Unworthy communion


A young man is traveling across the country. He stops with a friend into a church where Mass is being celebrated. He receives communion, but the priest refuses to give it to the friend. Confronting the priest after Mass, he is told that only practicing Catholics may receive. Asked to define that, the priest says that anything less than weekly attendance at Mass is insufficient. After a snarky remark about the young man's theological immaturity, the priest retreats into the sanctuary. the young man and his friend walk away enraged.

There is a species of priest (and of Catholic laity) that feels it has the right and the duty to keep the unworthy away from the communion table. Hung up on the idea that communicants must be in a state of grace to receive, they scan the ranks of those desiring communion for those who don't measure up. Tight jeans? Too much bosom? Too much makeup? Too dirty? Too sinful? Doesn't tithe? Doesn't sing? Sings? Doesn't buy raffle tickets? Not enough kids? Can't stand their Mom? They cast judgement on those who seek Eucharist, mentally casting them out of line, and occasionally pulling back the sacred wafer from unworthy lips.

This kind of scene is not as rare as you might want to think. Every election cycle, some bishop makes a show of keeping notorious sinners, usually those who support abortion rights, away from the altar rail. And to the the degree that that's what it is -- a show -- this is a scandal.

First, some Canon Law. Catholics are encouraged to receive communion every Sundays -- even daily -- but not required to. As long as you fulfill your "Easter duty" and receive once during the Easter season (the 7 weeks between Easter and Pentecost) you are in compliance. More frequent reception is a good thing, but it is not required. So when priests refuse communion to people because they missed Mass last week (or even last summer and fall) they are on shaky ground.

And that "state of grace" thing -- Hoowee! Taken the way I understood it as a youngster, a state of grace was obtained after absolution at confession. But, as soon as your little mind started working again, a state of total grace was a vanishing reality. By the time you had kicked the can from the church steps back to your house, enough devious plans and impure thoughts had crossed your mind to wreck any attempt at being pure.

But if a state of grace is nigh-well impossible to attain and to keep, is the opposite true -- that there should be no bars to receiving communion? Are there legitimate reasons to keep people away from receiving Eucharist? I can think of a few. Someone who publicly mocks the sacrament or who intends to use the host for evil or sacrilegious purposes should not have the chance to get their hands on it. Someone from a faith that does not believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist would be another candidate for being turned away. Some high on drugs, or potted to the gills might not be the ideal candidates. As would a teenager chewing tobacco, swigging from a soda, or having their happy meal in the pew.

There might also be some notorious sinners and criminals who, by receiving, might make the Church community seem complicit in their crimes. "Maybe, Whitey, it would be better for you to give up drug dealing and murder before showing up in St. Malarkey's communion line." But that approach cuts both ways -- for every Whitey I would turn away, another priest would turn away a pro-choice legislator, or the CEO of a defense plant, or a guard at a prison, or a numbers runner or a mom with the live-in boyfriend. Judging the worthiness of human beings is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. Maybe best not to go there.

But I would say this. Anyone who withholds the Eucharist owes that person a loving and gentle explanation, and an invitation to return when their "deficits" are addressed. "You don't seem to know Jesus, but I would love to tell you more about him and how we meet him in the Eucharist. Here, accept this blessing" "I'd be happy to share the Eucharist with you, but need to get rid of the gum and the can of soda." "You are really drugged up right now. How about getting you dried out so you can appreciate what you are receiving?"

But to all others, I would say, come, take Jesus into your heart. You are worthy and loved as you are -- seeking, nervous, immature, ignorant, giggly, sinful, imperfect. You are welcomed to walk along with Jesus, to take his hand, to grow in holiness and virtue. Better that a millstone be placed around your neck and your were throw in into the sea, than that you cause one of these little ones to falter and to turn away.