OK, everyone. Buckle up.
I mean it.
I love the Eucharist. I could write a whole tome on it, here. I realize the Eucharist is one of the more misunderstood Catholic doctrines. So we're talking about first communion, but we're also going to talk about the Eucharist more generally. OK?
OK, so first off, what is the Eucharist?
Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It's not a symbol. After the bread and wine have been consecrated by the priest, it IS Jesus Christ, here, present, fully, in the host.
As Flannery O'Connor said:
We take Jesus at His word when he said "this is my body." We take John 6 seriously.
If it's just a symbol, then, so what? Why do it? Why have it?
But to us, it's not a symbol. It is JESUS CHRIST. That's why we have Eucharistic adoration, why we reserve the sacrament in the tabernacle, and why we treat it (or should treat it!) with reverence. It's why we genuflect when we go into the pews--because Jesus Christ is actually present in our churches, in the Eucharist.
Since we treat the Eucharist so reverently, not just anyone can receive it. That's why First Communion is such an important sacrament to Catholics--it's the day when you can receive Jesus in Communion for the first time. This is huge!
For Catholics, you have to be at the "age of reason", which is seven years old. You have to be able to understand Who you are receiving. That doesn't mean that you have to understand the Ins and Outs of Transubstantiation, but you do have to know it's not just bread the priest is giving you.
In some places, First Confession precedes first communion. But for our purposes, we'll talk about that later.
I always told my CCD kids that I never, ever wanted to see them go up to communion sloppily. The number of people I've seen just shuffling up to communion, like they're going to receive a hot dog at a baseball game! NOOOOOO! STOP IT! You should be totally aware to what you're doing and Who you are about to receive.
Going back to our discussion of matter and form: The matter is the unleavened bread and wine. No, you cannot use grape juice, or Pepsi, or water. It must be wine. And no, you can't use bread from Kroger, or Doritos, or pita bread, or crackers. It must be unleavened bread. I was absolutely shocked the first time I went to a Protestant service (it was orientation at college--I couldn't get to Mass, but then did offer Catholic communion from an extraordinary minister of communion). The pastor got out a loaf of Kroger bread, and Kroger grape juice.
You don't have to receive both species (that's what it's technically called--the species). At my parish, we never offer the wine to the communicants. It's only ever the Host. But that's OK.
The form is the words of consecration, said by the priest, as part of the Eucharistic Prayer:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.
After the priest--and ONLY the priest--says the words of consecration, the bread and the wine have BECOME the Body and Blood of Christ.
Since the Church believes that when we receive communion, we are taking Jesus into our very selves, there are a few rules:
- You should have fasted for one hour before receiving (water and medicine don't count. And if you have to take food with the medicine, you can.)
- You must not receive if you are in a state of mortal sin. If you are in a state of mortal sin and you receive communion, then you're committing sacrilege, on top of already being in a state of mortal sin. You're just making things worse! (This is one reason that my parish offers confession before every Mass.)
Now, many of my Protestant friends have expressed disdain that they cannot receive communion at a Catholic Mass. A few points on that:
- You could receive, if you really wanted to. There's not a Secret Catholic handshake before you receive. However:
- You don't believe what you believe about it, so why would you say you do? That's what the "amen" after "The Body of Christ" means. Why would you do something that's basically a lie? Bad form!
- Communion isn't like a hand stamp that indicates you participated at Mass. Plenty of people go to Mass and do not receive communion (all the kids under 7, for example). You can participate fully in the Mass without receiving. I know, your head is spinning here, but it's possible! Receiving communion isn't like getting a heavenly check mark. "OK, Mr. Jones is here....." It is perfectly permissible to attend Mass and not receive Communion. In fact, if you're not properly disposed to receive, it's the better option!
Here are the USCCB's guidelines for receiving communion.
Like I said above, I love the Eucharist. I get very upset when I see people not treating the sacrament with the reverence it deserves. That means churches where the tabernacle is basically in another room, away from the sanctuary; where people just go up to receive like, la-di-dah; etc.
Catholics! You are receiving God! Jesus is physically present in every Catholic church. If that doesn't fill you with awe, you need your awe-meter checked.
As JRR Tolkien said:
Catholics, please remember what a supreme gift we have in the Eucharist. Treat it accordingly!