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The Eucharist as Communion Sacrament
by Fr. John Hardon, S.J.
There is generally no difficulty speaking about the Holy Eucharist as sacrament. In fact, this is the way most Catholics think of the Holy Eucharist. However, our perspective will be more specific. We will reflect on the meaning of the Holy Eucharist as a channel of grace and how Holy Communion is a means of obtaining supernatural sustenance for the divine life we received at Baptism.
The Churchs doctrinal history of Holy Communion goes back to the first century as found in the Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written abound the year 90 A.D. from then on, there has been a steady stream of ecclesiastical teaching which continues to our day. As might be expected, this teaching has grown in depth and clarity due to the challenges of erroneous doctrine. We can therefore speak without ambiguity about the sacramental effects of receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion.
Source of the Church's Teaching
The primary source of our faith in the effects of Holy Communion is the clear teaching of Christ Himself as recorded by the Evangelist St. John. As we have already seen, heretical sects arose before the second century, claiming Christ was either not truly God or not truly man. That is why, as history tells us, St. John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the fourth Gospel mainly to show that Jesus was indeed both true God and true man. That is why John concentrates so much on showing Jesus was God Himself in human form. That is also why St. John devotes the whole sixth chapter of his gospel (72 verses) to the account of Christs promise to give us His Flesh to eat and His Blood to drink. Just as uncompromisingly as Christ taught that He was giving His real Body and His real Blood for our spiritual nourishment, so the Catholic Church has taught ever since from the dawn of Christianity, the Church understood Holy Communion to be the reception of the Living Christ Himself. But now, there has been such a medley of ideas about the Eucharist as Communion that we better make sure we know what we mean by Holy Communion. We believe Holy Communion is Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His Divinity and Humanity, whom we receive into our bodies in order to sanctify our souls.
State of Grace Required
When we say Holy Communion confers grace, this does not mean it confers sanctifying grace. On the contrary Holy Communion is a sacrament of the living. In order to receive fruitfully, a person must first of all be living in friendship with God living in the state of grace. Otherwise, so far from benefiting from Holy Communion, a person commits a sacrilege. And in St. Pauls words, such a person Draws condemnation on Himself.
We do not have to be mystics to know that not a few people are receiving sacrilegious Communions. Pope John Paul II said as much on his first visit to the United States. He pleaded with the bishops to promote the sacrament of Confession. So many going to Communion, He told them, and so few going to Confession.
This follows logically from Christs own teaching that Holy Communion nourishes the life of God already possessed by the communicant. We do not feed a dead body with natural food or drink. No less can we feed a spiritually dead soul with supernatural food and drink. The sacrament Christ instituted to restore supernatural life to a person in mortal sin is the sacrament of Penance, not the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The flood of errors rampant in allegedly Catholic circles is a deluge. I was recently shown a parish bulletin in which parishioners were instructed to tell only one mortal sin when they go to Confession. What if I have committed two mortal sins? How could I revitalize my spiritual life in order to receive Holy Communion faithfully?
Effects of the Sacrament of Communion
There are nine effects of Holy Communion which are produced in the person who receives Our Lord in the state of grace. Each of these effects has a mounting library of literature explaining what the effects mean and how they sanctify those who receive Our Lord worthily. Well just cover these nine effects briefly:
1. Sustenance of the Supernatural Life
Following the promise of Christ, the most basic consequences of Holy Communion is to enable the communicant to remain supernaturally alive. Not once, but several times in the Gospel of John, Jesus came back to this theme: If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever. Again: Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. Still again: He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has life everlasting. And once more: As the Living Father has sent Me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. (John 52-59).
2. Promise of Bodily Resurrection from the Dead
In the same context of Johns Gospel, Christ promised the person receiving Him in Holy Communion, I will raise him up on the Last Day. Consequently, receiving the Glorified Christ into our pathetically mortal bodies is a prelude and promise for having our bodies immortalized and glorified on the day of resurrection at the end of time.
3. Remission of Venial Sins
As explained by the Church, whatever the soul loses by venial sins can be totally restored through Holy Communion. Thus, we can follow through on the same analogy as bodily sustenance. The daily wear and tear on our bodies resulting from effort, exertion, and fatigue has its spiritual counterpart in the human soul. There are strong, healthy bodies and strong, healthy souls. And there are weak, debilitated human souls in need of repair. In the words of St. Ambrose, This Daily Bread (of Holy Communion) is taken as a remedy for daily infirmity.
