“Ask a Priest: What Is Pope Francis Saying in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’?”

Q: I was recently at a Mass in a parish in Arizona. The priest welcomed everyone before the start of Mass and then quoted from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (paragraph 47). The parish priest then proceeded to tell the congregation that regardless of what some theologians may tell us, Communion should not be withheld from those in a state of mortal sin because the Holy Father said it is medicine for the sick. He left it hanging like that. I talked with my family members after and everyone had a different “take” on what they heard the priest say. I thought the opinion he gave, based on the Holy Father’s statement in the letter, opened a “can of worms” that needed more explanation. Thank you for any light you can provide on this dilemma. -J.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m afraid that priest in Arizona badly misinterpreted the Holy Father’s words.

True, Pope Francis has put a special emphasis on reaching out to those who feel distant from the Church. But by no means is he endorsing an indiscriminate dispensing of the sacraments.

In that section quoted from Evangelii Gaudium the Pope also writes, “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason” (No. 47, [italics mine]).

Mortal sin is a serious reason for not receiving Communion. In fact, the Church has taught as much since its earliest days.

The Catechism in No. 1385 says, “To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.’ Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.”

So if Pope Francis is not overturning ancient Church teaching, what is he saying? Essentially, nothing new!

When Francis writes that “The Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect” he is correct. None of us is perfect. If receiving Communion depended on our perfection, no one would be receiving at Mass. In fact, the priest — any priest — probably wouldn’t be able to receive either. In which case there wouldn’t be a real Mass, since Mass requires that the celebrant or celebrants receive Communion.

The Holy Father also notes that the Eucharist is “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Again, this is nothing new. It is restating what the Church has always taught.

One of the ways that the Eucharist helps the weak is by motivating them to get to confession first, if need be. A fruitful receiving of Communion requires that a person be in a state of grace — if not, he commits the sin of sacrilege by an unworthy reception.

Hence the need for confession. Pope Francis emphasized this need in a general audience address of Feb. 19, 2014. His address is worth quoting at length:

“The forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves. … the Christian community is the place where the Spirit is made present, who renews hearts in the love of God and makes all of the brethren one thing in Christ Jesus. That is why it is not enough to ask the Lord for forgiveness in one’s own mind and heart, but why instead it is necessary humbly and trustingly to confess one’s sins to a minister of the Church. In the celebration of this Sacrament, the priest represents not only God but also the whole community, who sees itself in the weakness of each of its members, who listens and is moved by his repentance, and who is reconciled with him, which cheers him up and accompanies him on the path of conversion and human and Christian growth. One might say: I confess only to God. Yes, you can say to God “forgive me” and say your sins, but our sins are also committed against the brethren, and against the Church. That is why it is necessary to ask pardon of the Church, and of the brethren in the person of the priest.”

I would clarify two other statements that you quote. One is: “regardless of what some theologians may tell us.” The Catechism number mentioned above indicates that the requirement about being in a state of grace goes beyond “what some theologians” think; it is official Church teaching.

The other statement is: “Communion should not be withheld from those in a state of mortal sin.” In practice it is not so much that the Church that withholds the Eucharist as much as it is the duty of each Catholic to examine his conscience before receiving Communion. This is why the onus is very much on the individual. I hope this helps. God bless you.

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