Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 24: Ambiguity and Eucharistic Instruction

Recently, I wrote about how the linguistic fallacy called ambiguity contributed to the 1839 martyrdom of John Williams — one of my ancestors, and a pioneering missionary to Polynesia. I also related how the religious instruction we often get as Catholics is logically ambiguous, causing many Catholic to believe that in order to live a full and abundant Catholic life all they have to do is just show up for Mass and take the Eucharist — even ambivalently. Yet, Christ reacts to such ambivalence with words like: “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15).

Dr. Robert Fastiggi, a theologian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, agreed to an interview about this problem and the prevailing attitude that going to Mass and taking the Eucharist is all anyone needs to lead a solid Christian life. Here is an edited version of our conversation. Consider this the second half of that earlier article, the part that tells us what to do about certain aspects of ambiguity in the Church.

bread1.jpgWilliams: Dr. Fastiggi, Catholic pastors communicate a great deal about the importance of just showing up and receiving the Eucharist, regardless of the parishioner’s disposition. Isn’t it true that taking the sacraments unworthily is a sin?

Fastiggi: The sacraments are instituted by Christ so it’s not as though we should deemphasize the sacraments. Especially the Holy Eucharist. These are wonderful gifts and there’s no more powerful way of drawing close to our Lord than receiving the Holy Eucharist in this life. So, I don’t think the emphasis on taking the Eucharist whenever possible is misguided.

Williams: But, where do you think…

Fastiggi: …the problem lies? I think that some people are not well catechized in terms of the need for a preparation beyond just showing up to receive the Holy Eucharist. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that we are to “discern the body and blood of our Lord” when we receive…we are to examine ourselves and make sure we are in a state of grace…

Williams: In paragraph 1127 of the Catechism, the very first phrase says, “Celebrated worthily in faith the Sacraments confer the grace that they signify.” So, people have got to want to be there, don’t they?

Fastiggi: Exactly, exactly. While, I suppose, it might be better for them to be there just in body rather than also in heart, there is a difference. It’s what we call in theology the difference between ex opere operato and ex opere operantis. In the first, the body of Christ becomes present if the sacrament is done in the proper form with the proper matter and the proper intention and with the proper minister.

But in the second, ex opere operantis, if the person takes the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, the person receives the body and blood of Christ only sacramentally, not interiorly. That is, such a person does not have a spiritual benefit because they are unworthily receiving.

Williams: Apologist Marty Barrack writes, “Our good disposition determines the amount of grace we obtain”…even in sacramentals. “Praying a Rosary will give little or no grace if we make no effort to focus on the mysteries or if we simply pay no attention to what is going on” (footnote 1). That’s what the Catechism means when it says that the fruits of the sacrament depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

Fastiggi: Exactly. Spiritually there has to be a preparation. As the Council of Trent said — and it has been repeated numerous times — after the consecration, the whole Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, is really, truly and substantially contained in the outward appearances of bread and wine. That’s what we’re talking about. That presence is there even if someone were to receive the Holy Communion unworthily.

But to receive both, as the Council of Trent said, sacramentally and spiritually there has to be proper preparation: spiritual preparation. This is one reason why minimally one should fast from solid foods and liquids other than water at least one hour. Now, when I was growing up it was 3 hours. And my parents would remember when it was from Midnight the night before so that one was really spiritually prepared. Something we don’t like to mention is that, in the 16th Century, it was in the catechism of the Council of Trent that married couples should abstain from conjugal relations several days before receiving Holy Communion. That was considered a pious practice.

Williams: Several days before?

Fastiggi: Three days.

Williams: No sex for three days before receiving Holy Communion?

Fastiggi: Yes. It was very difficult to enforce. But, that is what was specified in the Roman Catechism in 1566. That is what was taught. It was a sense of the awesomeness that one made a great spiritual preparation to worthily receive our Lord. Now in the present Catechism of the Catholic Church, there’s just some beautiful but very brief admonitions:

To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor, (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest (CCC 1387).

So we are to dress modestly.

Williams: Someone should tell that to the folks at our church who come in beach wear, and we’re nowhere near the beach. I think it’s pathetic. I think this is one of those things where, although the Church is teaching the right stuff, Catholic parishes should take a lesson from Evangelicals. My mother would refuse to sit next to me during Evangelical services if I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie in the dead of summer.

Fastiggi: In the warmer months this is an issue. Even though our outward bodily appearance should convey the respect, there should be an interior preparation. This is where I would recommend that part of John Paul II’s great encyclical, the last encyclical he wrote before going to the Lord, Ecclesia De Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church), where he talks about learning in the School of Mary and developing a Eucharistic demeanor in the School of Mary. Because she held the living God in her womb for nine months, so she can help us to receive the Lord into our bodies for that brief period of time where the outward appearances remain. So, I think that the Church is trying to cultivate that interior sense and those who say, “Well, the Catholic Church teaches externalism” really have not taken the time to read the sources.

Williams: But the typical lay person is never going to read an encyclical. You have to because it’s your job as a theologian. But how do we help the common person understand what’s supposed to go on inside of them?

Fastiggi: There are so many ways that we can improve the catechesis. One way of beginning is teaching people about the proper atmosphere at a church. Their actions should convey that sense of awesomeness of what is going on. There is great power in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. Gestures mean a lot. We’re told to make a sign of reverence before the Eucharist before receiving like a small bow. This is not, I think, taught well enough. And also to genuflect, or, if one is not able to do that, to bow when going past the tabernacle because of the Lord’s presence there.

Williams: Today during the Eucharistic prayer I heard a noise coming from the Eucharistic chapel, which is at the front of our church to one side. I looked up, and there was a mother letting her small toddler run around between the kneelers, while she stood with her back to the tabernacle. Finally, the father came and took the kid to the back of the church and sent the mother back to the pew. But never did any of them show any reverence to the Tabernacle or even hint that they knew Who was there.

