Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Your mention in one of your columns [October 20, 2015] that “Until relatively recent times Communion was generally not distributed to the faithful during the celebration of Mass itself” caught my eye and made me realize how little I know of the history of the Church’s discipline in regard to Communion. Perhaps it would be too complex to address here, but could you give your readers a brief outline of this history? – K.T., Houston, Texas
A: I think that to answer this question we need to distinguish the doctrinal principles from the historical practice, as both have influenced how the rites have developed. We will also limit ourselves to the basic rite itself, leaving for some other time the history of reception under both kinds and the posture of the faithful.
Doctrinally, the Church has always considered the reception of Communion as the logical and necessary conclusion of the sacrificial celebration. Logical, because any sacrifice that has the offering of food as its object implies the idea of consumption. Necessary, because this was the express will of Christ who invites to take and eat. Therefore, in ancient times, any member of the faithful whose personal offering of bread and wine was received by the priest would naturally become a communicant. Even if no member of the faithful received Communion, ecclesial liturgical discipline has always demanded that at least the priest’s Communion was necessary so as to complete and perfect the sacrifice. This was declared, for example, by the Twelfth Council of Toledo in 681 in a text later cited by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:
“I answer that, As stated above (79, 5,7), the Eucharist is not only a sacrament, but also a sacrifice. Now whoever offers sacrifice must be a sharer in the sacrifice, because the outward sacrifice he offers is a sign of the inner sacrifice whereby he offers himself to God, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei x). Hence by partaking of the sacrifice he shows that the inner one is likewise his. In the same way also, by dispensing the sacrifice to the people he shows that he is the dispenser of Divine gifts, of which he ought himself to be the first to partake, as Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iii). Consequently, he ought to receive before dispensing it to the people. Accordingly we read in the chapter mentioned above (Twelfth Council of Toledo, Can. v): ‘What kind of sacrifice is that wherein not even the sacrificer is known to have a share?’ But it is by partaking of the sacrifice that he has a share in it, as the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 10:18): ‘Are not they that eat of the sacrifices, partakers of the altar?’ Therefore it is necessary for the priest, as often as he consecrates, to receive this sacrament in its integrity. (III, q82 art. 4 resp.)”
The principles regarding reception of Communion were later summed up in a solemn way by the Council of Trent in its XIII session in October 1551:
“Now as to the use of this holy sacrament, our Fathers have rightly and wisely distinguished three ways of receiving it. For they have taught that some receive it sacramentally only, to wit sinners: others spiritually only, those to wit who eating in desire that heavenly bread which is set before them, are, by a lively faith which worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof: whereas the third (class) receive it both sacramentally and spiritually, and these are they who so prove and prepare themselves beforehand, as to approach to this divine table clothed with the wedding garment. Now as to the reception of the sacrament, it was always the custom in the Church of God, that laymen should receive the communion from priests; but that priests when celebrating should communicate themselves; which custom, as coming down from an apostolical tradition, ought with justice and reason to be retained. And finally this holy Synod with true fatherly affection admonishes, exhorts, begs, and beseeches, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, that all and each of those who bear the Christian name would now at length agree and be of one mind in this sign of unity, in this bond of charity, in this symbol of concord; and that mindful of the so great majesty, and the so exceeding love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His own beloved soul as the price of our salvation, and gave us His own flesh to eat, they would believe and venerate these sacred mysteries of His body and blood with such constancy and firmness of faith, with such devotion of soul, with such piety and worship as to be able frequently to receive that supersubstantial bread, and that it may be to them truly the life of the soul, and the perpetual health of their mind; that being invigorated by the strength thereof, they may, after the journeying of this miserable pilgrimage, be able to arrive at their heavenly country, there to eat, without any veil, that same bread of angels which they now eat under the sacred veils.”
With respect to practice, however, things developed in a different way. Practically all early documents attest to the practice of Communion during Mass. St. Justin (100-165) mentions that the deacons even brought Communion to those absent after the celebration was over. However, over time the discipline slackened and less and less faithful received Communion. This happened with surprising rapidity as even St. John Chrysostom (349-407) complained, “In vain we stand before the altar, there is no one to partake.” The Church had to recall the importance of receiving Communion even to clerics. From the fourth century on we find decrees making it obligatory for clerics who attend a solemn Mass to receive Communion. The situation reached such a point that in 1123 the First Lateran Council found it necessary to prescribe confession and Communion at least once a year for all Catholics as an absolute minimum. This law remains in force today although actual practice varies widely.
The reasons for the faithful’s refraining from receiving Communion are complex, and some reasons are specific to certain epochs. One example is the reaction to Arianism in the earlier period which gave rise to a highly exalted vision of the Eucharist as the “awesome table of the Lord,” which one feared to approach. Later during the medieval period a more restricted practice of penance before Communion, detailed rules regarding extended fasting, and recommendations regarding abstention from marital acts before Communion produced an overall cumulative falling away from reception even though Mass attendance remained constant and religious fervor remarkably high. Even the increase in Eucharistic adoration in the 12th century led some to consider that gazing upon the host could in some way replace the sacramental reception.
This led to development in the rite of Communion although the possibility of distributing Communion at this moment always remained part of the rite, and it continued to be used whenever there were relatively few communicants. Earlier forms of the Roman rite had a very brief invitation to the faithful to approach Communion after the priest had received. However, this formula disappeared although a bell was rung as a sign of invitation. In the 12th century in some places a kind of introduction returned, inspired by the rite of Communion for the sick, as it became a practice to say a second Confiteor if anyone beside the priest was to receive Communion. And in the 15th century the practice of showing the host to the people with the formula “Behold the Lamb of God …” and the “Lord I am not worthy …” was introduced within the Mass. Officially these formulas were initially accepted in the Ritual of Paul V in 1614 as part of reception of Communion outside of Mass.
In practice, however, since during several centuries the mass of the people would receive their yearly Communion around Easter, this led to many logistical difficulties for distributing it during Mass. This lead in many places to a dissociation between the moment of Communion and Mass. In some places there would be priests distributing the Easter Communion from a side altar throughout Mass as well as before and after Mass. This practice was sometimes extended to other major feasts.
Gradually, however, there was a return to more frequent Communion, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, spurred on by several spiritual associations, the increase in the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the encouragement of the popes. This led naturally to a return to better liturgical practice and the habitual distribution of Communion within the context of Mass, although in some places other practices continued as customs.
Thus the great liturgist J.A. Jungmann, in his major work on the history of the Roman Mass, wrote before the present liturgical reform:
“As we have already seen, the Communion of the celebrating priest is generally followed by the Communion of the rest of the congregation. This is in accord both with the original plan of the Roman Mass. This pattern, which in our own day has again come to be taken for granted more and more, was subjected during the course of centuries, to several fluctuations and violent upheavals. These fluctuations and upheavals have had their effect upon the liturgical design of the people’s Communion. They also led to the result that in the explanation of the Mass, even down to the present, the Communion of the people was sometimes treated as a foreign element that did not belong to the structure of the Mass-liturgy and could therefore be disregarded.”
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.