On Frequent Communion

The Last Communion of St. Mary of Egypt, Marcantonio Franceschini, 1680 (Source)

One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.

In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.

We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.

The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.

But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us (Source)

Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,

“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”

The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem
Source.

I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.

Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.

O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.

Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

Pascal and Amoris Laetitia

blaise-pascal

This man understood the Society of Jesus. (Source)

Amidst the various scandals roiling the Church right now, let us not forget that the Pope has still not resolved the controversy over communion for the the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia continues to divide Catholics over sacramental discipline and the deeper theology of marriage it concerns.

I study early modern French Catholicism. Recently in my research, I was reading a passage out of Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales that seemed germane to the current debate.

“O father, how these maxims of yours will draw people to your confessionals!”

“Yes,” [the Jesuit] replied, “you would hardly believe what numbers are in the habit of frequenting them; ‘we are absolutely oppressed and overwhelmed, so to speak, under the crowd of our penitents — penitentium numero obruimur’— as is said in The Image of the First Century.”

“I could suggest a very simple method,” said I, “to escape from this inconvenient pressure. You have only to oblige sinners to avoid the proximate occasions of sin; that single expedient would afford you relief at once.”

“We have no wish for such a relief,” rejoined the [Jesuit] monk; “quite the reverse; for, as is observed in the same book, ‘the great end of our Society is to labor to establish the virtues, to wage war on the vices, and to save a great number of souls.’ Now, as there are very few souls inclined to quit the proximate occasions of sin, we have been obliged to define what a proximate occasion is. ‘That cannot be called a proximate occasion,’ says Escobar, ‘where one sins but rarely, or on a sudden transport — say three or four times a year’; or, as Father Bauny has it, once or twice in a month.’ Again, asks this author, ‘what is to be done in the case of masters and servants, or cousins, who, living under the same roof, are by this occasion tempted to sin?’”

“They ought to be separated,” said I.

“That is what he says, too, ‘if their relapses be very frequent: but if the parties offend rarely, and cannot be separated without trouble and loss, they may, according to Suarez and other authors, be absolved, provided they promise to sin no more, and are truly sorry for what is past.’”

This required no explanation, for he had already informed me with what sort of evidence of contrition the confessor was bound to rest satisfied.

“And Father Bauny,” continued the monk, “permits those who are involved in the proximate occasions of sin, ‘to remain as they are, when they cannot avoid them without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to inconvenience.’ ‘A priest,’ he remarks in another work, ‘may and ought to absolve a woman who is guilty of living with a paramour, if she cannot put him away honourably, or has some reason for keeping him — si non potest honeste ejicere, aut habeat aliquam causam retinendi — provided she promises to act more virtuously for the future.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “you have certainly succeeded in relaxing the obligation of avoiding the occasions of sin to a very comfortable extent, by dispensing with the duty as soon as it becomes inconvenient; but I should think your fathers will at least allow it be binding when there is no difficulty in the way of its performance?”

“Yes,” said the father, “though even then the rule is not without exceptions. For Father Bauny says, in the same place, ‘that any one may frequent profligate houses, with the view of converting their unfortunate inmates, though the probability should be that he fall into sin, having often experienced before that he has yielded to their fascinations. Some doctors do not approve of this opinion, and hold that no man may voluntarily put his salvation in peril to succour his neighbor; yet I decidedly embrace the opinion which they controvert.’”

“A novel sort of preachers these, father! But where does Father Bauny find any ground for investing them with such a mission?”

“It is upon one of his own principles,” he replied, “which he announces in the same place after Basil Ponce. I mentioned it to you before, and I presume you have not forgotten it. It is, ‘that one may seek an occasion of sin, directly and expressly — primo et per se — to promote the temporal or spiritual good of himself or his neighbour.’”

On hearing these passages, I felt so horrified that I was on the point of breaking out.

(Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, X)

Pascal was writing against morally lax Jesuits. Plus ça change.

There are, of course, those who would chide me for citing an avowed Jansenist in our present moment. But I worry that the advocates of the Church’s traditional teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried, and thus for her traditional teaching on marriage generally, are going the way of the Jansenists. They have a Pope set against them who is playing hardball. And a Jesuit, at that. Amoris Laetitia is reaching Unigenitus-level status with regards to popular outrage among the clergy and faithful. The entire discourse of a “smaller, purified Church” that comes up in conversations with “sound” Catholics all has an eerie ring to it. The Jansenists’ Figurist exegesis often spoke of a minority party of “true Christians” set against a corrupt, false church. If you were to open a copy of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques from the 1730’s, you’d find populist polemical language similar to what passes on 1Peter5 or What’s Up With Francis-Church? or The Remnant or LifeSite or Rorate Caeli. If it hasn’t happened already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these sites (or those like them) referring to Amoris Laetitia as “the Abomination in the Holy Place.”

UnigenitusAbomination.jpg

Unigenitus, or Amoris Laetitia? (Source)

The political divisions among the episcopate also remind me of that tumultuous time. The opposition to Unigenitus, like the opposition to Amoris, goes across cultural barriers. Jansenism was not just a French or Flemish aberration. It spread across Europe and even infiltrated the college of Cardinals. And popularly, much of the Jansenists’ ire was directed at the Jesuits. Likewise, today.

DestructionofPortRoyal

Destruction of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Source).

We have our Nuns of Port-Royal in the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Order of Malta. And what a coincidence that we, like the Jansenists, should valorize four bishops for challenging a Pope!

ApellantBishops

The four “apellant” bishops who opposed Unigenitus by an appeal to an ecumenical council. Much like Cardinal Burke, Bishop Soanen of Senez, their leader, was exiled and left without either a see or responsibilities. (Source)

Of course, the whole axis on which this all turns is “frequent communion.” How like Antoine Arnaud does Cardinal Burke appear! Before he started opposing communion for the divorced and remarried, he opposed communion for politicians who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. I don’t offer this comparison as a criticism. Indeed, I agree with the Cardinal’s reading of the Canons and the Scriptures. But it is hard not to see the likeness.

There are differences. In the 18th century, there was no real liturgical fracas like what we’ve witnessed since Vatican II (if anything, our age is much worse on this score). The sex abuse scandal of our own days has no parallel in that era. And the very real political dangers posed by the competing “Catholic” monarchs likewise has no modern correspondent (though with a Pope friendly to the liberal order, who knows?). No civil authority is going to suppress sound Catholics – at least, sound on this precise issue – in the way that Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists.

But the structural and discursive similarities worry me. They should worry you, too. It’s not enough to say “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and all that. That’s only eschatological. And in this context, it’s little more than putting one’s head in the sand. Something has to change at the organizational level. I don’t know what that would look like, or who in particular needs to act to ensure the preservation of the Truth. But I hope that we who accept Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage don’t end up convulsing in “another – doubtless very different” cemetery of Saint-Médard.

ADDENDUM: I want to be very clear that I am not making a theological comparison, but a structural, Church-political one. I am not suggesting that the defenders of the Church’s teaching on marriage advance Jansenist principles, but that the shape of the controversy up to this point has developed in a concerning way by placing them in a discursive and political position that approximates that of the later Jansenists.