Pastoral Pain

I was recently in Ireland for a sad occasion. Whilst there I had a chat with a priest of sixty or so years of age, in the company of some of my aunts of a similar vintage. One very dear aunt mentioned to father that she was worried that some communicants at Mass she knows had not been to confession for many years and were living in irregular marriages, or in similar positions which would be widely regarded by all those present in the conversation as problematic for a Catholic going up to communion. The priest didn't hesitate and replied that he didn't think such things mattered. That God sorts all that out and he doesn't worry about it.

I was, in a word, gutted. But, coward that I am, I didn't say anything...Was it for me to contradict the priest? In over-clericalised Ireland, would anyone think I was anything other than extremely petulant? Mother and I exchanged pained glances across the table and I bit my tongue.

After some reflection, I now I wish I had spoken out. I think I might have said something like: "But that's not what the Church teaches, is it father?"

Of course, this is a really tough one for the priest. Often you hear it said that theology isn't as important as compassion, and I guess that's what the priest was trying to do here; show some compassion, especially in the context of a funeral. Perhaps one might hypothesise that he would rather welcome people back to Church than appear stand-offish. But does it really have to be one or the other? And does his position actually serve to do anything but relativise the faith? I mean, if it doesn't matter, then none of it matters, right? I have a sneaking suspicion that the faith would actually seem more real and important to those people, its sacraments and its forgiveness more potent, if they were something that mattered to all of us who hold the faith, let alone those who teach it.

I can't help but feel that in real terms, the damage  done by what he said could be catastrophic. He was talking to people who I know learned their Penny Catechism off by heart. the Penny Catechism (#273) states:
It is a great sin to receive Holy Communion in mortal sin; 'for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself'. Cor. 11:29
So what would these women have made of the priests statement? That this rule has been abrogated? That the teaching of the Church has changed (obviously). But it hasn't. So why say it has? because you believe it? Or because it's easy?

There's a lovely little bit on the Birmingham Oratory's website they posted about communicants at Mass at Christmas time.

It says that if you have been away from the sacraments, perhaps even away from God, it is a great joy that you have come back, and, at Mass for the first time in a long while, you have an opportunity to refresh your memory about the gift of faith you have been given. The Lord never rejects those who approach Him with a sincere heart. If we have been absent He receives us back almost with no questions asked (so to speak). God does not sulk. He does not stand on His infinite dignity. He does not require convoluted explanations. In His omniscience He is already fully acquainted with all the facts, more accurate than any self-justification that we could offer. Pope Francis has reminded us that God never grows weary of forgiving us. It is we who grow weary of asking for His mercy.

The Holy Father also says this: “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.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 47). Thus Pope Francis assures us that God does not wait for us to become perfect before He starts to takes us seriously. But this does not mean that we ourselves have no part to play in being reunited with Him. It is a two-way encounter. We approach, He welcomes. Our reception of Christ in Holy Communion is the assurance of our welcome back, and the remaking of our friendship with Him. All that He is He gives, all that we are He welcomes. In that two-way encounter, our weaknesses are known and understood. And if we cooperate, they can also be healed.

Receiving the life and strength which the Lord offers us in Holy Communion will only be of benefit if we are properly disposed. Nobody is ever completely ready for Communion, but we must try to be as ready as we can. That is not meant to sound unwelcoming. Of course we do not want to ring-fence the Lord’s Eucharist. But precisely because Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament we must do our best to be well prepared to receive that saving Presence into our body and soul. The Lord Who was born into squalor and poverty at Bethlehem has infinite riches to offer each of us. How sad if we raise or strengthen barriers inside ourselves which keep Him out and so obstruct His gifts.

God’s people should always feel welcome when they come to Mass. Jesus of Nazareth wished to be called the friend of sinners and was born into our world to restore health to the sick. All of us suffer from various spiritual malaises, and we all need the heavenly Physician to heal us. If we have been away from the Lord, the sacrament of Confession is the best way of preparing to receive Him in Holy Communion. Confession cleans out the poison, and Communion repairs the damage. That cleansing and healing give us the joyful certainty that we are indeed welcome back.

