Frequent Communion: Pros and Cons

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.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Roger Stenson

    I don’t mind the embarrassment of being one of very few who abstain from the Eucharist. It helps to be aware of the embarrassment one would feel before God after receiving in an unworthy state.

  • Roger Farmer

    How many people leave the pew to get a blessing so they don’t have to stay behind? Do we really care why someone is not going up to communion? I don’t care why someone doesn’t go up to communion, the reasons are many and not my business. In fact, to see someone not go might be a good thing because you know that that person has great respect for God. God bless them and keep them!

  • dad29

    That’s an idea which I first saw in HPR about 20 years ago, and it is STILL an excellent idea.

    Maybe this time it’ll get some traction.

  • Chaffee Viets

    We are called as Catholics to imitate Christ and to receive Him in the form of the Eucharist. The Church needs to find a way to encourage greater integrity of the individual who elects to receive or abstain from Communion. At the same time, it must not drive away those who need the grace of the present Lord in the Bread and Wine. The proposed solution might be successful on one end — increasing reverence — but would the cost be the establishment of rules that smack of Pharisaic Law? I’m unsure, but I am glad someone is considering solutions to the problem.

  • FarmerJohn

    Not sure I agree with your title… I don’t think there’s a “con” in the allowance of frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist, per St. Pius X. However I do agree that today there are few conscious receivers of the Eucharist.

    Perhaps dialing back the fasting rule would help Catholics be more conscious of their decision to get in the Communion line.

    As most things today, the actual cause is probably more complex. Add to the list a) poor catechesis, b) lack of reverence or even awareness of the Holy Sacrifice part of the Mass, and c) the need to feel “included” taking precedence over the need to fear God.

  • Tom

    I tend to agree with Roger Stenson. In my parish there is the further blessing that confessions are offered before the Sunday High Mass, most often by the one priest in the parish who also says Mass before and after. The lines are long. Having grown up in 70s and 80s suburban parishes where confession is typically offered for a half-hour on a Saturday afternoon, this is special. As my consciousness has developed on the topic (in my adult return to a more orthodox Catholicism) I feel less pressure to “just
    go along” although when I return to those suburban parishes I find myself sometimes explaining to people who ought to know better (my own elders) why I am not receiving.

    I would add too that although the rolling back of the fast to 12 hours could have merit, in the absence of a thorough theological explanation as to why the fast had been the norm in the first place (which I don’t think Professor Kainz quite provides) I’m not sure it makes a huge difference. Catechesis is key. As one modification among many potential others that would need to occur locally — returning tabernacles to the center of the sanctuary, Eucharistic adoration and Benediction, ad orientem liturgical gesture and orientation, offering Confessions regularly — it could be a good thing. Like fish on Friday.

  • Marie Coane

    Our Pope wants us Catholics to ‘kneel’ when receiving. Why not re-instate this relevance, as our Pope is doing? When he gives out communion, you have to be on a kneeler! And you have to receive on the tongue!
    What better way than this to explain ‘God’s presence.’

  • Henry

    This article and the comments barely touch the needs of this all important subject. How about the person who stays away from the Sacrament because of the mistake of choosing their lifetime mate, and they can’t accept the church teacing about annulments, They are left with the Eucharist of desire, but sadly some the longer they stay away because of self-unworthiness the more (theoretically) un-worthy they become.

  • Catherine

    Maybe part of the problem is our concern about what other people think – really, we should only care about what God thinks. If we have past or current sins such as abortion and contraception, then we need to avail ourselves of repentance and confession/absolution so that we can receive the Eucharist again.

    We shouldn’t hold others back from communion with overly rigid fasting rules (for example), in order to make someone with grave sins feel better or less conspicuous about not receiving.