Withholding Communion at Mass

And More on Confirmation

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ROME, SEPT. 12, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: I was at a Catholic wedding where the priest only gave the holy Eucharist to the two newlyweds. Later I found out that he did this because he feared a mixed congregation -- some who might not be Catholic or who might be in the state of mortal sin -- and didn't want to risk giving the holy Eucharist to such a person. However, there were many faithful there who felt hurt and offended that we couldn't receive the Eucharist. Was this an appropriate action on the part of the priest? -- J.S., St. Louis, Missouri

A: While the priest showed commendable respect and reverence for the Eucharist, I do not believe he acted correctly in this case.

In diverse societies such as the United States, celebrations such as weddings and funerals almost always convene people of many stripes and different faiths. Therefore the danger of someone incorrectly receiving Communion is very real.

But it is not a new problem, and parishes across the country have found many viable solutions.

In some cases the pastor or another person makes an appropriate announcement either before Mass or before Communion. This announcement tactfully explains that, because it is central to our faith, Communion is reserved to Catholics in the state of grace.

Another means is to clearly print the requirements for Communion and distribute it to those present or even include it in the special booklets that are usually prepared on occasion of weddings.

If he has taken appropriate steps to inform those present of the importance of receiving Communion in the state of grace, then responsibility for an unworthy Communion falls exclusively upon the conscience of the person who receives it.

It is not the priest's task to take pre-emptive action against possible offenses against the Eucharist by limiting the distribution of the sacrament.

Also, the priest should not deprive the faithful who are in the state of grace of the opportunity of fully participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass by receiving Communion. In doing so, he unjustly deprives them of their rights as baptized Catholics.

In conclusion, I offer an excerpt from a sample text to be printed in participation aids. This very useful (document is published by the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.

"Guidelines for the Reception of Communion

"For Catholics

"As Catholics, we fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when we receive Holy Communion. We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (canon 916). A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged for all.

"For Other Christians

"We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ's prayer for us 'that they may all be one' (Jn 17:21).

"Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 § 4). Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of communion by Christians of these Churches (canon 844 § 3).

"For Those Not Receiving Communion

"All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.

"For Non-Christians

"We also welcome to this celebration those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ. While we cannot admit them to Holy Communion, we ask them to offer their prayers for the peace and the unity of the human family."

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Follow-up: When Youngsters Request Confirmation

Our Aug. 29 piece on confirmation brought to the fore some questions regarding the validity of this rite when some aspect of the ritual was not followed.

A reader from England wrote: "For the third year running the bishop neglected to physically lay hands on the candidates during a school confirmation. He moved from the introduction 'My dear friends: in baptism ...' through a brief silence (without extending hands) to 'All-powerful God....' I had always understood that in Christian tradition the laying on of hands was a means of conferring of authority and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What should we feel about these confirmations?"

Another correspondent, from Australia, presented the following case:

"I am wondering about the validity of the sacrament of confirmation in a ceremony I witnessed recently. Three adults were baptized and confirmed. Matters went quite normally, except that to each confirmand the priest celebrant said, at the anointing: 'N., receive the Holy Spirit.' (Because there were three, I am quite sure I did not mishear. These were the exact words.) Afterward I found myself wondering about the validity of these confirmations. On the one hand, all the surrounding rites and prayers made it clear that we were celebrating the Catholic sacrament of confirmation. And of course, the words have changed dramatically over the years. But, on the other hand, these words seemed excessively 'non-specific' -- one receives the Holy Spirit in every sacrament, after all. … If the confirmations were invalid, or doubtfully valid, as a bystander, am I obliged in charity to do something about it?"

The two question address different aspects of the rite of confirmation.

I have no idea why the bishop would omit the laying on of hands prescribed in this part of the rite. This laying of hands is not done physically but by the bishop, and any priests who might minister the sacrament with him, extending their hands over the candidates.

All the same, while this laying on of hands is prescribed, it is not considered as being necessary for the validity of the sacrament.

The anointing with chrism is also considered as a laying on of hands and this gesture of anointing is the sacrament's essential matter.

For this reason, in the Roman rite, the anointing must always be done by hand and it is not permitted to use an instrument to do so.

Our correspondent could, perhaps, write a polite note to the bishop, simply mentioning that he had noticed this oversight in the rites of confirmation and that it would be good to recover this meaningful gesture.

The second situation is far more delicate. The sacramental formula is "N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit."

While it could be argued that this means essentially the same as "N., receive the Holy Spirit" this latter formula is not the sacramental form as currently used in the universal Church.

It is also highly debatable that the formula is truly equivalent, being sealed by the Holy Spirit is not exactly the same as receiving the Holy Spirit which, as our reader points out, happens in baptism and in other circumstances.

Sacramental theology, following St. Thomas Aquinas, holds that a change of wording that does not compromise meaning would be valid, albeit illicit.

The same theological tradition, however, states that under no circumstances may one ever put the validity of the sacraments at risk by using matter or forms that are merely probable.

In this case, the change is such that the confirmation is of doubtful validity and should be conditionally repeated.

Sacramental ministers have a very grave obligation before God and the faithful to be especially careful and precise with the essential rites of a sacrament. Ignorance is no excuse in this case as it is a minister's duty to know how to correctly administer a sacrament.

What can one do as an informed "bystander"? If possible, the problem should be solved immediately and discreetly by telling the priest he is not using a valid formula.

If this is not possible, and especially if the priest refuses to correct the error, the "bystander" should certainly inform the bishop so that he may provide the appropriate remedies.

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