Dear Catholic Exchange:
In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, it says that if anyone eats and drinks without discerning the body, he eats and drinks judgment on himself. How does this judgment happen and why? I understand that we should not partake of the Eucharist when we have unconfessed mortal sin, but why is one "harmed" by taking Communion with the stain of mortal sin on his soul?
Peace in Christ!
We're not told how the judgment happens. At the very least we know that each person undergoes a particular judgment at the time of his death (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1021-1022).
Much can be said about the Eucharistic mystery and how one enters in good faith. Here are but a few considerations.
A person who eats and drinks unworthily is guilty of profaning what is holy. In the passage you mention, St. Paul warns that "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord."
Of this the Catechism says:
"The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist: "Truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment." (Catechism, nos. 1384, 1385).
Thus it might be said that we are judged by how we choose to respond to such an invitation. (This brings to mind the parable of the wedding feast found in chapter 22 of the Gospel of St. Matthew.) It should also be said that when we stand before the Blessed Sacrament for Communion we stand before the Judge Himself.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, spoke of commitment:
"Proclaiming the death of the Lord "until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26) entails that all who take part in the Eucharist be committed to changing their lives and making them in a certain way completely "Eucharistic."
But he later emphasized the seriousness of approaching the Eucharist in a worthy manner, including the following quote:
"Saint John Chrysostom, with his stirring eloquence, exhorted the faithful: "I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called 'communion', not even were we to touch the Lord's body a thousand times over, but 'condemnation', 'torment' and 'increase of punishment'."
Thus, in addition to an encounter with the Sacred (with Christ), Communion is a proclamation of truth "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup" (1 Cor. 11:26). Approaching and giving our "Amen," outwardly proclaiming, when we think and act in contradiction to the "Amen" would be a great lie.
I hope these thoughts are helpful. It should be noted that an entire aspect of community that has been omitted here because we're focusing on the individual (the passage begins with verse 18). For more information please see our Faith Fact, Worthy Reception of Holy Communion.
United in the Faith,
Catholics United for the Faith
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