Surely this shows that Church teaching is not unnecessarily harsh, but is demonstrative of an authentic love that is didactic with respect to relationship and fosters a proper sense of dignity?


  1. None of us deserves to receive the Eucharist, but if we belong to the Catholic Church, we must understand three things. One, there is a discipline for all the sacraments, not just Communion. For example, one must be honest in Confession or the sacrament is being received under a lie and the priest cannot absolve you for what you hide. Only Padre Pio of recent memory had the ability to discern when people were not honest in confession and tell them so. All the sacraments have, therefore, a discipline, rules, which correspond to theological and spiritual truths. So one must, in marriage, be free to marry and so on.

    Two, one cannot receive grace when one is in mortal sin. This is not taught but I have written on this many times on my blog. Mortal sin means that we are not living in God's grace, in His life and we are separated from the ability to receive sanctifying grace until that mortal sin is confessed and forgiven. Therefore, anyone in mortal sin, such as an irregular marriage, or living in a homosexual sin relationship, or stealing daily from their work, cannot receive any grace in Communion. In fact, the receiving of Communion is so serious, that one commits a second sin when receiving while in mortal sin, that of sacrilege. God will not be mocked, and knows the status of our souls.
    One cannot receive the goodness of Communion while in mortal sin.

    Three, receiving Communion when in mortal sin abuses Christ. One is literally abusing the vulnerable God, who we protect at Mass and in Adoration. Abusing God is a serious sin of sacrilege. Sacrilege is an extremely serious sin of violating that which is Holy, the Eucharist, In fact, through-out the history of the Church, the violation of the Eucharist in receiving it unworthily is considered the worst case of sacrilege.

    The problem with the priest is that he most likely no longer believes in the Real Presence, that the Eucharist is God. You had a duty to protect Christ by speaking out about this, Mark, and you did not. I hope God gives you another opportunity to do so, for the sake of the priest's soul, which is very much in danger of perdition, for the sake of the souls who are receiving in mortal sin, and for your own sake.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I think you have shown humilty to do so....

    1. No, thank you, I appreciate the direction.

  3. I was recently shamed, privately by God and my conscience, by an interaction I had with a friend of mine. I have known this man for many years, he is about the same age as my father, and I look up to him in many ways. I also knew, or thought I knew, that he did not go to confession. It’s a small town, there’s only one parish, the next closest parish is almost an hour away, etc.
    It bothered me that he never went to confession, and I would, from time to time, try and encourage him to go. Never, I admit, by directly telling him, “You know, you need to go to confession,” because I feel that would be disrespectful to an elder, but maybe that is something I should have gotten over. But I digress, the point is that just a week or two ago, he mentioned as we were talking about the faith, that he drives to the next town over to go to confession when he needs to go because he likes the priest better. I was shocked and very relieved. I had been fearing that this man never went to the sacrament, I prayed for him, tried to gently encourage him, but since he was never in line when they were offered at our parish, never came to the Advent or Lenten Penance services, I just assumed that he didn’t go. And then I realized, it was none of my damn business, and I was ASSUMING that he was in a state of mortal sin and judging him. I thought it unlikely that someone would drive an hour to go to confession. On further reflection, how did I know that he didn’t utilize the “and anytime by appointment” invitation in the bulletin? He didn’t go at the “regular time” or the “regular place” so I thought he didn’t go at all. The only one who was sinning in those moments was me in judging my brother.
    Now, perhaps Mark has a lot more complete information about these other folks, and Father was certainly off the mark-tragically-in his way of explaining why he doesn’t get spun up about it, but he also could have asked you, “How do you know who has been to confession, or who has promised to live celibately?” I would guess that you don’t know. And you shouldn’t. It’s really none of your business.

    1. It's a good point, thank you sempergaudentes. In this particular case, I do know, and so did the ladies asking the question (unfortunately).


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