Holy Communion

© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon

This article taken from the book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith, coming in March 2003 from Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at osvbooks@osv.com or call 1-800-348-2440. Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: grace@deargrace.com. You may also visit Grace online at www.DearGrace.com.

It is true that in the year 1531, after the “miracle of the roses” – which confirmed the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God at Tepeyac Hill in New Spain (later known as Mexico) – Bishop Don Juan de Zumarraga granted to Juan Diego a very special permission to receive Holy Communion three days a week at Mass. In the sixteenth century, this was an unusual accommodation. The reason that it was so unusual at that time was due to a historical rigorism similar to Jansenism, a movement that, in the seventeenth century, became widespread in France and the Spanish Netherlands. Essentially, the idea was that human nature was so corrupted by original sin that only the “elect” could be saved. This caused a deep sense of unworthiness that led them to be strongly opposed to frequent Communion. People did not feel decent enough to approach the table of the Lord.

The Council of Trent attempted to refute this by re-enforcing the Church’s original understanding of frequent Communion when it declared: “At each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate (receive Communion), not only in spiritual desire, but sacramentally, by the actual reception of the Eucharist” (Session 22, 6). It was the definitive wish of the Church that all Christians should be daily nourished by this heavenly banquet and should derive therefore more abundant fruit for their sanctification. But the rigoristic view of considering people unworthy of daily Communion continued long after the sixteenth century.

In 1905, the Catholic Church addressed this issue again in the Decree on the Frequent and Daily Reception of Holy Communion (Sacra Tridentina). The document makes clear that it was Jesus Himself, more than once, and in clarity of word, who pointed out the necessity of frequently eating His flesh and drinking His blood, especially in these words: “This is the bread that has come down from heaven; not as your fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this bread shall live forever” (John 6:59).

As Sacra Tridentina further explains, the idea of frequent Communion “had been understood clearly by the early Christians and they daily hastened to this table of life and strength. They continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42). Piety, however, grew cold, and especially afterward because of the widespread plague of Jansenism, disputes began to arise concerning the dispositions with which one ought to receive frequent and daily Communion. Writers vied with one another demanding more and more stringent conditions as necessary to be fulfilled. The result of such disputes was that very few were considered worthy to receive the Holy Eucharist daily, and to derive from this most health-giving sacrament its more abundant fruits; the others were content to partake of it once a year, or once a month, or at most once a week. To such a degree, indeed, was this rigorism carried that whole classes of persons were excluded from a frequent approach to the holy table.”

This was the thinking during the sixteenth century in which Juan Diego lived. Today, however, Catholics are allowed and encouraged to receive Holy Communion every day. Under certain circumstances, it may even be permitted to receive twice a day.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage