I believe we often have definitive rationales for what we acknowledge as true and for what we do, even though we may have difficulty expressing them.
A few years ago I had the opportunity through a parish program to chauffer a lady to and from Sunday Mass. Despite her frailty, she went to Sunday Mass because she recognized the inseparable link between sacrifice and sacrament.
She lived in an elder care home on my way. At Mass she sat in the first pew to have Communion brought to her and others who were too frail to participate in the Communion procession. After three months or so, when I stopped at the home on a Sunday morning, I was informed that she died during the week. She had gone to Sunday Mass to the end of her life.
On Sundays, Holy Communion was brought by an extraordinary minister to the Catholic residents of the home in which she lived. Yet, she went to Sunday Mass. Her life was a witness to the intimate relationship of the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God and Holy Communion with the Lamb, who, in the sacrifice, takes away the sin of the world, permitting our union with him.
She was also a living witness to the continuity of Catholic faith and worship.
It is interesting to review the ancient witness to the inseparable bond between the sacrifice for sin of the Lamb of God and its consequence, Holy Communion, made possible by the sacrifice.
St. Ephraim, the Syrian, (307-373) noted that whoever receives Holy Communion “if he be pure will be preserved in his purity; and if he be a sinner, he will be forgiven.” (Homilies 4, 4)
Similarly, St. Ambrose, 340-397, wrote:
For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy. (CCC 1393)
This was before the adoption of the discipline, now labeled the Internal Forum, the private auricular form of the Sacrament of Penance. This private form was a practice of monastic piety, prior to its introduction by missionaries in the seventh century to the laity of continental Europe. This monastic discipline spread to become the ordinary form of the Sacrament (CCC 1447).
This form physically separated the Sacrament of the Forgiveness of Sin by time and place from the Sacrifice for the Forgiveness of Sin.
The earlier common discipline of the Sacrament of Penance had addressed notorious, public sin. Its chief characteristic was the retention of sin during a period of public penance imposed by the episcopate.
It was only after the period of public penance that sin was forgiven by the lifting of the excommunication. The lifting of the excommunication culminated in Holy Communion with the Lamb of Sacrifice as the sign of forgiveness.
No matter how straight forward a discipline, there are always questions of interpretation and even of controversy.
The historian Eusibius (263-340) relates an interpretation of the discipline by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandrea form 248 to 264, in the instance of a man, Serapion, who had avoided martyrdom by sacrificing to idols (History 6: 44).
“I will give you this one example, which occurred among us. There was with us a certain Serapion, an aged believer who had lived for a long time blamelessly, but had fallen in the trial. He besought often, but no one gave heed to him, because he had sacrificed. But he became sick, and for three successive days continued speechless and senseless. Having recovered somewhat on the fourth day he sent for his daughter’s son, and said, ‘How long do you detain me, my child? I beseech you, make haste, and absolve me speedily. Call one of the presbyters to me.’ And when he had said this, he became again speechless. The boy ran to the presbyter. But it was night and the presbyter was sick, and therefore unable to come. But as I had commanded that persons at the point of death, if they requested it, and especially if they had asked for it previously, should receive remission, that they might depart with a good hope; he gave the boy a small portion of the eucharist, telling him to soak it and let the drops fall into the old man’s mouth. The boy returned with it, and as he drew near, before he entered, Serapion again arousing, said, ‘You have come, my child, and the presbyter could not come; but do quickly what he directed, and let me depart.’ Then the boy soaked it and dropped it into his mouth. And when he had swallowed a little, immediately he gave up the ghost. Is it not evident that he was preserved and his life continued till he was absolved, and, his sin having been blotted out, he could be acknowledged for the many good deeds, which he had done?
St. Augustine, in the year 400, relates a controversy in which some argued that refraining from Holy Communion at Mass was assuming the authority of the episcopate, a form of self-excommunication.
“Someone may say, “The Eucharist ought not to be taken every day.” You ask, “On what grounds?” He answers, “Because, in order that a man may approach worthily to so great a sacrament, he ought to choose those days upon which he lives in more special purity and self-restraint; for ‘whosoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself.’” Another answers, “Certainly; if the wound inflicted by sin and the violence of the soul’s distemper be such that the use of these remedies must be put off for a time, every man in this case should be, by the authority of the bishop, forbidden to approach the altar, and appointed to do penance, and should be afterwards restored to privileges by the same authority; for this would be partaking unworthily, if one should partake of it at a time when he ought to be doing penance, and it is not a matter to be left to one’s own judgment to withdraw himself from the communion of the Church, or restore himself, as he pleases. If, however, his sins are not so great as to bring him justly under sentence of excommunication, he ought not to withdraw himself from the daily use of the Lord’s body for the healing of his soul.” Perhaps a third party interposes with a more just decision of the question, reminding them that the principal thing is to remain united in the peace of Christ, and that each should be free to do what, according to his belief, he conscientiously regards as his duty. For neither of them lightly esteems the body and blood of the Lord; on the contrary, both are contending who shall most highly honor the sacrament fraught with blessing. There was no controversy between those two mentioned in the Gospel, Zacchæus and the Centurion; nor did either of them think himself better than the other, though, whereas the former received the Lord joyfully into his house, the latter said, “I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof,” both honoring the Savior, though in ways diverse and, as it were, mutually opposed; both miserable through sin, and both obtaining the mercy they required.”
The introduction of the practice of the internal forum and the current code of Cannon Law have not eliminated the necessity of interpretation or the presence of controversy from our day.
Edward Peters, a Cannon Lawyer, has suggested that automatic excommunication be removed from Cannon Law because, “It requires criminals to be their own prosecutors and judges.” Such ceding of action by the episcopate is not dissimilar to Pilate’s shirking his duty by ceding to others the judgment of Jesus.
John Grondelski has warned that presently the internal forum may be used not only as a judicial subversion of the Sacrament of Marriage, but as a doctrinal subversion as well.
In spite of any difficulties, the Faith remains unchanged as evidenced by many witnesses.
One example refers to our participation in the Mass as the sacrifice for sin. It is a prayer in St. Faustina’s (1905-1938) Chaplet of Divine Mercy, “Eternal Father we offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in reparation for our sins and the sins of the whole world”.
Another example is the circular letter of March 20, 2000, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on the integrity of the internal forum of the Sacrament of Penance. The letter identifies the Sacrament as a participation in the Sacrifice, in spite of the fact that the internal forum is removed by place and time from the Sacrifice: “the repentant sinner receives . . . that reconciliation, which is ‘concentrated in Christ himself, the Lamb without blemish offered for our sins’”.
I believe the Mass as Sacrifice with its culmination in Holy Communion with the Lamb of Sacrifice would come into clearer focus if the Choral director would drop the typical introduction to the Sacrifice at Sunday Mass, namely ‘Let us sing as the Lord’s Table is prepared’. In its stead would be, ‘Let us sing during the preparation of the altar for the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God’.
That would more clearly introduce the sacrifice, while identifying Holy Communion as the culmination of the sacrifice, ‘Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world’.