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The Reception of Communion

April 21, 2010 1 comment

The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is among the greatest teachings of the Magisterium and is fundamental to all Catholic beliefs.  The Eucharist is a practice and belief that Catholics have maintained as truth through the Tradition handed down by the Apostles, through Scriptural references, and through the authoritative Magisterium.  It has been held since the time of the Apostles that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ made present through the consecrated hands of the priest who is acting in persona Christi.  The Person of Christ is made present to the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as instructed by Christ Himself.  This profound reality prompts those in attendance at the Sacrifice of the Mass to act in a manner becoming of those in the presence of the Lord; which is nothing short of fervent reverence.  Indeed, even those who are not in attendance but aware of the Presence nearby should observe silence out of respect, just as Catholics cross themselves as they pass a church in which they know the Blessed Sacrament resides.  It is for this reason that Catholics bless themselves with holy water upon entering a Catholic Church and it is why they genuflect before the tabernacle.  In keeping with this profound sense of reverence towards the Eucharist, Catholics should receive the sacred species on the tongue rather than continue the practice of receiving communion in the hand.

Reception of communion in the hand is a misnomer, since the reception of the sacrament actually consists of consuming the sacred species.  Thus, when the Eucharist is distributed via the hands of the communicant he is actually becoming his own extraordinary minister.  Which by its very name—extraordinary–implies that it is not something to be done under normal circumstances; and yet that is exactly what has happened.  While extraordinary ministers are permitted by the Church, they are to be used with discretion and not before they have received suitable training, in order that the proper reverence toward the sacrament is observed.  However, in most situations, the extraordinary minister is extraneous and the distribution of the host should be reserved to those whose office it is to represent Christ.  Thus, Pope John Paul II stated, “How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary!  To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist.”  In addition, St. Thomas Aquinas states, “…out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this sacrament.”

Unsurprisingly, the practice of receiving communion in the hand is actually nonexistent in the majority of the Catholic world and is mainly confined to the United States and other Western countries.  Originally, the practice was strictly forbidden until the Archbishop of Belgium introduced it in his diocese, in response to which Pope Paul VI released Memoriale Domini.  In his encyclical, Paul VI reinforces the traditional method for receiving communion while expressing grave concerns about introducing a new method.  The late Pontiff states, “A change in a matter of such moment, based on a most ancient and venerable tradition, does not merely affect discipline.  It carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering holy communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.”  Although in this same document the Pope allows for the distribution of communion in the hand he severely restricts its practice and authorizes it only under certain terms and conditions.  First, if a bishop wishes to introduce the new procedure he must first obtain permission from the Holy See backed by a sufficient reason.  Also, “the new method of administering communion should not be imposed in such a way that would exclude the traditional usage.”  Furthermore, the Pope asseverates that the new method should be introduced with perspicacity as to safeguard the reverence towards Christ and to prevent any misunderstanding.

The extensive practice of receiving communion on the hand demonstrates an ignorance of the Churches traditions and the law as promulgated by Paul VI.  The new method was never meant to become so widespread but rather was only supposed to be used under special circumstances for fear that a lack of respect and reverence would be introduced into the Sacrifice of the Mass.  It is for this reason that Fr. John Hardon wrote, “Behind Communion in the hand-I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can-is a weakening, a conscious, a deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence.”

The reception of communion on the tongue helps advocate the minister’s attentiveness to ensure that no fragment of the Eucharist is dropped or profaned; something against which many of the Church Fathers have warned, as St. Cyril says, be careful “…not to lose any part of it; for if you do lose it, it is as if it were part of your own body that is being lost.”  This is also why, since its earliest days, the Catholic Church has used patens while administering communion.  A strict adherence to the traditional method of receiving communion would also aid in the prevention of stealing the Eucharist for some sacrilegious purpose.

Thus, the traditional practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue should be reinstituted in those parts of the world where the new method has been disproportionately introduced and inappropriately used.  For, as Paul VI states, the traditional method “…ensures more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity.  It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species…,” and “…ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended.”  The Eucharist, as the foundation of the Catholic faith and as the Body of Christ, should always be given the proper respect and reverence which, while receiving communion worthily, is best exercised by administering the sacred species on the tongue.


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An Underappreciated Treasure

June 12, 2009 1 comment

Sin has always been a human weakness ever since the fall of man from God’s grace when Adam and Eve committed the “original sin.”  However, contrary to what the Manicheans believe, sin is not a part of human nature nor is the body some evil material entrapment for the soul made by an imperfect god; rather, human nature, which includes both body and soul, is intrinsically good.  Sin is then not a natural inclination towards something which is evil; instead, sin is a disordered attachment to certain things in which an element of the good is perceived, for all things, since they are created by an infinitely good God, have an intrinsically good quality.  The problem of sin does not come in the recognizing of this good quality but in the inordinate apprehension of this finite good as the object of one’s good contrary to that ultimate Good in which man reaches his highest perfection, namely God.  Fortuitously, the sacrament of penance provides man with an opportunity to turn away from lesser goods and to recognize that finite goods should lead man to the one infinite Good.  Although penance is helpful in rightly ordering man’s passions, it does not completely prepare man for union with God, since it does not purge him of the punishment due to his inordinate desires.  Providential Wisdom has thus provided man with the Catholic Church’s doctrine and practice of indulgences which further accommodates man’s journey to God by remitting the temporal punishment due to sin.

