PREPARATION FOR COMMUNION.If we try to realise the infinite Goodness of Our Lord in giving Himself to us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and recall to mind the bounteous graces He bestows on those who receive Him worthily, we may well marvel and wonder how we can ever duly prepare ourselves in becoming manner to receive such a guest into our undeserving souls. And yet, we must approach to receive Him, or incur the guilt of grievous offence before Him. What, then, have we to do? What steps can we take, to fit ourselves for His condescending visit ?
The penny Catechism reminds us in plain and simple terms that, to receive Holy Communion worthily, we must be in the state of grace, and be fasting from midnight. These two conditions have two very distinct objectives, for the first refers exclusively to the soul, and the second to the body only. Over and above these essential conditions, others may be added, that may tend to lessen our unworthiness, and so make our Communions more fruitful of spiritual good to our souls. The distinction of soul and body naturally makes this subject of Preparation fall into two parts, which treated separately will conduce to clearness and simplicity.
I. Dispositions of Soul.
When the priest at Mass is about to consume the Victim that has been offered in the Sacrifice, and make his own Communion, he exclaims: " Domine, non sum dignus" " Lord, I am not worthy." These words, first spoken by the Centurion (Matt. viii. 8), we should make our own, in all humility recognising our sinfulness and unfitness to approach and receive the infinite Sanctity of God; and yet we are not free to abstain from so doing. Hence must we do what lies in our power to prepare our souls for the celestial food we herein receive. There are several steps we may take to this end.
1. The State of Grace. —Clearly the first essential for the worthy reception of any of the Sacraments of the Living is that our souls be free from the guilt of mortal sin, and be in the state of grace, pleasing to God ; how especially necessary is this for the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Sacraments! Food can be of no avail to a dead body, nor can the Holy Communion, our spiritual food, be of any use to our souls, if dead before God by mortal sin. To receive Our Lord into a soul in such condition would be a grievous insult to the Divine Majesty and Sanctity. For grace and mortal sin cannot co-exist in the same soul, just as darkness and light mutually exclude each other. Therefore S. Paul reminds us that a man must prove himself before eating this bread and drinking the chalice (i Cor. xi. 28). According to the Council of Trent, this proving of oneself consists in making a good sacramental confession, should he be conscious of mortal sin ; it is the means instituted by our merciful Saviour for cleansing the soul from personal grievous fault (Sess. XIII., c. 7). As Our Lord washed the feet of His Apostles, to denote the purity of soul with which they should receive their first Holy Communion, so by the Sacrament of Penance our souls are cleansed from sin, clothed again with the wedding garment of grace, and made pleasing in the sight of their heavenly Guest; then may we, without reproach, go forward to receive Him in the Holy Banquet.
This primary condition for a good Communion must always have earnest attention, and we must never dare to approach the Holy Table, if conscious of mortal sin, or we shall turn that which is meant to be the food and strength of the soul into a most deadly poison.
2. Freedom from Venial Sin. —This is a further degree of preparation we should aim at, as far as possible. If you leave a mirror lying on the table of a room, even of one that is not used, you will find at the end of the week the mirror is all covered with dust, in such a way that it can scarcely reflect the image of an object put before it. This may typify the state of a soul covered with venial sins. They do not destroy its life, as a blow with a hammer would destroy the mirror, but, like the dust lying on it, they tend to dim the lustre, and disfigure the beauty of the soul that is subject to them. These lesser sins also we must remove, by acts of contrition, the use of Holy Water or other Sacramentals, thereby adorning and beautifying our hearts the more for Our Lord. We would carefully remove all dust from the furniture of our rooms, were we expecting a distinguished guest coming to visit us. Hence, a brief act of contrition spoken from the heart, is greatly recommended just before we go up to the Altar rails.
Two children went with cans to a river to fetch water. The cans were of the same size and filled to the brim when they returned, yet one brought back more water than the other. What was the reason of this ? Was it because there was not water enough for both ? No, it was because one child had nothing but water in his can, while the other had some sand and pebbles in his, so that there was not room for so much water. — Two persons go to Holy Communion, and yet one comes back with more grace in his soul than the other. And what is the reason ? Because one empties his soul of all venial sin and imperfection, hence there is more room for the love of God to fill it, than in the other soul which is not so well purified and prepared.
