbor is to desire for them to live in the sublime truth of the Mass and the real presence of our Lord. In this respect, the ministers of the faith have, perhaps, the greater responsibility for improper reception of the Eucharist.

As a bishop, I have the obligation to assist the faithful in my care to properly form their consciences.

When Jesus condemns those who hear the word of God but fail to act accordingly (Lk 6:46-49), he presumes there is a proclamation of the Gospel. No doubt there are those who know what the church teaches and reject it (for example, the church’s teaching on the sacredness of life or the truth of natural marriage), but there are others who do not hear the Gospel because the church has not proclaimed it effectively.

This moment of the church’s self-examination about the coherence of the Eucharist is an opportunity for me and all bishops to recommit ourselves to an unapologetic preaching of Jesus Christ. What fills our churches is not a soft-pedaling of the Gospel but deep, authentic belief in Jesus rooted in our personal love for him as our Lord and savior. This is the model of the saints. They show us how faith in Jesus leads to a radical surrender to the will of the Father regardless of political or social consequences, no matter the cost, as witnessed in the martyrs of today.

I pray that the Holy Spirit may guide me and the church to live a coherent life that has the Eucharist and faith in Jesus as the source and summit of our lives. May this lead all of us to peace of mind and body, and to love of our neighbor, regardless of cost, so that we might experience the joy of the Gospel here on earth—and live in heaven together!

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