Fastiggi: I just heard this last night from Fr. Groeschel — the chit chat that goes on during Mass. It should not be. People should not be reading the bulletins or so on. There should be teaching and preaching about these things, not just on Corpus Christie, but on other Sundays encouraging people to become spiritually prepared.

Williams: What does taking the Eucharist mean practically for my day to day life? If we can be idealistic for a moment: I take the Eucharist every Sunday. What should that do to my life practically in terms of what people see in my life?

Fastiggi: Well we have to ask ourselves what is the Christian life all about? It’s growing closer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s growing in the love of God and the love of neighbor. So receiving the source of grace into our very bodies — Christ, the source of our life, of Grace, our sanctification — catches us from sin and really cleanses us from venial sin. Now it doesn’t cleanse us from mortal sin. Iif one is conscious of grave sin, you go to sacramental confession before receiving. But these non-mortal sins, these venial sins, these weaknesses we have — the receiving worthily of Holy Communion not only purifies us of those sins but it strengthens us, strengthens our character so that we are less likely to commit these venial sins in the future. So if we worthily receive our Lord in the Eucharist we grow in the knowledge and love of God, we become more like Christ, it’s the process of becoming divinized.

Williams: Or becoming the body of Christ.

Fastiggi: Yes, that’s right.

Williams: As an extraordinary minister, I hold up the Host, and I am conscious, so much of the time, that when I look past the Host and look in the person’s eyes and I say ‘the body of Christ,’ I am holding and presenting the body of Christ literally and substantively in my hand, but I am looking to the person that is the body of Christ as well. And when they are united they should become more like Christ in every way.

Fastiggi: Well that is paragraph 1596 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: that those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, the Eucharist, Christ unites them — all the faithful — in one body, the Church.

Williams: But it does take their conscious effort to become like that. As I look into people’s eyes I sometimes wonder if, in spite of the Real Presence, if taking Christ internally is really going to change some people. It doesn’t happen magically without their will.

Fastiggi: No, no. It becomes much more fruitful with their will. We do have to judge by appearances but we have to realize that even our human judgment is sometimes flawed. Man judges by appearances and God looks at the heart, as the book of Samuel tells us. We keep that in mind, yet on the other hand we do pick up clues in terms of body language and facial expressions, and you as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion see this and you wonder “Well, what’s going on?”

Williams: I’m always praying that they get it.

Fastiggi: This is the living God. This is the Creator of the universe you are going to receive under the form of what seems to be bread and wine but it is the living God. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s the same Christ that Thomas bowed before or prostrated before and he said “My Lord, and my God.”

Williams: But how do we inculcate that? How do we help people understand?

Fastiggi: This is where Eucharistic adoration, even if it is for a couple of hours a week or one day a week, helps the whole parish, and then we should get people to participate in Eucharistic Congresses.

There’s this group called Generation Christ in Ann Arbor, young adults 18 to 35. They give up an hour of Sunday night to spend in Eucharistic adoration, hear a little reflection and then socialize afterwards. What better place to meet someone, even a prospective spouse, someone who loves the Eucharist?

Williams: What a great date night!

Fastiggi: There’s so much more that could be done. We have the right teaching but we just don’t live up to it.

Williams: Yes, we have the right teaching but there’s not enough of it or people aren’t exposed to it. In some of my other writing I’m trying to encourage Catholic parishes to start thinking about adult faith formation more like evangelicals do, where there’s Sunday school for all adults every Sunday for an hour — an hour of instruction before worship, every Sunday, all year long. The evangelicals do a better job at this. And, of course, evangelicals pile on top of that Bible studies during the week that a lot of people go to, and then there are the 45-minute homilies, with Bibles open in every lap.

Fastiggi: Wow! There’s a lot we could do. He wants to give us His very Self. He wants to give of Himself all that He is — body, blood, soul, and divinity — and to enter into us so we can become more like Him, because that is what is preparing us for our eternal life, where we are transformed and transfigured after the pattern of our Lord’s resurrected Body.

Williams: Let me ask you this one last question. One of the characteristics of Gnosticism is the rejection of the physical realm’s association with grace. That is, the physical realm is evil, and the spiritual realm is good. Is there a name for this opposite kind of Gnosticism that says “All I gotta do is show up for Mass, and what goes on inside doesn’t matter”? Is there a name for that?

Dr. Fastiggi: Hmmm. How about superficialism?

Williams: Superficialism, that’s it. The new heresy. You heard it here first, folks.

Dr. Fastiggi: I think what needs to be stressed is if one is conscious of grave sin, one is not to receive Holy Communion. I know a priest in Ann Arbor — of a homily that he gave where he stressed this and apparently some people got up and left. They said “I’m worthy to receive. Who’s he to tell me?” But I saw him afterward and he told me: “I heard many wonderful confessions after that homily.” So, there’re some people who just don’t know if you’re cohabitating and you’re not married and you’re having conjugal relations when you’re not entitled to them, you shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion.

Williams: That’s good.

Fastiggi: Mother Teresa’s sisters spend an hour each day in Eucharistic adoration and then they go serve Christ and the poor. Some people set one against the other. It’s not Eucharistic adoration against the poor. It’s both. This is the Catholic faith: that we have to emphasize both. If we’re not rooted in Christ then social action could just be some kind of secular activity. We need “to be animated by the love of Christ,” as Pope Benedict so beautifully put it.

Williams: Dr. Robert Fastiggi, thank you so much.

Fastiggi: Thank you Stan, and may God bless you.

Williams: God Bless you too.

Fastiggi: Pray for us.

Williams: And for us.

[Footnote 1:]

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