Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia says that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Does this mean that Communion actually forgives sins, even mortal sins, and that it can be given as medicine for those in mortal sin?
The text you cite is in footnote 351 of the document and is a quotation from Pope Francis’ earlier Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013), n. 47. What he says there is traditional Catholic teaching. Holy Communion is a powerful medicine and it does forgive sins, but not mortal sins.
In the cited paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis quotes two early Fathers of the Church who teach this. The first is St Ambrose, who writes: “I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy” (De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28). A second quotation from the same work reads: “Those who ate manna died; those who eat this body will obtain the forgiveness of their sins” (IV, 5, 24).
The other Father of the Church is St Cyril of Alexandria. He writes of those who stay away from Communion because they consider themselves unworthy: “I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy? When at last you present yourself before Christ? And if your sins prevent you from drawing nigh, and you never cease to fall – for, as the Psalm says, ‘what man knows his faults?’ – will you remain without partaking of the sanctification that gives life for eternity?” (In Joh. Evang., IV, 2)
More recently, in 1905 the Vatican repeated this teaching in the Decree Sacra Tridentina approved by Pope St Pius X. It came in answer to the errors of Jansenism which taught, among other things, that a person needed to be virtually perfect in order to receive Communion. As a result, people were receiving the sacrament only occasionally. The document recommended daily reception of Communion if possible and taught that Communion is not a reward for virtue but rather a remedy for sin. It said that frequent Communion has as its aim “that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid these graver sins to which human frailty is liable.” Could it be that Communion forgives mortal sins as well as venial sins? No, it does not. For the forgiveness of mortal sins we have the sacraments of Baptism, in the case of adults, and Reconciliation. Communion cannot be given to those in the state of mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church” (CCC 1395). Even more, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (CCC 1385).
But the Catechism, like the Fathers of the Church and earlier Church documents, teaches that Communion does forgive venial sins and it strengthens us to avoid committing mortal sins: “Holy Communion separates us from sin. The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is ‘given up for us,’ and the blood we drink ‘shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.’ For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (CCC 1393; cf. 1 Cor 11:26).
How does it do this? “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins” (CCC 1394). What is more, “By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin” (CCC 1395).
This teaching is very consoling. We all sin and it is heartening to know that we need not, and indeed should not, stay away from Communion simply because we have committed many venial sins. Holy Communion, like so many other good acts we do, forgives those sins by helping us grow in love for God and our neighbour and it strengthens us to avoid falling into mortal sins. For this reason we should go to Communion as often as we can.