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Sacrament of Communion

by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke


Having interrupted my reflections upon Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter "Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church)," to address the historic events of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, and to urge your participation in the Annual Catholic Appeal for the support of the Church’s many apostolates, I return to the consideration of the encyclical letter as an aid to your participation in the Year of the Eucharist. Today, I write about the fourth chapter, "The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion."

The principal image with which the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council described the nature of the Church was communion. The Church is the instrument of our communion with God and with one another. It is her mission to safeguard and foster our communion with God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and our communion with all the faithful.

The celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the highest expression of the Church’s identity as communion. Through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Church best carries out her mission of maintaining and promoting "communion with the Triune God and communion among the faithful" (no. 34). It is not surprising to us, therefore, that one of our most common ways of naming the Holy Eucharist is Holy Communion.

Desire for Holy Communion

There can be no fuller communion with God than the Holy Eucharist, in which we receive the Body of Christ, God the Son made man for our salvation. For the person of faith, all other goods in life are seen always in relationship to the Holy Eucharist, our greatest good. The measure of the depth of our Catholic faith is clearly the strength of our desire to receive Holy Communion.

Our late Holy Father reminded us that the practice of making a "spiritual communion" comes from our deep desire to receive the Body of Christ. "Spiritual communion" is the expression of our profound and enduring desire to receive the Body of Christ. The act of spiritual communion prepares us fittingly for the time when we are able to receive Holy Communion.

Whenever we experience a period of time during which we may not receive Holy Communion because we are guilty of a mortal sin which we have not confessed in the Sacrament of Penance or because we are, in some other way, not properly disposed to receive, then we unite ourselves to Christ in the best possible way by expressing, in prayer, our desire to receive Him. God always responds to our act of spiritual communion with the help of His grace. Regarding spiritual communion, Pope John Paul II quotes St. Teresa of Avila, doctor of the Church:

"When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you" (no. 34b).

Too easily, receiving Holy Communion can become rote for us. Whenever we are at Mass, we simply receive Holy Communion without reflecting upon the reality of the sacrament and our disposition to receive the Body of Christ.

The temptation to receive Holy Communion without recognizing the sacrament has beset the Church from her very beginnings. St. Paul addressed the situation of Christians at Corinth who were receiving Holy Communion while, at the same time, engaging publicly in activities which offended Christ and contradicted true communion with Him (1 Corinthians 11:17-29). The practice of making "spiritual communion" helps us to avoid approaching the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist routinely, that is, without due reflection.

Invisible Dimension of Communion

Pope John Paul II points out that the Holy Eucharist sustains and develops a certain communion which necessarily must precede it and which it expresses. The communion which participation in the Holy Eucharist presupposes has both invisible and visible dimensions.

The invisible dimension of communion is the life of grace within us. It is only by God’s grace that we have communion with Him and with one another. God, for His part, gives us the virtues of faith, hope and love — our reason for calling them the theological virtues — and we, for our part, cultivate these virtues and the moral virtues by which we, with the help and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, become more like Christ.

The invisible dimension of communion, which is the presupposition of Eucharistic Communion, demands that we examine ourselves before approaching to receive the Body of Christ and that, if we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin, we seek the forgiveness of God in the Sacrament of Penance before approaching to receive Holy Communion (no. 36).

The Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Penance are intimately related to each other. Communion in the Body of Christ necessarily inspires daily conversion of life, which is greatly helped through frequent confession. With the ardent desire of the Holy Eucharist comes also a deep sorrow for the ways in which we have offended God and our neighbor. The response to sorrow for sin, even venial sin, is the reconciliation with God and with the Church, which is God’s gift to us in the Sacrament of Penance. Grave or mortal sin prohibits our reception of Holy Communion, until we have received God’s forgiveness of our sin in the Sacrament of Penance. Eucharistic Communion, moreover, will inspire within us the desire to confess also our venial sins, lest we grow complacent and lukewarm in our love of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Each of us must examine his conscience regarding the state of grace, which is required to receive Holy Communion, each time we approach the sacrament. The Holy Father also mentions the case of public conduct which is "seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm." If a person is guilty of such conduct, then the Church must deny Holy Communion to him (canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law). If the person guilty of such conduct does not examine his conscious and refrain from approaching to receive Holy Communion, then the Church herself is required to refuse Holy Communion to the person. Such action of the Church is required to safeguard the sanctity of the Most Blessed Sacrament and to avoid confusion and scandal in the community of faith (no. 37).

