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The Eucharist: A prize for the just or medicine for sinners?

The heated debates in the Synod of Bishops regarding the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion have opened up a series of other important discussions, especially concerning the relationship between mercy and justice and between charity and truth. How can these seemingly opposing principles be lived out by the Church in the real world?

While one side argues for the importance of doctrine regarding the permanence of the sacrament of matrimony, the other side advocates just as passionately for the preeminence of mercy in the Christian life, and the need to meet people where they are, with all their wounds and weaknesses.

In this dramatic context, it may be opportune to take a small step backwards in order to examine the underlying understanding Catholics have about what it means to receive the Eucharist in the first place, and when — if ever — one should abstain from doing so.

One of the key lines that has been repeated multiple times in Rome in the past few weeks is Pope Francis’ celebrated maxim that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."

This beautiful expression is both a rebuke to the proud and an encouragement for those who acknowledge their unworthiness to receive Holy Communion, which Catholics believe to be the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. Who, after all, on careful self-examination, finds himself to be truly “worthy" to receive the Lord in Holy Communion? The Eucharist is no gold star on the forehead of “good" Christians, but an undeserved gift to strengthen pilgrims who stumble along through life with their gaze fixed on heaven.

As the great doctor of the Church St. Ambrose wrote: “If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy."

St. Thomas Aquinas drew an intriguing comparison between the life of the body and the life of the soul, suggesting that each of the sacraments corresponds to an event or element of our natural existence. Just as baptism corresponds to birth, and confirmation to the passage to adulthood, he called the Eucharist “spiritual food and spiritual medicine," corresponding spiritually to the nourishment and healing brought about by food in our bodily lives.

But here we run upon a further argument that must be addressed.

Catholics believe that not all sins carry the same weight or have the same effect on our souls, and traditionally make a clear distinction between “mortal sins," which separate a Christian from the life of grace, and “venial sins," which do not. In the text of his First Letter,St. John already speaks of a sin that leads to death (pros thanaton), as opposed to a sin that does not lead to death (me pros thanaton) — referring here to a spiritual death.

Moreover, in speaking of the Eucharist, St. Paul writes 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" and then adds that a person “should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup." (1 Cor 11:27-28)

Clearly, then, for St. Paul, though no one is truly worthy to receive the Eucharist, there is a sort of unworthiness that needs to be addressed before approaching the table of the Lord. The Catholic Church has traditionally understood this sort of unworthiness to be a state of having committed a mortal sin.

The way that this is expressed in the Catholic Catechism is that anyone “who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion … without having first received sacramental absolution." (No. 1457)

Aquinas, carrying on his analogy between the spiritual life of the soul and the natural life of the body, explains this by saying that the Eucharist is food, but food only helps the living. The one who commits a mortal sin “is not alive spiritually, and so he ought not to eat the spiritual nourishment, since nourishment is confined to the living."

While Holy Communion, like bodily food, strengthens the weak and helps heal the infirm (which Aquinas equates with venial sin), it does not raise the dead. This, he said, is what the sacrament of penance or reconciliation is for.

The Church sees the state of grace — the life of the soul — to be a minimum condition or a low bar, so to speak, to be able to fruitfully receive the Eucharist. But that should be the only reason. As Aquinas says further: “Mortal sin alone necessarily prevents anyone from partaking of this sacrament."

In the celebrated phrase quoted above from Pope Francis’ letterEvangelii Gaudium, he continues by saying that everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church and the doors of the sacraments should not “be closed for simply any reason." By adding the clause “for simply any reason," Francis seems to suggest that there can be serious reasons for abstaining from receiving the Eucharist, but that one shouldn’t do so lightly.

For the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has paid special attention to the sacrament of reconciliation, noting over and over again that there is no sin that God cannot forgive. He has hammered home the message of God’s infinite mercy, urging all the Catholic priests in the Church to dedicate plenty of time each week to hearing confessions.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis told a group of priests that their first task was to help penitents experience God’s mercy. “Confession should not be a ‘torture,’" he said, “but everyone should leave the confessional with joy in his heart, his face beaming with hope," even if sometimes “wet with tears of conversion and the joy that comes from it."

As the pope has taught that no one earns Communion, so no one earns God’s freely given gift of mercy, either. But it’s there for the taking.

By Thomas D. Williams



  1. OgeGod Reply

    It may help to reteach/ retrain us on the principles and fundamentals learned when before we went for our first reconciliation and received our first Communion. It has been so long ago for some of us, that we may have forgotten who we are actually receiving. May the blessed sacrament of Christ sanctify us! Amen!

  2. Mario Martins Reply

    Oh my good and merciful GOD,THANK YOU,for sending us this very HOLY POPE TO OPEN THE GATES OF YOUR LOVE AND YOUR MERCY .as he said: dont be fooled by the doctors of the law who deny and diminish GODS great love amen.

