Dr Joseph Shaw writes for LifeSiteNews – As the Easter season proceeds, the liturgy begins to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Last Sunday, the fourth after Easter, in the Extraordinary Form lectionary that I follow, the Gospel contains Christ’s promise to send the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to the Apostles after he is finally taken from them at the Ascension.
And when he is come, he will convince the world of sin and of justice and of judgment. Of sin: because they believed not in me. And of justice: because I go to the Father: and you shall see me no longer. And of judgment: because the prince of this world is already judged. (John 16:8-11)
Public Masses are still impossible in England and I have been reading liturgical commentaries with particular attention during this time. Dom Proper Guéranger comments on this passage, in his monumental The Liturgical Year (which is available online):
By these words, which were spoken shortly before his passion, our Savior does more than tell us of the coming of the Holy Ghost; he also shows us how terrible this coming will be to them that have rejected the Messias.
The coming of the Holy Ghost will be a bad thing, for some? We are more used to stressing the gifts and graces He will bring on the nascent Church, which are passed on to all members throughout the ages, particularly in the Sacrament of Confirmation. But as our Lord emphasizes, the Holy Spirit’s arrival will be a moment of vindication for the Apostles, and by that very fact it will be a moment of condemnation for their opponents. You can’t have one without the other.
The condemnation, to be sure, is ultimately a self-condemnation, in the sense that those who rejected Christ condemned themselves by their choices. This condemnation will be made final and public at the Last Judgment. Like the coming of the Holy Spirit, the coming of Jesus Christ in the Incarnation, and his coming again at the Last Judgment, are moments at which what is a blessing for some, will be a disaster for others. The confrontation between sinful mankind and God is a two-edged sword. It forces us to make a decision, or reveals a decision already made. God’s proximity makes it harder for us to maintain the moral ambiguity of our lives.
This lesson is also applicable to the reception of Holy Communion. As the ancient chant for the feast of Corpus Christi, attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, expresses it:
Both the wicked and the good
Eat of this celestial Food:
But with ends how opposite!
Here tis life: and there tis death:
The same, yet issuing to each
In a difference infinite.
Those who present themselves for Holy Communion in a state of serious sin are incapable of receiving graces from it: on the contrary, as St Paul explains, in words that echo those quoted above from St. John’s Gospel: “he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:29).
There has been a lot of discussion of this issue over recent years, especially in the context of Pope Francis’ call for those who are sinners to be assisted by the sacraments. Any response to that call that contradicts St. Paul and the entire tradition of the Church is obviously problematic, and not even a Pope can make it right.
It is not a matter of restricting the reception of Holy Communion to the perfect (or to the smug). We are all sinners. From time to time, we may be aware of grave sin, the “mortal sin” that excludes spiritual life, God’s grace, from our souls. We may have the misfortune to fall into a way of life that regularly involves such sins. We are not thereby excluded from anything permanently: we simply need to make ourselves ready for Holy Communion by sacramental Confession, and, if necessary, a conversion of life.
The confusion caused by Pope Francis’ words on this subject builds on a problem that has been developing for many years. As Pope John Paul II explained in 1980:
Sometimes, indeed quite frequently, everybody participating in the Eucharistic assembly goes to Communion; and on some such occasions, as experienced pastors confirm, there has not been due care to approach the sacrament of Penance so as to purify one’s conscience. (Dominicae Cenae 11)
Not only do people go up to Holy Communion without thinking about whether they are in a state of grace or not, but those who have thought about it and hesitate to go can feel humiliated by being left out.
Many of us have experienced an enforced fast from Holy Communion during the coronavirus epidemic. Let us resolve to return to it, when that is possible, with a greater sense of reverence, and with the spiritual preparation necessary to receive from it, not condemnation, but abundant graces.