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Why Catholics must fast before receiving Holy Communion

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

August 8, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In spite of how little reference is made to it nowadays, asceticism—that is, the practice of self-denial—is a non-negotiable element in Catholic spirituality, and therefore in the spirituality of couples and families. As sinners in constant need of purification, all of us must examine our consciences, do penance, and carefully prepare ourselves for the reception of the sacraments.

The worst problem of modern times, already lamented by Pope Pius XII, is the loss of the sense of sin. Our problem is, however, made worse by the loss of many of the customs by which Catholics once reminded themselves of their sinful condition and their need for penance: Friday abstinence throughout the year; fasting daily in Lent rather than merely on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and the all-night Eucharistic fast, later reduced to three hours, then finally to one.

When in 1953 Pius XII lowered the Eucharistic fast from midnight onwards to three hours before Mass, it was hailed as a remarkable concession of the Church to modern needs. And one might agree that it was appropriate in the circumstances. In 1964, Pope Paul VI lowered the fast from three hours to one hour before communion, which in many cases amounts to: don’t eat something on the way to Sunday Mass. Does this leave intact any substantive or meaningful fast? A single hour is so easy to observe that it has resulted, ironically, in many Catholics simply ignoring it altogether, since, as Aristotle observes, “the little by which the result is missed seems to be nothing.”

A significant Eucharistic fast shows our respect for our Lord Jesus Christ, and our desire to receive Him as the most important nourishment of our lives. It also makes a moral demand on us that underlines the obligation of worthy reception: be attentive, Christian man or woman, to what you are proposing to do; think deliberately about whether you are in a state of grace such that you may worthily approach the Lord Jesus Christ and receive Him in so intimate a way. The three-hour fast was simultaneously about the Lord, giving Him honor, and about me, taking my state into account. It was a discipline that discouraged unthinking, indifferent, ‘social’ communions.

The surroundings of worship in far too many parishes are enough to destroy true faith in the Blessed Sacrament, which the Catholic Church confesses to be the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with whom one must be in a union of faith and charity prior to consummating a one-flesh union. The Catholic Novus Ordo lectionary totally excludes St. Paul’s plea to examine one’s conscience before receiving the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:27–29), which is present multiple times in the traditional lectionary. Laity, men and women, handle and distribute the Blessed Sacrament with informality. Lounge-like or emotionally-charged music fails to set off the sacred mysteries as sacred and fails to stir up the response of humble adoration in the faithful. The discipline of fasting is, as we have said, lightweight. Preparation before Mass or thanksgiving afterwards is almost non-existent. All these things taken together render the reception of Holy Communion so banal, so commonplace, that it would seem insane to deny it to anyone.

In traditional Latin Mass communities, the faithful tend to be acutely aware that they must examine their consciences and, if they are conscious of any mortal sin, must go to confession before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. (In the same communities, confessions are often heard before and during Mass on Sundays and Holy Days—an arrangement well-suited to the spiritual needs of ordinary Catholics. One priest will celebrate the Mass while the other hears confessions. At the consecration, confessions are momentarily suspended; at communion time, the confessor joins the priest to help distribute the hosts.) One does not see everyone going up automatically, pew after pew. Those who are ready to approach the mystical banquet go forward, kneel in adoring reverence, and receive Him on the tongue, from the consecrated hand of the priest. It is all done in a manner proper, just, and right. Man comes before God and, having removed whatever obstacles it is in his power to remove, begs to receive the awesome gift of His divine life.

Could our lack of training in (for lack of a better term) Eucharistic temperance and reverence for the Lord’s Body be related to the destruction of the virtue of chastity as it relates to marriage—temperance in the sexual plane, and a reverence for the spouse’s body? Just as it seems to many that there is no need to prepare and wait and beg the grace to be worthy of the Lord’s gift of self to us in communion, so there would likewise seem to be no need to prepare and wait and beg the grace to be made worthy to receive the gift of another person indissolubly in marriage while making of oneself a worthy gift to that other. 

In our society, even lamentably in Catholic circles, people see no need to be chaste before marriage or during marriage. It’s all “free love.” But free love is cheap and false. Is it not the same with Eucharistic communion? It is the supreme mutual gift of love—of Christ to me, and of myself to Him. Am I “chaste” in preparation for this mystical marriage with the Savior, and chaste in taking no other master of my soul? Am I ready to give myself wholly to Him, in obedience to His commandments and teachings? There can be no doubt that He is and will always be worthy of my love; but am I, will I be, worthy of His? 

The recovery of the discipline of fasting, the abolition of ushers who step from aisle to aisle as if signaling for the entire row to get up and go to communion, and the reintroduction of the custom of clergy distributing the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue of kneeling communicants are three obvious ways to combat the pandemic of irreverence and the plague of unworthy communions. 

Such steps may, over time, prompt couples to think differently about themselves and their own bodies, too—about the care and respect with which one should treat any Christian body that is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and about the reverence, altogether free of manipulativeness, that is due to the beloved’s body. Married sexual intimacy is, after all, about mutual self-giving under God’s conditions, not about consensual exploitation.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College in California and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the Choir and Schola. He now works as a freelance author, public speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published five books: Wisdom’s Apprentice (CUA Press, 2007)On Love and Charity (CUA Press, 2008)Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico Press, 2014); and most recently, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico Press, 2017)Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has also been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a board member and scholar of The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.