Thursday, November 10, 2016

When You're the Only Person in the Pew During Communion

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed!”

With that being said, we all approach the altar and receive a dry little wafer that has miraculously become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of Our Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s quite a big deal, and a belief that sets us Catholics apart and even at odds with other Christian denominations, who believe that the Eucharist is only a symbol.

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is mainly drawn from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus tells His disciples “My flesh is true food and My Blood is true drink….unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you will not have eternal life.” Pretty harsh words, but He doesn’t soften them or explain them away, even after most of His disciples decide that He’s nuts and beat feet. “Will you also leave?” Jesus sadly asks Peter, who reassures Him that he will not. Peter, later to become the first Pope, was the first to affirm his belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Church still maintains this truth today.  

However, many Catholics are ignorant about this essential truth of the Catholic faith. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that only 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.” But even if a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, this does not mean that the teaching is irrelevant or false: it simply means that the Church should do more to proclaim and explain that teaching. 

After Vatican II, our awareness of sin became muddled as the Church tried to shy away from the justice of God and focused more on His love and mercy. While love and mercy are essential, they are also incomplete without justice. Forgiveness costs: it costs dearly. It cost our God His life. Jesus endured His horrific passion and death because of my sins, because of your sins. Every time we look at a crucifix, it should remind us that the wages of sin is death.

The Church defines sin in two ways: Mortal and Venial. Venial sins are, shall we say, the lesser of two evils. They include things like fibbing, being lazy, getting impatient, and neglecting prayer, to name a few. They weaken the soul, but they do not prevent it from receiving grace from God. Also, it is permissible to receive communion if you have unconfessed venial sins on your conscience: the Eucharist actually strengthens you and remits much of the temporal punishment you would have otherwise received.  

Mortal sins, however, are much more serious, and few people realize that it is NOT OK, except under dire circumstances, to receive Communion if you are in a state of mortal sin. Unfortunately, mortal sins make a long and complicated list. Masturbation, viewing pornography, making out, having sex outside of marriage, abortion, willful murder, sodomy, and deliberately missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation are serious mortal sins that actually KILL grace in the soul and cut it off from God. Mortal sins can only be forgiven by a priest in the sacrament of Confession. For an explanation of where and how mortal sins are mentioned in the Bible, click here.

Mortal sin must meet three conditions: 1) It must be considered grave matter by the Catholic Church, 2) The person committing the sin must know it is grave matter, 3) The person must commit the sin with full consent of the will, without being forced.

Of course, no one wants to be excluded from the most important part of the Mass. It’s embarrassing and awkward to sit despondently in the pew while everyone else climbs over you, giving you dirty or self-righteous sympathetic looks, and trots up there to receive Jesus without a care in the world. When I was in college, one of my classmates would brag about all the sex she would have with her boyfriend during the week. On Sundays, she would stand on the altar as a Eucharistic minister. When I politely confronted her about it, she responded with a dismissive “Well, MY God is OK with it.” Oh, really?

Even more frustrating is the various answers one will receive while asking for a definition about whether or not pornography or masturbation is a mortal sin. Most priests will definitely condemn pornography as grave matter, but they waver on masturbation, mostly because it is so addictive and affected strongly by force of habit. The Catechism states that the moral culpability of this sin can be lessened or even reduced to a minimum due to age, emotional state, force of habit, etc.

Section 2352 of the Catechism reads:

“By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."138 "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."139

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”

This statement is rather vague and not very helpful. If I had a dime for every priest who told me that masturbation isn’t a mortal sin and that it’s perfectly fine for me to receive Communion afterwards, I could fly to Hawaii and sleep in the Ilikai hotel every week. Masturbation is a sin of lust, and sins of lust are, with few exceptions, all mortal sins.

No matter what we tell ourselves, the truth remains that a soul in a state of mortal sin cannot receive grace without first being cleansed by the sacrament of Confession. If you do receive Communion in a state of mortal sin, you don’t even receive the graces you normally would because your soul is so wounded. What’s worse, you are committing the sin of sacrilege by profaning the Eucharist.

