In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent – in addition to addressing problems connected with the Protestant Reformation – also focused on some internal problems caused by over-zealous Catholics intent on preventing disrespect for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Over-restrictive beliefs and/or customs prevailed in many places: for example, that Communion should be received only once a year, or only after confession. Accordingly, the Council issued decrees opposed to such conventions, and explicitly allowed for the frequent reception, even daily, of the Eucharist.
Pope Pius X, at the beginning of the twentieth century, wanted to carry these developments even further. A special focus of his papacy was to encourage frequent Communion for all, after First Communion. From 1905 to 1910, a series of decrees and clarifications were issued under his direction, emphasizing that no sincere person in the state of grace should be prevented from approaching the “holy table,” that it is not necessary to go to confession at specific intervals such as weekly or monthly before reception, and that children especially should be encouraged to receive frequently, even daily, after First Communion.
Council of Trent in session, c. 1550
Certainly, from our contemporary standpoint – at least as regards weekly Communion – Pius X’s wishes have been fulfilled possibly beyond his own expectations. Those of us who are old enough to remember going to Sunday Mass in the mid 1950s, when fasting after midnight even from water was required (with the exception of certain evening Masses), can recall the wooden kneelers typically being raised in our pews to allow a number of people to go to Communion. It was simply presumed that those who did not receive had probably not fasted sufficiently (maybe because they were at a party the previous evening that lasted into the wee hours of the morning). Then again, after Pius XII changed the fasting rules across the board to “three hours for food, one hour for liquids,” one could still make the same presumption about failure to fast (especially for late morning Masses).
But when Pope Paul VI in 1964 reduced fasting from food to one hour, the idea was that now almost anyone, if not conscious of any serious sin, could approach the Holy Table. In the aftermath, in my experience (and I expect in the experience of other Catholics), in almost any Catholic Church, at Sunday Mass, almost everyone, pew after pew, proceeds to receive the Eucharist.
Would Pius X be gratified at such results, at such a sea-change from the customs prevailing in his own era? Possibly. But possibly he might harbor some hesitation in celebrating these results. So let me offer what may seem an odd recommendation, but one I think might have good effects.
Holy Communion, c. 1950
Human respect, and conventions, as always, intervene to affect our reactions. Obviously there are Catholics who for some reason have put themselves, perhaps reluctantly, outside the ambit of the Faith – through divorce and remarriage, extra-marital “relationships,” abortion, contraception, etc. In such cases, any spiritual adviser worth his or her salt would recommend continuing in prayer, and especially joining in the powerful prayer of the Sacrifice of the Mass. No one is so much of a sinner as to be beyond prayer. Indeed, just the opposite: a sense of unworthiness can lead beneficially to prayer and (from the kind of God Christians believe in) even unanticipated solutions.
But if such persons attend Mass, they may be the only one, or just one of a handful, who abstain from Communion. (An exception might be, of course, at nuptial Masses or funerals, especially if the Celebrant makes some remarks about Catholic expectations for proper reception of the Eucharist, and non-Catholic or non-practicing Catholics remain seated.)
We often hear about the less-frequent Sunday Mass attendance among Catholics, as compared to previous decades. Perhaps not coincidentally, we also hear that the vast majority of Catholic couples, for example, are using contraception – some of whom, in conscience, might feel they need to abstain from Communion, and so might simply forego attending Mass, rather than being earmarked each Sunday as for some reason ineligible to receive. Is it just a far-fetched possibility that this sort of situation might have some connection to the “human respect” issue? I am speaking, of course, about the very human potential for embarrassment.
If indeed, as I have suggested, abstention from presence at Mass might be an untoward “side-effect” problem connected with the frequent-communion phenomenon, one logical “solution” might be to return to stricter rules concerning fasting before communion. In this way, the “pew-after-pew exodus” phenomenon might be mitigated, the pews might begin to include a good number of those who either haven’t fasted, or just want to pray and not receive, and the new fasting rules (subject to harsh and unavoidable criticism) could once again take the brunt of the blame. That just might be of benefit all around.