FREQUENT COMMUNIONIt is a well-authenticated fact in ecclesiastical history, which has been already stated, that the Christians in the early ages of the Church were accustomed, when assisting at the celebration of the Divine Mysteries, or when hearing Mass, as we should say nowadays, always to approach the Altar and receive Holy Communion. As many were present every day at the Sacred Rites, their Communion also was daily. This devout practice has ever had the approval of the Church, who desires nothing more than to see her children go frequently, and even daily, to receive their Sacramental Lord. Many times has she given expression to this wish by the voice of her Pontiffs, and the decrees of her Councils, in particular the Council of Trent, where we read : " This holy Synod would desire that at every Mass, the Faithful who are present should communicate, not only spiritually, by way of internal affection, but sacramentally, by actual reception of the Eucharist" (Sess. XXII., c. 6). From this passage it is clear how strongly the Church desires to see the practice of frequent Communion flourish among the Faithful.
But the errors of Luther and the Reformers were already spreading quickly over Europe, in the early part of the sixteenth century, during which the famous Council of Trent was held. These false teachings had naturally a most injurious effect on the fervour and devotion of many in the Church, while also countless numbers were detached for ever from her allegiance. Temporal disturbances, in the form of wars, national rivalries and the pursuit of purely secular interests, combined with the subversive influences of the Reformation to chill all fervour and make the practice of Religion difficult and irksome. Thus it was that the voice of the Church on frequent Communion fell unheeded on the ears of most of her children, while the practice of it failed to be realised. In the difficult times that followed, especially here in our own country, where the old Faith came to be proscribed and persecuted, it was most difficult to practise even the ordinary duties of Christian obligation, and impossible in the case of mere matters of devotion.
Early in the seventeenth century, the plague of Jansenism spread its ravages in the Church. This heresy, among other evils, kept souls away from Communion, on the pretext of the high degree of holiness and piety required for its worthy reception ; to such an extent was this exacted, that they became afraid to approach the Sacraments at all; the Altars were deserted, and even at Easter time, or in the very hour of death, some, through false reverence, refused to receive Holy Communion ! Jansenism was, of course, opposed and condemned by the Church, yet even so, its deadly influence upon souls remained for many long years after.
In more recent times, however, thanks be to God, a reaction began to set in against such excessive severity in regard to the reception of the Sacraments, and in the middle of last century, the saintly Pontiff, Pius IX., who then ruled the Church, reprobated the neglect of Holy Communion, even in children, and endeavoured to restore the ancient spirit and discipline on the subject of its frequent reception. In these efforts he was in no small degree aided by a blind prelate, of great holiness of life and earnest zeal in the cause, Mgr. de Segur, of Paris. This apostle of the Eucharist used to gather round him the young men of the gay city, and instilled into their hearts deep love for the Blessed Sacrament, urging them to frequent Communion, as the great means of preserving their virtue amid the allurements and temptations that surrounded their daily lives. By his writings also, Mgr. de Segur propagated these same views and exhortations, while in the many retreats and conferences he gave throughout the year, he spoke on the subject with an eloquence and force that appealed intensely to the hearts of his hearers. The writer well remembers some of these discourses and the practical effects they produced. Thus gradually the custom of more frequent Communion began to spread once again among the Faithful in France, who were drawn in large numbers to the Holy Table.
During the reign of the late Leo XIII., of happy memory, Eucharistic Congresses began to be
All these manifestations of popular devotion, and the approval that such gatherings received from Rome, made it clear that the old spirit was reviving, though many indeed still adhered to the common custom of communicating only seldom, while theologians continued to wrangle and discuss with some heat, as to what conditions were necessary for receiving the Holy Eucharist; these were remains of the old Jansenistic spirit that caused no little trouble of conscience to pious souls, with the result that " distinguished men, themselves pastors of souls," were at length moved to petition the Holy See to settle such doubts, and set all discussions at rest, by some authoritative pronouncement on the matter.
In the month of February 1905 there was published to the world, indulgenced by Pius X., a prayer for the spread of the practice of daily Communion among the Faithful, which seemed, as it were, to foreshadow some important act of the Roman Court to follow ; and so indeed it proved to be, for in the December of that same year there appeared the epoch-making-decree of Pius X., urging upon the universal Church the practice of frequent and even daily Communion.
In connection with these words, we may quote the axiom ascribed to S. Augustine: Sacramenta propter homines, " the Sacraments are made for men." This is the root-principle ever to be borne in mind, when dealing with the question of frequent and daily Communion. Thus it is not reverence for the Holy Eucharist we must consider as holding the foremost place, and claiming our first attention ; we are not made for the Sacrament, but the Sacrament was instituted for us ; the spiritual good of our souls is the primary consideration, in reference to the frequency with which we should approach to receive It.