“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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” -1 Cor 11:27-30

Notice how Paul mentions that some people who had committed sacrilege by unworthily receiving communion had become sick and died. Yes, died. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We can tell ourselves “God loves me too much to make me feel embarrassed in front of my whole church,” or “I promise to go to Confession at my earliest convenience, but for now, I’m going to receive you, Lord, because I’m too ashamed not to.” But be honest: as lay persons living in the Church today, most of us have the ability to go to daily Mass and can receive the sacrament of Penance at least weekly if not whenever we bump into (or call up) our parish priest. It’s extremely rare, even nonexistent, that both of the requirements (1. receiving communion is necessary and 2. confession impossible) are met. All of the above is found in the Code of Canon Law, Book IV.

We literally have no excuse to receive in a state of mortal sin. Yet I won’t deny that it is difficult, embarrassing, and embittering. I have spent many, many Masses in the pew, with tears running down my cheeks, while everyone--and I mean EVERYONE--goes up and eats heartily of the Bread of Life, regardless of whether they’re worthy or not. Yet take courage, dear heart, for it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the Church requires that we receive Communion not once a week, not once a month, but only ONCE A YEAR (see the above link to the Code of Canon Law.) You are not required to receive Communion at every Mass, though it is certainly spiritually beneficial to do so. And of course, you can always make an act of Spiritual Communion.

On her blog Young and Catholic, Mary puts it this way:

“Honestly, yes.  It sucks not being able to receive.  To some extent that’s kind of the point: we’re not supposed to be showing off that we’re not receiving, or proud of our depraved moral state when we can’t receive Communion.  We’re supposed to humble ourselves before God, seek forgiveness, and then— still recognizing that we’re not worthy— go to receive Him in all humility while realizing that it’s precisely when we rely on our own “willpower” and “strength” that we end up waiting in our seats while the rest of the congregation goes up to receive Our Lord.  We’re powerless against sin on our own.

But as someone who used to sit wondering if I should or shouldn’t receive (and I only say “used to” because I’ve since quit making up excuses for myself, and it’s now pretty black and white when I should and shouldn’t receive), I will tell you one thing: The only thing that has ever crossed my mind with regard to those who I’ve noticed not receiving Communion at mass was how brave they are and what respect for Christ present in the Eucharist they have.

I’ll also say that if it weren’t for the witness of the young adults at my college who, despite their sins, still had a greater reverence and respect for the Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord than I did when they refrained from receiving without a second thought, I don’t know that I would have ever gotten up the courage to humble myself as they were able to.  Yes, even in the state of sin, God can use us to bring others closer to Him.

Satan would absolutely love for us to skip daily Mass because we “can’t receive Jesus anyway.”  It’s a great temptation, and even though it’s not a sin to miss daily Mass, it’s never a good idea to give into Satan’s bidding.  Trust me, God wants us at Mass even when we’re in the state of sin—probably even more so.

Besides, even though receiving Communion is the greatest thing we can do, it doesn’t mean that going to Mass is pointless if you can’t receive.  We’re still there to give God our worship.  We’re still there to offer God our prayers, yearnings, and even our shortcomings.  How can we expect to heal if we don’t spend time with the Physician?

When you can’t receive—either because of being in the state of mortal sin or simply because you can’t make it to daily Mass—pray a spiritual communion.  And remember: God still loves us, even in our sins.”