4. Protection Against Future Sins
Two basic forms of spiritual protection are taught by the Church. Holy Communion protects the recipient from the contagion of sin, like a spiritual vaccine. And it protects the soul from the assaults of temptation like a supernatural armor against the attacks of the world and the devil.
St. Cyprian, writing in the early third century, says Christians imprisoned and tortured for the name of Christ received from the hand of the Bishop the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, so they would not yield to a Roman prosecutor and deny their faith. Before going on trial, they pleaded, Give me Communion, so Ill be able to resist.
From the very beginning of the Church, this was the reason Holy Communion was brought to the early Christians in prison for confirming their faith and strengthening them in their struggle with the enemies of Christs name. If we think for a moment that the age of persecution has passed, we are living in a dream world. The real world in which we live is a world that hates Christ and His followers and yes, the verb is hates. Anytime I begin to doubt that, all I have to do is turn to the media, which will do anything to tear down the name of Christianity and especially loves to humiliate the Catholic Church. We desperately need to receive Holy Communion as often as we can to protect us against the virulent hatred found in Christs enemies today.
5. Curbs the Urges of Concupiscence
We know that concupiscence is the wound of original sin. Concupiscence is the unruly desires of the will and emotions of the body, which require supernatural control. There is no way known to God or man that we can control our passions of flesh or soul by ourselves or even with the help of other human beings. For years I have told my students in teaching comparative religion that Christianity, with emphasis on Catholic Christianity, must be the one true religion. It provides the means for human beings to live as human beings by controlling themselves.
If we rely on our own human nature, we simply cannot control our passions of flesh or soul. We need to use supernatural means, especially those found in the Eucharist. This is so true, and the verdict of history is certain: either a person receives Holy Communion frequently and regularly or human nature is no match for the passions of pride and lust pride to dominate others and lust to enjoy the pleasure of the flesh. Either we receive Holy Communion and acquire mastery of these irrational drives, or we become further moral casualties in the war between ourselves and the forces of evil. The greatest saints were among the most passionate people known in human history. But they needed the means of controlling and actually stilling this passionate hurricane. They found the supernatural means to do this in the Holy Eucharist.
6. Spiritual Joy
The Church compares the effects of savory food and drink for the body with a spiritual satisfaction assured the soul through Holy Communion. For example, we can eat food A, and we can eat food B, and both foods may nourish the body. But there is a great difference between eating food you enjoy and eating food where you have to make an act of faith that the food is good for you!
Similarly, we are not only to practice virtue; we are to enjoy doing the will of God. Of course, this happiness may be joined with physical or emotional pain. But even so, our living the life of grace should be peace-giving, joy-receiving, and happiness-producing. And faith tells us that the principal source of this earthly beatitude is the frequent reception of Holy Communion. For example, people often tell me, I am trying to do Gods Will, but it is such a burden. I read the lives of the saints, and I cant believe it; it must be spiritual fiction. I cant live a life like that. In turn, I ask, How often do you go to Communion?
Start going at least twice a week or even every day if you can. Then come back and talk to me again.
There is one sure way a doctor recognizes the value of the medication he prescribes: he asks, Does it do any good? with the centuries of the Churchs experience, we can say: This works. This prescription frequent reception of Holy Communion truly works.
7. Perseverence in Grace
One of the most sobering truths of our faith is that even a lifetime of virtue is not of itself a guarantee of final perseverance. Final perseverance is a special gift from God that we cannot directly will of God, we might think: The least God can give me is the guarantee that I am going to die in His friendship. No, I must beg for the gift of final perseverance, the most important grace which will open the doors of Heaven. Final perseverance must be prayed for. That is why we close every Hail Mary with the invocation, Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. and we can obtain the grace of final perseverance. The Church tells us the single most powerful guarantee for assurance of dying in Gods friendship is frequent and fervent reception of Holy Communion.
8. Growth in the Supernatural Life
It stands to revealed reason that Holy Communion increases sanctifying grace, nurtures our spiritual life and enables us to grow in Gods grace as no other means available to us in this valley of tears. There is more here than meets the eye. Every worthy reception of Holy Communion deepens the life of God in our souls, draws us closer to the Holy Trinity and makes us more pleasing to the divine majesty. After all, this is the source of growth in the spiritual life. The essence of holiness is not in the practice of virtue but in the persons possession of grace. A newborn child just baptized is holy because that child possesses the grace of God. That is why over the centuries, the Communion Sacrament of the Eucharist has been called Holy Communion. The Holy Eucharist sanctifies. The Holy Eucharist makes us more like Christ and increases the divine life in our souls.
