Last year, I found myself in a terrible position. It was a Sunday morning and I was preparing to take my kids to Mass. The problem was that I believed I needed to go to Confession prior to receiving the Eucharist. That was cause enough for anxiety, as no one wants their soul outside a state of grace. Add to that the fact that my kids had never seen me skip Communion before, and I was doubly stressed.
As a dad who wants to provide excellent Catholic witness to his then 12 & 14-year-olds, I was deeply conflicted about what to do. Do I receive the Eucharist and avoid having to tell my kids I have sinned, and of course avoid the relentlessly judging eyes of my fellow parishioners – few of whom I had noticed ever skipping Communion? Or, do I listen to my little voice, albeit one with a zealous scrupulosity meter, and skip Communion until I have been to Confession?
Who Is Worthy of Communion?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states on its website about sin and the need for Confession:
Before one steps forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, one needs to be in a right relationship with the Lord and his Mystical Body, the Church – that is, in a state of grace, free of all mortal sin. While sin damages, and can even destroy, that relationship, the sacrament of Penance can restore it. St. Paul tells us that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” (1 Cor 11:27-28). Anyone who is conscious of having committed a mortal sin should be reconciled through the sacrament of Penance before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, unless a grave reason exists for doing so and there is no opportunity for confession.
Further, it is understood that the graces received from consuming the Eucharist are appropriated according to our reverence and worthiness. Thus, if one does not believe in the real presence, or is knowingly in a state of sin, the graces received will be limited.
Having been a cradle, yet mostly cultural Catholic until about 5 years ago, when I actually started to dig into my faith, I can sadly think of many times I probably received Jesus unworthily. I simply did not understand the importance of being worthy and in a state of grace for Communion. Nine years at “Catholic” schools did not teach me about presenting myself worthily, as I recall; it breaks my heart to think of the mistakes I made when I was younger. Thankfully I have since confessed those errors and learned from them. And thus on this particular Sunday, I knew better. Honestly, for a moment, I wish I had not known better. But I did. I had become an educated and informed Catholic and had decided to follow my faith, which includes doing the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable things.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church say this about grave matter:
CCC 1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
Did He Present Himself for Communion?
So I fretted during Mass about what to do. Receive or not receive? Receive or not receive? “Dear Lord please tell me what to do,” I prayed. The Church does not require that we receive the Blessed Sacrament at each Mass, so not doing so would not be a sin, which provided some solace. In the end, I had convinced myself, rightly or wrongly, that Jesus would forgive me for what I was still unsure was actual grave matter, my willful participation in it, and for receiving while unsure about being worthy.
Yet, when the time came just a couple minutes later, I did not present myself for Communion; I just could not. Being uncertain, and wanted to err on the side of being worthy of my Lord and Savior. I dreaded explaining it to my kids, but I knew that was a part of my penance. You screw up and sin, you have to make amends and get it right before the Lord, and before receiving the Lord.
When the time came for Communion, I got up and let my kids out as I usually do. They saw me kneeling when they came back to the pew. Both had puzzled looks on their faces, and I told them I would explain later. Not surprisingly, I prayed for a proper way to share with my kids why I did not receive, and I think God delivered on that request. I explained to my kids in the car that because I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as all Catholics should, and believed I had done something for which I had to clear my conscience and soul in Confession, I thought it best to not receive Communion that day. To my kids’ credit, and to the credit of their authentically Catholic grade school, neither asked me what I had done. While both were still a little surprised, both accepted my explanation and dropped the matter.
The Lasting Impact of Good Witness
That Sunday both of my kids and I learned something new. They experienced their father admitting a mistake for which he needed Confession – not something of which one should be proud, of course – but perhaps an important revelation to growing kids about the true fallibility of parents. More importantly, they witnessed that their dad had such reverence for Christ, he simply could not present himself to Him in a state of unworthiness. Essentially, I unwittingly at the time, underscored, bolded, and italicized my belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And as He always does, the Lord took a bad situation and made something good out of it.
In conversations since with my kids, I have explained to them that they too should do the same if they find themselves outside a state of grace. I have promised to take them to Confession, and not ask any questions. I think it is important for parents to both stress the importance of receiving worthily while offering their kids an opportunity to regain their worthiness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And they should do so absent any prying into their children’s sin(s). They need to Confess to Christ, through their priest, not their parents.
I have since that one Sunday come to believe that people who do not receive Communion at Mass offer a valuable witness to the rest of their congregations about the importance of receiving while worthy. While I am sorry for their situations and pray they are temporary, I appreciate the respect and reverence they show to our Savior. And, of course, I never judge nor speculate about the reasons for their not presenting themselves before Christ, as the reasons may be personal, and not involve grave matter.
Perhaps if we all offered such witness regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as myriad opportunities arise in our lives, others might learn from us and come to believe as we do, and deepen their faith. That can only please our Lord.