If you struggle with this, don’t be afraid. God can still bring out incredible graces from our sins. Just remember that, at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live with yourself and hold yourself accountable before God. If you see people who you know are grave sinners go up and receive Communion without a second thought, don’t become bitter or glory in your self-righteousness like a Pharisee. Pray for them, and pray for a greater respect for the Eucharist throughout the world. Offer your Mass in reparation for the terrible acts of sacrilege committed every day against Our Lord. Most people receive Communion in a state of mortal sin because they are ignorant. The Church has done a poor job in recent times to educate the faithful on the miracle of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and how we should always treat it with the greatest respect. No other religion in the world can claim the real presence of Christ in its midst except the Catholic Church. You can help spread this truth by sharing this blog post on your Facebook and Twitter and talking to your friends and family. Most importantly, continue to refrain from receiving if you are knowingly in a state of mortal sin. Often, seeing someone not receive is enough to awaken the consciences of other people who otherwise might never have considered it. 

One more thought on this matter. I was discussing this with one of my Protestant housemates, who happened to be very sexually active with her boyfriend. For her, receiving communion at her church was a way of reconciling to God and making amends for her guilt and shame. “I receive communion even more so when I’ve sinned, because that’s when I need it the most,” she explained. She has a point. When we’ve sinned, shouldn’t we run to Jesus all the more because we need Him? Isn’t that what He died for, to take away our sin? Why are we Catholics automatically excluded from the Eucharistic feast and shamed in front of the entire parish when we fall short? Have we got to be perfect angels to receive communion or what?!

Yet the phrase that keeps running through my mind is “My God is OK with it.” My classmate was truly in error, because what was “right for her God” is not, in fact, right with “THE God,” and that is the only God who matters. His ways are higher than our ways. His truth is always higher than our truth. Our truths are for our convenience; His truth is for our eternal salvation. And for one thing, we Catholics believe that the Eucharist is really and actually Jesus. My housemate is receiving mere bread at her church, while I am receiving the Word Incarnate. 

Yes, Jesus calls sinners to His table, but only after they have repented. If there is no repentance, there can be no room for His grace, and no room for salvation. The way Catholics repent is not by merely saying “I’m sorry, God,” and then going about our day, but by going to Confession, where the priest, in the person of Jesus, absolves us from our sins through the power of the Holy Spirit and channels the grace of God to strengthen us not to sin anymore. The priest also gives us a penance, which, through the justice of God, is also necessary for the complete forgiveness of sin, because forgiveness always costs something. It cost Our Savior His life, and it must also cost us something. Often this is the denial of our sinful desires, the offering up of our daily sufferings and trials, and making a continual effort to take up our cross and follow Christ. Unless we die to ourselves, we cannot attain Eternal Life.  

Yes, Jesus died and made all things new by paying for our sin. But we still have to do our part. We must repent and resolve not to sin anymore. We must give Our Lord the respect and fidelity He deserves. If we can’t receive, it’s not the end of the world. We are doing the right thing by choosing the high road. Remember, it all comes down to love, and if we love Jesus and act on that love by choosing daily to not offend Him in any way, that will be what matters most in the end.

Keep fighting. Aloha.


  1. Well said! Of course, I came to the True Faith out of Orthodoxy where I was expected to confess before EVERY Communion. I got chewed out by my pastor and regular confessor a few weeks ago. I was in a different parish and diocese visiting family. I refused to receive because of liturgical abuses and uncertainty how kneeling for Communion on the tongue (the only way I will receive!) would be received. Father said I had denied myself the grace of Holy Communion at the very time I might have needed it most.

  2. Well written for the most part... except for this outtake.

    "Of course, no one wants to be excluded from the most important part of the Mass. It’s embarrassing and awkward to sit despondently in the pew while everyone else climbs over you, giving you dirty or self-righteous sympathetic looks, and trots up there to receive Jesus without a care in the world"

    I don't beleive everyone is so presumptuous as to assume you are in the pew because you are in a state of mortal sin; it could be aa simple as you could not adhere to the communion fast because you felt weak or ill; or you will be receiving at another mass later in the day; or have a bad cold,flu and do not want to expose the priest to germs that may be spread by hand or mouth contact.

    We are not obligated to receive communion at every mass. The thought that people receive communion unworthily because they are ashamed to remain in the pew is nonsense and takes away from what is otherwise a good post.