It is not that the Decree urges us to discount the reverence due to so great a gift: God forbid ! It merely tells us how best to show it. S. Ambrose reminds us that reverence is shown, not by refusing to approach Our Lord in Holy Communion, but by going frequently to receive Him, and from Him to obtain the many graces our souls require.
Surely Our Lord knows better than we can, what sanctity and reverence are due to Him in His Sacrament. Yet He wills His Flesh and Blood to be received for the healing of the wounds of our souls, despite our imperfections and venial sins, and in the prayer He taught to men, He bids us ask for that ''daily bread," which our souls need as their spiritual food, quite as much as for the daily sustenance we require for our bodies.
Had reverence been Our Lord's primary idea in the work of Redemption, He would never have humbled Himself to the lowliness of the Crib in Bethlehem, nor to the indignity of the death on Calvary! It was the welfare and salvation of souls that held the first place in His conception of the Redemption, hence the excess of suffering and insult He was willing to bear. If we refuse His loving invitation to receive Him at the Altar, because of our unworthiness, we are like a cripple who would object to use a good walking-stick offered by a friend, on the plea that to use it would be to soil it with the mud of the roadside, and who would therefore hang it on the wall, to keep it neat and clean. True regard for his friend would make him use the stick, and true reverence for Our Lord's gracious Gift would lead us to go and receive it. The reluctance felt by so many to follow the counsel laid down in this Decree may in part be due to the long established custom of going but seldom to Holy Communion, from which it is hard to break away, but it is also owing to a misconception of the primary object for which the Holy Eucharist is given, namely, our soul's welfare, and to our imperfect appreciation of the loving mystery of the Incarnation.
The only conditions necessary for frequent, nay even daily, Communion are laid down in these words of the Decree itself: " Frequent and daily Communion, as a thing most earnestly desired by Christ Our Lord and by the Catholic Church, should be open to all the Faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life ; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the Holy Table with a right and devout intention, can lawfully be hindered therefrom."
Thus, firstly, the state of grace is necessary, for the Holy Eucharist is one of the Sacraments of the living, that is, It requires and presupposes the life of grace in those who approach to receive It; for, to eat of this Bread of Life with our souls in the state of death by mortal sin would be a grievous sacrilege, a subject that must occupy our attention later on. But this freedom from mortal sin is a very different matter from freedom from all venial sin. If, then, we are not conscious to ourselves of any grievous sin in our souls, we have the first essential condition for approaching the Holy Table, even day by day, for then there is no obstacle to the streams of heavenly grace which the Sacrament can and will pour into them.
The second condition is that we receive "with a right and devout intention," that is, with any good and virtuous motive; such would be: to give glory to God for His Divine perfections, to make reparation for the insults committed against Him by men, to seek His grace and blessing on our souls, on the Church and her Head, the Vicar of Christ, to ask the conversion of sinners, or even to beg for some temporal favour, should God see good to grant it. Such, and others of the kind, would be "right and devout intentions," justifying our receiving Holy Communion as frequently as we can : they quite come within the terms of the Decree.
The text goes on to give an example or two of what would not be a right intention ; for instance :—
Routine, which cannot mean the simple practice of going often to Communion, for otherwise all habits of virtue would be inadvisable, because they lead us to do acts easily. Guilty routine would be to go without any sort of reverence in mind or body, a mere mechanical act, a sheep-like performance on the part of the communicant.
Vainglory: going to the Altar for the sake of being thought good and pious, or with the silly idea of showing off a new hat, etc., or of attracting attention to oneself in any way.
Human Respect: for instance, solely to please others, or to avoid criticism, in case we did not go.
These defects, while, they do not make our Communions bad, nor absolutely prevent our receiving some grace from them, tend very much to diminish the great benefits the Sacrament is calculated to produce in us. We must endeavour, therefore, to avoid such faults and blemishes, and receive It "for the purpose of pleasing God, of being more closely united with Him by charity, and of seeking this Divine Remedy for our weaknesses and defects."
There are other dispositions that would help to make our Communion more worthy and profitable, and the Decree refers also to them ; these have been dealt with under the subject of preparation and thanksgiving. Suffice it to repeat here that only two conditions are really necessary for even daily Communion : the state of grace and a right intention; given these, every Communion we make is bound to produce good fruit in our souls.
