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Philippa Martyr: No shame in sitting out Communion

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A priest prepares to distribute Communion during Mass. The Eucharist – the Lord – is at the heart of the Church and evangelisation. Photo: CNS, Bob Roller

If you’re not living in eucharistic coherence—when your soul, lifestyle, and beliefs all line up when you receive Holy Communion—what can you do about it?

UK sociologist Stephen Bullivant and I are working through our Catholics in Australia survey results. We’ve noticed that receiving Holy Communion isn’t what it used to be.

In the past, sociologists could look at how often Catholics received Holy Communion to gauge other things about them.

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It was linked with other factors like being very devout, having a strong belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and going to confession regularly.

Our data shows that the Catholics we surveyed in Australia and Britain are receiving Holy Communion pretty much every time they go to Mass, no matter what.

We looked for links between this and other elements of being a Catholic, like how often they went to confession, how much they believed in God, how much they believed in the real presence, and how religious they thought they were.

The links between these factors and how often they received Holy Communion were really weak. This was a surprise.

We also found that belief in the real presence had no effect at all on how often Catholics in Australia received Holy Communion. This is a bit unhappy.

We found a stronger link with canonical marital status. It turns out that people in an invalid marriage or cohabiting are less likely to receive Holy Communion when they go to Mass, both here and in Britain.

We know the church teaches that if you’re in an invalid marriage, or you’re cohabiting with someone, then you’re not in a state of eucharistic coherence.

This means that you shouldn’t receive Holy Communion until you make different life choices that align with the Gospel.

I know that seems hard, and it is hard. That’s why the church discourages Catholics from entering invalid marriage or cohabiting in the first place.

Sitting out Holy Communion can make you feel left out. This is not the church punishing you, or God punishing you.

It’s because your choices have put you outside. Taking responsibility for those choices means sitting out Holy Communion until you change the thing that’s keeping you outside.
Missing Holy Communion means missing union with Jesus, the closest thing to heaven on earth. It should create a pain, or emptiness, or yearning to be filled.

Worshippers kneel in prayer in St Mary’s Cathedral during the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion.

This pain may be the thing that helps you turn your life around, make changes and better choices. You discover that you have a bottom line that is non-negotiable.

This is painful territory for people in this situation. I do understand, because I have spent plenty of time sitting on the Catholic reserves bench myself.

And yet there is no shame in sitting out Holy Communion when you can’t receive. Over the years, I have been really uplifted by the example of others doing exactly this.

These people loved God enough to come to Mass every Sunday.

But they knew their lives were at odds with his law and what they professed, so they couldn’t receive Holy Communion right now.

It takes real humility to do this, and shows a real love of Jesus in the Eucharist. Their good example also gave me the courage to sit out when I needed to.

So why don’t more people realise they can go to Mass as often as they like, but just sit out Holy Communion if they’re not in the right state to receive Jesus? It might be ignorance, or shame.

Some of it is poor catechesis and sleep-walking through Mass. If you’ve never thought about what you’re doing in Mass, why not just shuffle up with everyone else?

Some of it is nosy parkers who will ask you afterwards why you didn’t go to Communion.

This is the worst possible church manners, so please don’t be this person.

Sometimes it’s well-intentioned people. I had a lovely priest ask me once after a weekday Mass why I hadn’t gone to Holy Communion.

“Because I’m in a state of mortal sin, Father,” I said. (I wish he hadn’t asked me this in front of my parents, but I was hoping they were too deaf to hear my answer).

He’s never asked me that question again, and he’s much more diligent about hearing confessions before Mass now.

Receiving Holy Communion properly places demands on us. We need to respond to those demands. But the joy of receiving Jesus into a loving heart, at rights with God, is all worth it.

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