3. Actual Devotion. —By this is meant, not sensible sweetness in the soul, which we cannot always command, but a deep realisation of the greatness of the act we are going to perform, which will lead us to do all that lies in our power to do it well. To this end, instruction as to the nature and effects of the Sacrament is very conducive, for we cannot feel love and devotion for anything, unless first of all we know something of the claims it has upon us. Hence it is that children always need a course of instructions, before being admitted to make their first Communion, so that they may understand well what they are about to do, and be more fully penetrated with lively faith and reverence for the great mystery of the Eucharist ; so true it is that dogma is the real source and foundation of genuine devotion. Besides children, to whom this primarily and chiefly applies, it would be well if those of older years could be persuaded to read or hear more on the subject, so that they too might have a deeper appreciation of the great act they perform in receiving Holy Communion, and so be able to draw greater benefit from this fountain of all grace.
In reference to instruction, it may be well just to mention that we are bound, in order fittingly to receive the Sacraments, to know at least the outline of the " Four great Truths," as they are termed. Not that we need know them under that name, but at least we must be acquainted with the doctrines they imply. Briefly put, they are these :—
a. The Existence of God : unless we know God, we cannot love and serve Him, and so attain to His eternal possession in Heaven.
b. The Unity and Trinity in God: there is but one God, but in the one Divine Nature
there are three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, equal to each other in all things: this we call the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.
c. The Incarnation and Death of Our Lord: through love for man, God the Son, second Person of the Blessed Trinity, came down from Heaven, and assumed our human nature, that He might suffer and die for us, thereby making atonement for our sins, and redeeming our souls from sin and hell.
d. God rewards and punishes in death : according as we love and serve Him during life on earth, or refuse to obey His Divine commands, God rewards us in eternity with the possession of Himself in Heaven, or punishes with the unending pains of Hell.— These are the fundamental truths we must know, as a remote preparation for receiving Holy Communion, and it is a real act of charity to teach them to others, and to pray that the knowledge of them may extend throughout the world. The deeper our perception of God and His Revelation, the greater will be our love and devotion to Him, and the more heartfelt the religious fervour with which we shall approach to receive Him.
4. Immediate Preparation. — When God brought His chosen people to the foot of Mount Sina, there to promulgate to them His Law, He spoke to Moses and said : " Go to the people and sanctify them to-day and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments" (Exod. xix. 10). This was to be part of the immediate preparation for the great day to follow, on which God was to deliver His Will to men.
When Our Lord was about to eat the Last Supper with His Apostles, and then institute the Holy Eucharist, He sent two of His disciples into the City to prepare a large dining-room for the occasion, and there they prepared the Pasch (Mark xiv. 15). After rising from the table, Our Lord washed the feet of His disciples, and wiped them with a towel (John xiii. 5). All these details betoken the reverence and care He wished to inspire them with for the great mystery about to be wrought in their midst.
So, too, must we make an immediate preparation for Holy Communion. When we rise in the morning, our first thoughts should turn to the great event of the day, and should occupy our minds till the moment it occurs. Go to church in good time, (somewhat earlier than the bulk of the Faithful, who are going to hear Mass only). How painful it is, yet how common, to see people coming late for Mass, without any compunction apparently, and then walking up to the Altar for Communion, as though they were merely going to receive a blessed candle or a palm leaf! This should not be, and would not be, were our faith deeper and more lively. Try, therefore, to go somewhat early to church, and when there, read the prayers or devotions before Communion. In doing this, endeavour to make your own the various sentiments they express. Don't be content with merely reading with your eyes the acts of faith, love, etc., but let those sentiments come from your heart, and thus be thoroughly in earnest, and mean what you say ; this will excite fervour and devotion, which again will react upon you, and make you attentive and earnest. If time allow, add to such acts as these, which every prayer-book will contain, certain ejaculations of your own; as a rule, they will be more heartfelt and more efficacious than any set form of prayers can ever be. " Behold Noah, a just man, toiled a hundred years in building the ark, that he with a few might be saved ; and I, how can I in one hour prepare myself to receive with reverence the Maker of the world ?"— Imitation, iv.
5. Above all, have always an intention in making your Communion, that is, have some special grace or graces to ask for, either for yourself or for others. Thus, beg for strength against temptation, for victory over some evil habit, for grace to practise some virtue. Offer your Communion for the Church and her visible Head, for your neighbour's welfare, spiritual or temporal, for your country's good, for the sick, the dying or the dead. Don't forget to pray for your own family, parents for children, children for parents ; and so forth, in endless variety. Having one or more definite objects to pray for, you will find from experience that you will make your Communion with more intense fervour, and so be likely to draw therefrom more fruitful results.