Such, then, is the recent Decree on the subject of Frequent and Daily Communion, by which the Holy Father seeks to recall the practice of the early Christians, and to revive what has always been the wish of the Church in regard to this important matter. Nor need we be surprised at his endeavours, when we remember the wonderful graces and fruitful results the Holy Communion can produce in us, some of which were enumerated in a preceding chapter. Truly, one good Communion is enough to make us saints!
Old customs, however, die hard, so too does prejudice. Hence it is that, although Frequent Communion has greatly increased these few years past, it is not by any means general among the Faithful, still less so is Daily Communion. It would seem, then, in this case as in so many others, the only effective way of reintroducing the practice is to begin with the young, with the children who have once made their first Communion. The Decree refers to children as well as to adults: "All the Faithful of whatever rank and condition." When doubts were submitted to the Holy See on this very point, the reply given was that the Decree included children also, who, having made their first Communion, are to be exhorted and urged to its frequent and daily reception, just like their elders. When such children have been well trained in their early years, they will maintain the good practice as they grow up, and in the course of a generation or two, we may hope that it will be really widespread among the Faithful, to the personal benefit of their individual souls, and also to the general welfare of Society.
With the best of good will, however, there must always remain a proportion of the Faithful, who, for one cause or another, will find it impossible to carry out to the letter the advice contained in this Decree. Some have not the time : the duties of their state and their occupations in life prevent them going to Church during the week, and so daily Communion at any rate is really beyond their reach. Others again, from ill health or general debility, are quite unable to go out fasting in the morning. If this be so, there is no more to say, except that it is a misfortune for such to be thus deprived of many graces that they would otherwise receive. Let them, if they cannot accept the letter of the Decree, at least endeavour to follow its spirit, and go as often as they can to the Altar.
In the third book of Kings, we read of an incident in the life of Elias that suggests a figure of the benefits of Frequent Communion. Queen Jezabel threatened him with death, in revenge for his having slain some of her false prophets. "Then Elias was afraid, and rising up, he went whithersoever he had a mind ; and he came to Bersabee of Juda and left his servants there. And he went forward one day's journey into the desert. And when he was there, and sat under a juniper tree, he requested for his soul that he might die, and said : It is enough for me, Lord, take away my soul : for I am no better than my fathers. And he cast himself down, and slept in the shadow of the juniper tree ; and behold an angel of the Lord touched him, and said to him : arise and eat. He looked, and behold there was at his head a hearth-cake and a vessel of water ; and he eat and drank, and he fell asleep again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him and said to him : Arise, eat; for thou hast yet a great way to go. And he arose and eat and drank, and walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights, unto the mount of God, Horeb " (3 Kings xix. 3-8).
This food that the prophet partook of saved him from the death of hunger and fatigue, enabled him to escape from his arch-enemy, Jezabel, and helped him safely on the long journey to Mount Horeb, a figure of Heaven, where he found peace and rest. It suggests the thought of frequent Communion, from the angel's telling him a second time to eat of that bread.
In the Holy Eucharist we have the food that will strengthen us on the journey to eternity, and if we partake of it again and again, it will save us from falling by the way and enable us to escape our spiritual foes, Satan with his temptations, which, experience tells us, are to be found on every side, and at length we shall reach the land of peace and rest, our eternal rest with God in Heaven.
"On the usual conditions" are words that are familiar to all, inasmuch as they are often heard from the Altar, on a Sunday morning, when the announcement is made that a plenary indulgence may be gained on some feast day in the coming week. These conditions have always been Confession, Communion, and Prayer for the Pope's Intentions, though, as regards the first of these, Confession once a week is sufficient to enable one to gain several plenary indulgences during the course of that week, though a separate Communion is necessary for each day on which we wish to gain a plenary indulgence.
Now, after the promulgation of the Decree on Frequent Communion, a further one followed, under date of 14th February 1906, which relaxes the condition of weekly Confession, in favour of those who make their Communion daily, or, say, five times a week, and allows them to gain all the indulgences within the fortnight, while going to Confession only once in the fortnight. This is not to be taken as implying that they are to neglect weekly Confession. The Sacraments, it is true, work their beneficent effects in our souls by their own inherent power, if worthily received; yet, better effects will follow, in proportion as the dispositions of the recipient are more perfect; hence the soul is better prepared for Holy Communion by the weekly Confession.
But in consequence of this second Decree, it may be feared that some are going less frequently to Confession now than they used to do, though they are by no means daily communicants, perhaps only weekly ones at most. This is a quite unintended result which should not be encouraged, and those who act thus must clearly know they are unable to gain the indulgences of the full fortnight under the fortnightly Confession only ; this privilege is granted exclusively to those who approach the Holy Table daily, or almost daily.