9. Remission of Sin
It is a part of Christs teaching that Holy Communion removes both the guilt of venial sin and the debt of pain due to our forgiven sins. This does not minimize the importance and value of the sacrament of Confession, but it does mean that in Holy Communion, we have a divinely ordained means for the remission of sin on these two levels: on the remission of guilt of venial sin (not mortal sin) and on the remission of temporal punishment (not eternal punishment) for those sins. Through Holy Communion, our duty to suffer is mitigated by the merciful God. In Holy Communion, we receive the merciful God who exercises His mercy every time we receive His Body into our body, His Soul into our soul. As a result, He makes us less sinful with every Communion we receive. You might say this is the parallel to growth in sanctity.
We close this meditation with the prayer of Thomas Aquinas for thanksgiving after Holy Communion.
I give you thanks, Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Everlasting God, that You have vouchsafed to feed me, a sinner, your unworthy servant for no merits of my own, but only through the goodness of Your great mercy with the Precious Body and Blood of Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I ask that this Holy Communion may not add to my guilt for punishment, but become a saving intercession for my pardon. May it serve as an armor of faith and a shield of good will. May it drive out my evil inclinations, dispel all wicked desires and fleshly temptations, increase charity, patience, humility, obedience in all my virtues. May it be a firm plot against all my enemies, both seen and unseen; a perfect quieting of all movements to sin both in my flesh and spirit; a strong attachment to You, the only true God; and a happy ending of my life. I beg of You to bring me, a sinner, to the Ineffable Face where we will, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit Who are two Holy Ones, two alike, full satisfaction, everlasting joy my pleasure and perfect satisfaction. Amen.
Apostolate of Holy Communion
In the light of all that we have said, there is one more message I would like to leave with you. May I encourage you to become an Apostle of Holy Communion?
What is an Apostle of Holy Communion? An Apostle of Holy Communion is one who shares with others his own deep experience of the blessings received by receiving Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The Church tells us that Holy Communion is holy precisely because it sanctifies those who receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This experience is to be passed on to others. After all, that is the heart of charity. What is the heart of charity? The heart of charity is to share with others what God in His merciful love has given to us. Is there any gift deeper or more sublime, greater or more divine that the Lord can give us than Himself, the God-Man in Holy Communion?
But we must be deeply motivated to promote the frequent reception of Holy Communion among those who enter our lives. We must be convinced from personal experience of the miraculous power which Holy Communion gives us to do the humanly impossible because we receive the Incarnate Miracle Worker every time we receive Holy Communion.
This is my fiftieth year in the priesthood, words fail me as I try to tell you of the wonders of graces which Jesus produces in those who receive Him as often as possible. Sinners who for years had been steeped in sin grow in virtue beyond all human expectations victims of injustice and cruelty acquire superhuman patience. The lukewarm are set on fire with the love of God.
The key word in becoming an Apostle of Holy Communion is conviction. We must be absolutely convinced of two things: that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, and that in receiving the Eucharist we receive what no one else can provide, the light to see everything in the world through the eyes of God.
Over the centuries one of the favorite titles of the Holy Eucharist has been The Source of Charity. It was not co-incidental but profoundly providential that on Holy Thursday night Christ gave us what He called the New Commandment and Holy Eucharist.
The New Commandment as we know, was never before articulated in divine revelation. It is nothing less than loving others even as Christ the Son of God Who became the Son of Mary loves us. Talk about the humanly impossible. This is the peak of moral impossibility. Like Christ we are to love others even to being willing to die out of love for them. This is the exact opposite of the morality of this world which tells people to love themselves even to killing people including children, out of demonic self-adoring, self-love. Christ had no choice. Having given us the humanly impossible commandment of loving others as He has loved us He had to provide the means for doing the impossible. What are these means? They are nothing less than giving Himself to us in Holy Communion. His Body enters our body. His Soul enters our soul. His human Mind enters our mind. His human Will enters our will. But faith tells us that this Body and Soul and Mind and Will of Christ as man is united with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. His humanity therefore is the channel by which He pours His divine grace into us, enabling us to live up to what two thousand years of Christianity have proved to be true.
For the first time in Christian history the Vicar of Christ not only permits but encourages the faithful to receive Communion twice on the same day. Believe me this is not an exaggeration of piety, but the expression of a sobering reality. We Catholics are now living in the age of martyrs. We are to love our persecutors and pray for those who hate us. Why? So that we may convert them from their selfish treachery to the selfless practice of Christianity. How can we do this? Only by frequently receiving Our Lord in Holy Eucharist and promoting this practice in the lives of fellow Catholics to the best of our ability.
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