Such is the outline of the dispositions that should animate our soul, and such the preparation we should make before receiving Holy Communion. The more we throw ourselves into this work and the greater the care we take over it, the more abundant, too, will be the graces we shall receive. " The most devout King David danced before the Ark of God with all his might, commemorating the benefits bestowed on the fathers in times past. He made musical instruments of sundry kinds, he put forth psalms and appointed them to be sung with joy ; he himself likewise often sang to the harp, inspired with the grace of the Holy Ghost. He taught the people of Israel to praise God with their whole heart, and to join their voices in blessing and magnifying Him every day.
"If so great devotion was then used, and such remembrance of the praise of God before the Ark of the Covenant, how great ought to be the reverence and devotion that I and all Christian people should have in the presence of this Sacrament, in the receiving of the all-transcending Body of Christ! "— Imitation, iv.
II. Dispositions of Body.
When Our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and gave it as Communion to the Apostles, they were not fasting, for they had just concluded the Last Supper, the eating of the Paschal Lamb. And for some years, we know, the early Christians used to receive Holy Communion in the evening, their fast being already broken. They gathered together for the Agapai, or Charity-feasts, where the poor were fed by the alms of the Faithful, and then the
" Supper of the Lord " followed, that is, Holy Communion was distributed. It was not long, however, before abuses began to creep in, and these meetings exceeded becoming bounds. Even in the days of S. Paul we find excess in eating and drinking already frequent, and he strongly condemns the abuse (i Cor. xi.). Thus it was that the practice was discontinued, and it soon became the common law of the Church that the Faithful must receive Communion before partaking of any material food, and that law remains in force to the present day.*
1. Fasting is the primary disposition of the body for receiving this Sacrament. Without considering the dangers arising from the early custom just referred to, it is clearly more befitting that on the day of our Communion, the nourishment of our souls should first be attended to, and then that of the body. This brings home in a very practical manner, and to some, perhaps, in a painful manner, the importance and dignity of the great Sacrament they receive. This strict law of fasting prevents at any rate the danger of irreverence through intemperance.
* There are exceptions to this general law, which will be dealt with later on rather than here, so as to keep the present subject complete in itself, the Dispositions of the Body.
This natural fast, as it is termed, consists in abstaining from every kind of food and drink, and must be strictly observed from the previous midnight, out of the deep reverence we owe to the Blessed Sacrament. Should doubt or scruple arise as to whether we may have broken this fast, it is well to know what is required for breaking it, namely that what we take must be:—
a. Of the nature of food. It is a question here of food of the body. Hence, to break the natural fast, some substance of the nature of food and capable of digestion must be taken. Therefore to take snuff, or to smoke, would not break the fast. Even though they may possibly help to support the body, in common parlance they would never be classed as food, nor would inhaling be, when needed for some throat affection. To indulge in these without necessity might be an irreverence, but could not be said to break the fast and make Communion impossible. Still less would the accidental swallowing of a threepenny bit break the fast, for clearly a piece of silver is in no sense food. On the other hand, to take medicine certainly would do so, for medicine can be assimilated to the system, and in fact is taken on that very principle, and we cannot usually follow the doctor's advice and take medicine on an empty stomach, on the morning of Holy Communion.
b. Taken from without: hence, remnants of a meal, taken the previous night and remaining in the teeth, would not break the fast; blood from bleeding gums in like manner, for it does not come from without, as would be the case, were we to suck a bleeding finger.
c. Swallowed down : it is not easy to swallow a mere drop of water, that is, to introduce it into the stomach, for the oesophagus, or food pipe, is very soft and moist, and a globule of water could not drop down that passage, as it might fall down the rigid windpipe. Consequently, to swallow a very little water would be a difficulty. Thus a drop of rain or a snowflake entering the mouth would at once become part of the saliva and never reach the stomach ; the same may be said of a drop or two of water in the act of washing one's teeth.
2. Tidiness. —Our Lord, it is true, does not look to the clothes we wear when we go to receive Him. Those who were along the highways and hedges, unprepared for any invitation, were compelled by the rich man to go in to the great supper he had prepared (Luke xiv.). Our Lord, in like manner, welcomes the poorest to His banquet just as much as the richest lady-dressed in silks and satin.
