The Necessity of Holy Communion
1. The Holy Sacrament of the Altar is the nourishment of our souls.
Consequently the reception of this Sacrament is an indispensable means whereby to attain spiritual perfection or sanctity here, and eternal life hereafter.
The Holy Eucharist is the nourishment of our souls; on it our spiritual life is dependent. Our Lord says: “He that eateth Me, the same also shall live by Me ;” and again: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you” (John vi. 58, 54). Holy communion is therefore essential to our progress in sanctity, and to the final attainment of eternal life. As the bodily health cannot be maintained without nourishing food, so spiritual health cannot be acquired and preserved without holy communion. St. Francis of Sales tells us that there are two classes of men who need holy communion: the perfect, that they may not decline in perfection, and the imperfect, that they may become perfect; the strong, that they may maintain their strength, and the weak, that they may acquire strength. The early Christians communicated daily, and this it was that gave them constancy, and fortitude to suffer martyrdom. As a rule the saints communicated frequently. Yet it must not be supposed that frequent communion is in any way a mark of sanctity, or the reward of sanctity; it is only a means of acquiring it.
Therefore those who rarely receive holy communion will not make rapid progress in perfection.
The consciousness that even after confession we are unworthy to receive Our Lord, ought not to deter us from going to communion. The Church puts the words of the heathen centurion upon the lips of the intending communicant. No mortal can ever be worthy to receive a God. Yet it must be remembered that Christ did not institute the Holy Sacrament of the Altar for angels, but for men. Those who are conscious of their own misery, and desire to remedy it, will feel the need of frequent communion. Our daily failings ought not to hold us back; on the contrary, they ought to incite us to approach the holy table, that we may be delivered from them. For holy communion purifies the soul from venial sin, and weakens the force of evil concupiscence. Nor ought the absence of sweetness and consolation deter us from communicating; “how unwise would be the man,” says St. Ignatius, “who refused to eat his bread, and chose to die of hunger, because it was not spread with honey.” Again, who would wait until he was warm before going to the fire? “He who censures the practice of frequent communion,” says Segur, “does the devil’s work.” The saints have always advocated frequent communion, and it has been urged on the faithful repeatedly by the Holy See.
Those who willfully neglect holy communion for a lengthened period, incur the risk of spiritual death here and eternal damnation hereafter.
The soul cannot live without food any more than the body. Yet as certain saints have existed without taking any corporal sustenance, so others have lived for years without holy communion. St. Mary of Egypt, for instance, who spent forty years in the desert; and several anchorites, such as St. Paul and St. Anthony. The Holy Spirit, who led them into the wilderness, replaced all that holy communion could have been to them. Yet most, if not all, were communicated before their death. Every one, however, if he be prevented from receiving communion, is bound to make a spiritual communion; that is, he must desire to communicate, and must do so actually, whenever opportunity offers.
2. We are bound under pain of mortal sin to communicate at least once a year, and that at Easter; also in case of dangerous illness. It is, moreover, the wish of the Church that the faithful should, if possible, receive holy communion on Sundays and holy-days.
In the first ages of Christianity the Christians communicated daily. About the middle of the third century it became necessary to enjoin upon the faithful to communicate three times a year, at the three great festivals. In the Middle Ages people grew careless, some absented themselves from the holy table for years; consequently in the Lateran Council (1215) the Church decreed that every Catholic who had come to the age of reason, should receive holy communion at least once in the year, and that at Easter; those who failed to obey this precept were to be deprived of Christian burial. Children are to be admitted to holy communion as soon as they can distinguish the heavenly food from the earthly, and it can confidently be assumed that they will receive this Holy Sacrament with due reverence and devotion. It is not well to postpone the first communion until children have reached the age of fourteen years, as it is most important that it should take place while their innocence is still unstained. In the Middle Ages children were allowed to make their first communion when they were seven years old. The Christian is also bound to receive holy communion if he be in danger of death. Hence the communion given to the sick is called the Viaticum, the sustenance of the traveller on his last journey. The sacred Host must not be administered to any one who cannot swallow, or who is subject to vomiting. If the illness is of prolonged duration, the sick man may receive communion two or three times during its course, if he desire to do so. Holy communion may also be given to children who are in danger of death, provided they have attained the use of reason (seven years of age), although they have not previously approached the sacraments. The priest must briefly instruct them in the chief truths of the faith, and the sacraments they are about to receive. Furthermore, it is the desire of the Church that the faithful should, in as far as is possible, communicate on all Sundays and holy-days. The Council of Trent would fain indeed that at each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire, but also by sacra mental participation of the Eucharist, that thereby a more abundant fruit might be derived to them from this holy sacrifice (Council of Trent, 22, 6). Now it is of obligation that every Catholic should hear Mass on all Sundays and holy-days, hence it may be inferred that they should receive holy communion on all those days at the least. Many Fathers and Doctors of the Church urge frequent communion on the faithful. “We give our bodies nourishment several times a day,” says St. Charles Borromeo, “and shall our souls receive nourishment only once a year?” It is the duty of those who have the cure of souls to exhort the faithful to the practice of frequent, if not daily communion, as the soul, like the body, will languish without nourishment.
The confessor must not, however, recommend frequent communion to all indiscriminately; he must have due regard to the spiritual state and the manner of life of each individual.
St. Alphonsus says that there are but few who may not be admitted to communion once a month. Weekly communion must only be permitted to those who keep themselves free from mortal sin, and give no scandal in their daily life; who, that is to say, have not the character of being tattlers, slanderers, quarrelsome, etc. Weekly communion is sometimes almost a necessity for persons who are constantly tempted to mortal sin, for by it they obtain the power to resist. Daily communion must only be granted to those who are earnestly striving after perfection, who courageously resist venial sin, and who ardently desire holy communion. Such persons should seek to lead a blameless life; they must have sufficient time at their command to make their preparation and their thanksgiving with due deliberation, and they must have intelligence of divine things. The daily communicant is not obliged to go to confession every day, for holy communion cleanses from venial sin; it is only obligatory upon him to go to confession previously if he is conscious to himself of mortal sin (Council of Trent, 13, 7), but as a rule he is expected to avoid all such sins. For one who leads a worldly life, or who is not bent upon overcoming his faults, such as irascibility, vanity, love of gossip, etc., frequent communion would be exceedingly hurtful; for holy communion is like a fire, which, if it does not purify, consumes every thing in its flame.
The priest must not administer holy communion to persons who are not able to distinguish this supersubstantial bread from ordinary food, or of whom it may be surmised that they will receive it without reverence and devotion.
Thus children who have not attained the use of reason are not admitted to holy communion. If exceptions to this rule have been made in former days, it was because of the exigencies of the times. Children must also be thoroughly instructed in faith and morals before making their first communion. Idiots and lunatics are incapable of communicating; the latter may, however, have lucid intervals, or recover their reason at the approach of death.
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