Visible Dimension of Communion

The visible dimension of the communion which is the precondition for Eucharistic Communion is oneness in the doctrine of the faith, in the sacraments and in Church governance (nos. 35a and 38a). Reception of the Body of Christ is the manifestation of fullness of communion in the Church and, therefore, demands that the visible bonds of communion be present. It is, therefore, never permitted to give Holy Communion to someone who dissents from the truth of the faith regarding the Holy Eucharist or who is not baptized (no. 38b).

Eucharistic Communion is also communion with one’s own bishop and with the Roman pontiff, for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the local community is the celebration of the one Church throughout the whole world. The bishop is "the visible principle and the foundation of unity within his particular Church." It is a contradiction to speak of the celebration of the Church’s great sacrament of unity when communion with the bishop is lacking. Likewise, the Holy Eucharist must be celebrated in communion with the Roman pontiff, the successor of St. Peter, who, in the words of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful" (no. 39b).

Fostering Communion

Participation in Holy Communion, when it is sincere, leads us to examine anything which separates us from one another, and to seek reconciliation. Holy Communion fosters harmony among the members of the Body of Christ.

The obligation of participation in Sunday Mass follows from the importance of the Holy Eucharist in fostering communion among all the members of the Church. In the Holy Eucharist, the community of disciples finds its true identity, and also the inspiration and strength to conform itself more and more to that identity by overcoming any element of division. Pope John Paul II recalled his apostolic letter "Dies Domini (Day of the Lord)," in which he presented the rich significance of the Sunday Mass obligation.

"All of us have responsibility for the fostering of communion in the Church and, therefore, must give special care to the Holy Eucharist. Those who have pastoral authority in the Church are especially bound to make known and to apply faithfully the Church’s "norms aimed both at fostering frequent and fruitful access of the faithful to the eucharistic table and at determining the objective conditions under which Communion may not be given" (no. 42).

The Holy Eucharist fosters unity among Christians through the prayer, which it naturally inspires, that all may be one in Christ. At the same time, because Eucharistic Communion requires full communion in the faith, in the sacraments and in Church governance, it is not possible to celebrate the Holy Eucharist when those bonds do not fully exist. To attempt the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with those who are not in full communion with the Church is not a means of fostering unity and, in fact, becomes an obstacle to unity because it ignores what yet divides us and causes confusion about fundamental truths of the faith (no. 44).

Our late Holy Father reviewed the Church’s discipline regarding the administration of the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. They may receive these sacraments under the following conditions, to be verified in the case of each individual who request the sacraments: 1) the individual cannot approach his own minister; 2) he seeks the sacraments spontaneously; 3) he manifests Catholic faith in the sacraments; and 4) he is properly disposed (canon 844, paragraphs 3-4). Pope John Paul II made clear that the just-mentioned discipline respects "a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer." It is not an attempt "to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established" (no. 45a).

In this regard, our late and beloved Holy Father reminded us that an essential part of faith in the sacraments is "the truth regarding the need of the ministerial priesthood for their validity." If the person requesting the sacraments does not hold to this truth, then he or she does not manifest Catholic faith in the sacraments and may not receive them. This also explains the discipline by which a Catholic, under certain conditions, may approach a non-Catholic minister to receive the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, as long as the sacraments are validly celebrated in the Church of the non-Catholic minister (canon 844, paragraph 2) (nos. 45-46).


The careful study of the relationship of Holy Communion to the communion of the Church inspires in us an ever deeper knowledge and love of our Eucharistic Lord. Such study also helps us to give faithful witness to the sacred truth regarding the Holy Eucharist, our greatest treasure of faith, so that the Blessed Sacrament may foster our communion with God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and our communion with our fellow members of the Church and with all Christians.

St. Louis Review Online
May 13, 2005

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