  3. Mario Martins Reply

    Pope Francis,is the one chosen to understand the common people and be there to show love ,mercy and good will which can only be good….. the Catholic church has erred,and sometimes has indeed,been merciless to those who need mercy and reconciliation.WHY DID GOD SEND HIS SON TO US??For the same reason,why does the church reject trully some who need most?It is arrogance authority,and plainly hypocrasy.The eucharist is not a prize ,but a gift to sinners so as to bring them back to life in hope gazing to the heavens.The Eucharist should never have been withdrawn from any one who genuinely seeks union with the son of our heavenly Father.Pope Francis you are a great Saint and time will prove it to be so.

  4. symonline Reply

    @ Mario.. How can you measure mercy in terms of degree. vis a vis what is lawful .. u claimed that the church “the body of Christ” has erred.. mind you, you need to be careful.. There exist various Sacrament administered in the church these are referred to as Graces. Yes the Eucharist is not a Prize but the same bible says you need to work out your salvation with fear and tremble. it also say when we live in Sin there is no more sacrifice for sin on our soul. if you truly want to receive Christ in the Eucharist then ordinarily you should contemplate this (live of Sin) and the best thing to do is to seek the grace of reconciliation with a firm purpose of amendment( i.e truly sorry and not wanting to continue in your Sin by the help of his grace) aka perfect contrition in confession. The truth is that when you have done these no one will stop you from receiving the Eucharist.. YOU NEED FIRST SHOW MERCY ON YOUR SELF BEFORE BEGGING FOR MERCY..

    1. Mario Martins Reply

      Just remember one thing.God is merciful ,he reads hearts,the mind,we are clear to him,his judgement surpasses mens comprehension.He does not like arrogance from people who think they are the righteous ones and who in their hearts become so sure of themselves often disguising their own shotcomings, and believe me we all have them,even saints have had them let alone anyone else.i believe mens laws are for the greater good but are not applicable to All cases,Jesus said; what is impossible with men is possible with God the Father.The Eucharist should not be denied to people who needs God his son,while exercising true contrition of heart,and desire to follow till the end our beautiful church.Why should a person who has had good grounds for divorce be condemmned to a life of loneliness with a more suitable partner?a life like that is unbearable,and trully i would not been able to survive,i am such a case.Those who do not show mercy shall not obtain mercy and they shall pass through Jesus hand of justice instead of his other hand of mercy.Amen.

  5. Michael W Reply

    1 Corinthians 11:27-32 “27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” Pope Francis has no power to change the Apostolic tradition and the words from the Apostles.

    1. Mario Martins Reply

      i understand mans laws and rules are better then nothing at all,that is true.However what is impossible with men is possible with God the father,his mercy has no limits. mans mercy is limited,it is therefore logic and right to assume that our heavenly father exercises great mercy for whoever shall ask for his mercy .Ultimatley it is Gods judgement on mankind while men can warn against many perils we can fall in.There is also individual cases where our heavenly father sees the heart and its sincerity before handing in his judgement.IF there is reasonable reason for a divorce then God will know it,men do not know since they have no ability to read your heart,and so so they have these rules which most times are right but not all.St,Maria Escriva said: run far from those who destroy your soul and faith.I agree totally.I want to remind people that God is down right correct in his judgement,not men and their rules,even though these rules or laws are a general way to live,they do not apply to ALL .Mens laws,are therefore good and are a general guidance,but not perfect.It is my true belief that our heavenly father is much more then mens mercy.His mercy is unlimited,as long as we show goodwill for him and follow him trully with faith and penance .In Fatima our Lady our blessed mother told Jacinta ,that God is offended with many marriages which do not please him………..

    2. Mario Martins Reply

      i agree totally with you David,i am a case of divorce myself based on the grounds of neglect,rejection just because i was following my catholic religion,going to mass on Sundays praying my rosary going to confession doing acts of mercy and once a week fasting from am to late pm,and trully following the message of Fatima.However i was rejected mocked slandered,ill treated.i ran away from this scenario which lasted 15 years,i am now engaged to another woman who is a true catholic,and sincerely does all of the above.i was carefull to choose such a person.i am happy with her.i still want to follow the catholic faith till my end,because i love our faith.question is why would the church say no to receiving communion with Jesus Christ?As Pope Francis said and i agree with him totally,mens laws are sometimes lacking of Gods mercy.Each individual case is judged by our heavenly Father ,only he knows the heart and therefore only he is 100 per cent correct,and as Jesus said in the bible :what is impossible with men is possible to God……. he said these words to a person who told jesus that he had obeyed always his commandments.Our good works of mercy ,our faith,our desire to be close to God,and his son,is clearly seen by our heavenly Father who ultimatley passes judgement on all.Those that proclaim their correctness while passing jugement on others may have to analyse their hearts.Jesus himself said that if we do not become merciful like the Father we will have to pass through his hand of Justice and not through his other hand of mercy……………Amen.

  6. David Reply

    I love the Catholic Church and there are not many issues I disagree with; however, Communion for remarried divorced people is one which I do. A couple divorces because one of them is unfaithful to the other, has an affair and leaves, etc. That’s grounds for divorce. Why shouldn’t the other spouse be able to remarry, hopefully this time to someone more suitable and grounded in Christian faith, and be happy and be able to take Communion? Why should that person never be able to receive communion simply because they remarried (a Sacrament) after their previous spouse rejected the marriage in the first place? Just my feelings and I know many will disagree with me. Blessings to all.

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