At the same time, tidiness and cleanliness are within the reach of all; each one, therefore, no matter what his or her position in life may be, should endeavour to be neat and clean when approaching the Holy Table. Blessed Thomas More, even when in prison, dressed in his best on Sunday ; would he not have done the same for Holy Communion? S. Francis of Sales says our dress should not attract special attention, either by its excessive smartness, or by its remarkable shabbiness. Let all therefore dress becomingly, so far as their position requires, and (observe) as their means allow. This latter point is important; no one should go beyond his or her means, lest dressmakers or others remain unpaid for their labour and materials, a not uncommon occurrence! Let true reverence for the Blessed Sacrament be our aim, and it will be a good guide to us as to how we should dress and act.
3. Reverent Demeanour. —Don't rush up to the Altar in a hurry, making a noise or staring about, all which would tend to distract both yourself and your neighbours, but go quietly and gently, hands joined and eyes cast down ; there is no need of stiffness and effort, but do
all things naturally. It is well to let those in front go up first, and avoid all crushing and blocking of the aisles. Always remove your gloves, (as you should likewise do at Confession). Worship is external as well as internal, and our whole being should share it on so solemn an occasion.
It may be well to say a few words here on the manner in which we should actually receive Communion. To do this in the right way would seem to be included among the dispositions of body.
1. Just before his own Communion in the Mass, the priest says three times over the Domine, non sum dignus, and thrice the server rings the bell, or strikes the gong, to remind the Faithful of the progress of the Sacrifice. It is at this point that Communicants should go to the Altar. At the sanctuary rails will usually be found the communion cloth, hanging down ; take this in your hands and spread it out as a small table under your chin (not in front or even above your lips, as children sometimes do). The idea in this is that, if perchance the priest happen to drop a consecrated particle, it shall fall on to this table surface and not on to the floor. In some places, a linen-covered card is used instead of the cloth; in this case, as soon as you have received Communion yourself, hand on the card at once to your neighbour on your left.
2. Hold your head well up and keep your eyes closed ; remember you are kneeling, and the priest is standing and therefore higher than yourself, consequently you must raise your face somewhat towards him. In doing this, open your mouth moderately, advancing the tongue over the lower lip ; the priest will then lay the Blessed Sacrament upon it, and you draw in your tongue, with the Sacred Host resting on it. Don't move your head forward to receive the sacred particle ; some seem as though they wanted to take Communion, instead of allowing the priest to give it them. It is an awkward practice, and not without danger, as the Blessed Sacrament might thus get broken and fall.
3. Leave the Altar rails as soon as you have received Communion. That is not the place to remain at to say your prayers, while others behind are waiting till you retire, to follow and take your place. It is a kindly thing to remember your neighbour in such circumstances, and this thoughtfulness will be pleasing to the Divine Guest you have just received into your heart. On returning to your place, recollect yourself and dwell on the marvellous condescension of Our Lord in coming thus to visit you, and humble yourself at the thought of it. Meanwhile the sacred particle will be moistened, and you will probably have no difficulty in swallowing it. If, however, there is any little trouble over it, on no account try to remove it with your fingers, but use your tongue gently, and in a short time you will be able to take it down with ease. You will now be able to begin your thanksgiving.
What are the current rules for fasting before Holy Communion?(a) For many centuries the Church commanded a strict fast from midnight before one could receive Holy Communion. However, in the 1950's Pope Pius XII introduced a much more lenient form of fasting before Holy Communion in order to give Catholics an opportunity to receive Holy Communion more frequently.
(b) Pope Pius XII also allowed the celebration of afternoon and evening Masses every day, when the spiritual good of a considerable number of the faithful requires it. It is the right of the bishop of each diocese to decide when such Masses may be offered in his diocese.
(c) Paul VI further reduced the fasting requirement after the Second Vatican Council, requiring only a one hour fast from all food and drink (excluding water). This may be reduced to 15 minutes for those who are sick or for other important reasons. This is the practice currently in force.
When may Holy Communion be received without fasting?
Holy Communion may be received without fasting when one is in danger of death, or when it is necessary to save the Blessed Sacrament from insult or injury.
(a) Ordinarily the danger of death comes from sickness or injury. But it is not necessary that a person be in danger of death from sickness in order to receive Holy Communion without fasting. The danger of death may come from some other cause. A soldier, for example, who is about to go into battle or a person about to be executed may receive Holy Communion without fasting.