Dear Catholic Exchange,
There is a debate among my prayer groups concerning Holy Communion rules, and I was wondering if you knew or you would show me exactly where to find the rules for reception. I have searched the Catechism and could not find the answer:
Question: What is the rule concerning reception of the Holy Eucharist? When a person is late for Mass and has not heard the Gospel, can that person receive the Holy Eucharist? In times past, it was discussed that the parts of the Mass that were necessary to assist at were the Offertory, Consecration and Communion.
Today the wording is different, and so there is confusion as to the rule.
Would you please advise me? Thank you.
Thank you for your question. Actually, it seems there are two questions here. First, may a person who arrives late for Mass receive Communion? And second, has such person satisfied his or her Sunday obligation?
As for the first question, the answer generally is yes, assuming the person is otherwise properly disposed and has observed the one-hour fast (see Catechism, nos. 1384-89). A fairly common situation is the weekday evening Mass, which tends to draw people who are on their way home from work. Sometimes people have to work a little late and are very late for Mass despite their good and noble intentions to attend daily Mass. Assuming they are disposed to receiving Our Lord, there's no reason for them to refrain simply because they may have missed the readings.
Now, if this is the second Mass for the person in one day (which is a relatively rare occurrence), a person who's more than just a few minutes late should refrain from receiving Communion, in keeping with the letter and spirit of canon 917 of the Code of Canon Law. This provision of Church law says that "a person who has received the Most Holy Eucharist may receive it again on the same day only during the celebration of the Eucharist in which the person participates. . . ."
So far, I've only spoken of the ability to receive Communion. It's a slightly different question to ask whether somebody who arrives very late for Mass has fulfilled his or her Sunday obligation, which is derived from the Third Commandment. It really goes against the very essence of the Lord's Day to try to pinpoint a moment when one's tardiness has reached the point that one has not fulfilled the obligation (aside from whether that person goes up and receives Communion). This sort of evaluation can easily become legalistic and result in people showing up as late as possible (and leaving as early as possible) so as to meet minimalistic standards. Rather, the Lord's Day should be the high point of one's week, so we're already looking at the matter wrongly if we're not making a good faith effort to participate at the entire Mass.
Let me point you to two items from the Catechism (quoting Vatican II) that may nonetheless give you some guidance on this point. First, Catechism, no. 1167 affirms that "Sunday is the pre-eminent day for the liturgical assembly, when the faithful gather 'to listen to the Word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the Passion, Resurrection, and glory of the Lord Jesus, and giving thanks to God. . . .'"
Second, Catechism, no. 1346 provides that "the liturgy of the Eucharist unfolds according to a fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day. It displays two great parts that form a fundamental unity:
— the gathering, the liturgy of the Word, with readings, homily, and general intercessions;
–the liturgy of the Eucharist, with the presentation of the bread and wine [i.e., the offertory], the consecratory thanksgiving, and Communion.
"The liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist together form 'one single act of worship'; the Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord."
Again, while I don't think the Church provides a specific moment, I think it's clear from the above and countless other cites that the Church intends the faithful to participate not simply in the liturgy of the Eucharist but also the liturgy of the Word. Therefore, it would seem to me that showing up after the liturgy of the Word is completed ordinarily would be "too late" when it comes to satisfying one's Mass obligation.
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