Unfortunately, not many people, even among Catholics, recognize this great gift and treasure of the Catholic Church and thus do not fully take advantage of it.  A reason for the unpopularity of indulgences appears evident given the history of the Church: that is, the abuse of indulgences by Church officials who sought to sell indulgences and gravely overstepped their bounds in granting them, a practice which directly contributed to the Protestant Revolution.  However, regardless of the failures and shortcomings – something no one is exempt from – of the Catholic hierarchy, there are still objective truths which no human error can negate.  Therefore, the doctrine of indulgences, no matter how badly it has been abused in the past, should be viewed as the great treasure that it is, and not frowned upon because of some misguided actions.  The “grittiness” of Catholicism, as George Weigel calls it, will always be a part of the Church precisely because of human weakness; but in any case, the Church has recognized this error and has seen fit, in light of the previous abuse of indulgences, to take measures to prevent their future abuse.

According to Indulgentarium Doctrina, “an indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.”  As evidenced by this definition, indulgences are very closely related to the sacrament of penance, and indeed absolution of one’s sins is required before an indulgence may be received; where penance is the removal of guilt and a restoration of God’s grace an indulgence is the satisfying of the punishment that is demanded of a sinner by God’s justice.  The correlation between penance and indulgences is further evidenced by the fact that both practices are derived from the same Bible verse: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”  (Matthew 16:19).

That being said, every offense against God, whether venial or mortal, incurs a punishment equal to the magnitude of the sin.  In the case of venial sin the punishment incurred is temporal since it does not destroy charity but only weakens it.  While in the case of mortal sin the punishment is eternal since it destroys charity within the heart and since it is a grave disordering of the offender towards something lesser than God as his good.  Fortunately, through God’s mercy, the sacrament of penance remits the eternal punishment of sin and restores the penitent to a state of grace.  However, every sin reflects a disordered attachment to the things of the world, an attachment which must be purged through temporal punishment in order that man might achieve the ultimate end for which he has been created, that is, the union with God in heaven.  This purification of the soul may either take place after death in the state of Purgatory or on earth through acts of mercy, charity, prayer, most especially the practice of indulgences.  However, it should be understood that in Catholic doctrine an indulgence is not a removal of the punishment but rather it is the active compensation for the debt of sin rather than the passive compensation that is expected in Purgatory.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church an indulgence, either plenary or partial, may be granted by the Church to a penitent upon the successful completion of both the sacrament of penance and certain approved charitable works which are beneficial to the common good of the Church community.  A plenary indulgence provides complete expiation from the temporal punishment of sin while a partial indulgence only limitedly absolves one from punishment.  In the past Church officials would assign certain lengths of time to partial indulgences when granting them, signifying the amount of punishment that had been expunged.  In his address Indulgentarium Doctrina, Pope Paul VI ended the practice of assigning lengths of time to partial indulgences in order to promote the act of charity to which the indulgence is attached.  Thus, partial indulgences are no longer designated when dispensed with a particular determination of time but rather the act of charity itself serves as the measure of punishment remitted.  (A complete list of the norms for the practice of indulgences can be found in Indulgentarium Doctrina).

As mentioned earlier, the Church is given the authority to grant indulgences from Christ when He gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16:19.  With this authority comes the responsibility of safeguarding and dispensing with as seen fit the great treasure of merits achieved by Christ, the saints, and all those members of the mystical body of Christ who have suffered unjustly “whereby a multitude of punishments would have been paid, had they been incurred,” says St. Thomas Aquinas.  It is through these merits that an indulgence is able to remit the temporal punishment due for the satisfaction of sins.  Thus it is no longer the indebted sinner who must pay the debt of punishment but rather Christ and his saints who have already paid the debt since, as St. Thomas says, “so great is the quantity of such merits that it exceeds the entire debt of punishment due to those who are living at this moment: and this is especially due to the merits of Christ…”

However, it must be asked, if Christ already paid the debt of punishment why must man receive the sacrament of penance and earn indulgences in order to have his punishment remitted?  Why can’t man just, as so many Protestants believe, accept Christ as his Lord and be saved?

Again, St. Thomas provides some answers.  First, through His Passion, Christ provided humanity with a cause by which the forgiveness of sins and the remittance of punishment are made possible.  This cause acts “…as a kind of universal cause of the forgiveness of sins, it needs to be applied to each individual for the cleansing of personal sins” through a particular cause, namely, the sacraments and other external acts such as indulgences.  Christ’s saving power comes to us through the particular cause of the Catholic practice of the sacraments through the use of external signs and ceremonies precisely because of the very nature of human beings.  That is, humans are both corporeal and spiritual beings and as such are led to the enduring things of the spiritual realm through the tangible and sensible things of this world.  This is best evidenced by the Incarnation whereby God became man and in so doing reconciled man to God.  Thus, Christ himself instituted the sacraments, which are derived from both Scripture and Tradition, in order that the faithful might effectively receive His saving merits.  That is not to say, however, that doing so was a necessity for God but rather that God chose to give His Church the tangible means of salvation, the sacraments, out of His divine wisdom.

Therefore, indulgences are truly efficacious appropriations of the merits of Christ and His saints with the power to satisfy the temporal punishment due to sins.  In the words of Pope Paul VI, the merits of the mystical body of Christ have been “…offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.”  Accordingly, Catholics should realize that this great treasure of the Church is at the disposal of the faithful and that it would behoove them to take advantage of the merits which have been gained for them.

Suggested further reading:
Indulgentarium Doctrina-Pope Paul VI
Summa Theologiae: Supplementum Tertiae Partis: Question 25 and Question 15-St. Thomas Aquinas

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