Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Who is worthy of Jesus Christ? Who is worthy to receive him in Holy Communion?

Growing up in the ’50s, I remember those overcrowded late Sunday morning Masses. The “High Mass” at 11 in my home parish was filled to capacity every week. One Sunday, I recall my father coming home after attending — I had served an earlier Mass — and remarking, “only two people went to Communion!”

I don’t recall thinking — let alone asking — if he was one! Probably not, because he would likely have had breakfast earlier with the family around 8 or 9 a.m., the usual time we would all be in the kitchen. This was sometime in the mid-50s before the rules requiring fasting from solid food from midnight were changed by Pope Pius XII. Maybe the rest of the congregation had eaten breakfast, but many of them just as likely refrained because they had not gone to confession the Saturday afternoon before.

That’s right. It was still a common practice to confess before Communion, even if you were not conscious of having committed a grave (mortal) sin — just to be sure. No Catholic doubted the sacredness of Holy Communion or their personal unworthiness of it through complicity in sin.

Contrast this with many attitudes today. Almost everyone who goes to Mass receives. We do hear “let us call to mind our sins” as Mass starts, though the way that ritual tends to rush along rarely allows more than seconds to identify any seriously. We strike our breast during the “I confess,” if Form A is used, and say “Lord, I am not worthy …” just before Holy Communion. More often than not, however, Communion seems to be expected, something “on the house,” as much taken for granted by anyone who shows up as bread and water at a restaurant table.

Maybe that’s just it. The “table of the Lord” metaphor has overshadowed the recollection of the sacrifice of the divine provider of the meal, and at the cost of his life. What makes this food and drink different is that it offers eternal life, because it is the Holy, Eternal One himself, Jesus incarnate, the Word made flesh, whom we are consuming. Does anyone deserve to have someone die for them, much less one without whom none of us would even be alive?

An older pastoral theology perhaps so emphasized the receiver was not holy as to discourage frequent reception of Holy Communion, and for that very reason. A daily communicant, by such logic, might have been presumed to be holier — or feel holier — than the occasional recipient. In pre-Vatican II days, I assure you, many such persons were far from saintly, as I then, or the world now, might judge sanctity. Were they to be asked, no doubt, they would have been the first to confess to be receiving not because they deserved to, but because they needed to.

Practices have changed over the years, with some well-intentioned, though misguided, parish leaders feeling downright mean for not inviting even a non-believer to receive on demand — like at a restaurant — just for showing up. What seems generous and “welcoming” might not be so kind or even respectful — to that person, to others, or to Jesus himself.

Holy Communion is not only a special gift and a grace to any who come to the Lord to be fed by his Body and Blood along the way — “food for the journey” as we have heard it said. It is also a gift that we acknowledge with a firm “Amen,” which is a very personal acknowledgement that one who receives also believes and professes the faith. It is not just that the Church believes this is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ — body, blood, soul and divinity — but that the recipient believes personally in him, who he really is and what he asks of his disciple.

The “ask” is not really very much, in proportion to the greatness of the gift. Jesus asks nothing more of his disciples, really, than that we be faithful — or at least want to be faithful. Being faithful means taking him and his word seriously, which includes his love of us, his Church, called to be holy as God is holy. When we speak of the “holy Catholic Church,” we mean holy by vocation. We are a church full of sinners, yes, much in need of forgiveness and redemption. It is that awareness of our unworthiness that moves us to confess, asking pardon from God and one another.

This sense of humility is so attractive to God! Jesus always seems drawn to the humble of heart who, though acknowledging their unworthiness, trust in him. Scriptures are full of examples. The Pharisee who touted his virtues, praying to himself, and the tax collector who stood at a distance (“God have mercy on me, a sinner”), striking his breast (Lk 18:10-13). The centurion trusting Jesus to heal his servant on his word, unworthy that he even enters under his roof (Mt 8:5-10). If we can bring something of this groundedness — which is what humility means, literally — to our prayer and reception of Holy Communion, how much more open do our hearts become to all that God can put into them, as he so wants to.

People who are entering our faith (catechumens), preparing for their first sacraments, typically participate in a process or conversation that includes inquiry, discernment, learning and prayer called “The Rite of Christian Initiation” (for adults or for children — abbreviated RCIA or RCIC, respectively). It includes several steps, liturgically marked and celebrated, as they gradually come to experience the church family, the Scriptures, and the mysteries and practice of the faith. One of the kindest and most generous things church members can do is to accompany catechumens throughout this process. Ask your pastor how you can become involved.

The Church also welcomes into this conversation those who do not believe or have lost contact with the Eucharist, perhaps never fully catechized or in full communion, who may have “missed” some of the sacraments or been driven away from the Church by trauma, sin, scandal or personal choices. Among the latter, I am thinking of those whose ideas, relationships or political options may have occasioned conflict or tension with Church teaching or practice, who may have refrained from or even been denied Communion. We welcome all to come and see, share their story, and discover what God can do for us when we walk together, trusting in his Holy Spirit.

God wants everyone to be saved. None may be worthy, but all of us are loved deeply. Sinful though we are and repentant as we must be, Jesus always encounters us exactly where we are, if we are only willing to accept his outstretched hand and his untiring mercy. Maybe the real question each of us should ask is not so much “who is worthy,” but “who is beyond the mercy of God,” if I only admit “Lord, I am not worthy.”
Editor’s note: This column was originally published in The Evangelist on Nov. 19, 2020.