Reflection on the Sacrament of Confession and on the two forms of receiving Holy Communion

I read with great attention various articles and watch various programmes on the two forms of receiving Holy Communion: in the hand and on the tongue. I am very interested in this topic because more and more parishioners ask me which form is more appropriate and expresses more respect for the Eucharist.

Before answering this question, I always remind people of something that is much more important – our inner attitude and the state of our soul. When I came to England in 2012 and started to get to know the Catholic Church here with its richness and diversity, one thing struck me very much. 99% of people who attend Mass receive Communion, while requests for confession are really few. I was wondering why we do not appreciate the sacrament of reconciliation? Moreover, people who have not been to church for many years, on the occasion of funerals or weddings of their loved ones, take Communion as if it was something necessary for everyone who attends Mass, as if it would be a great shame not to approach the sanctuary with other people.

I think that we as priests do not talk enough about the fact that Holy Communion should be preceded by confession, and confession should be preceded by a good examination of conscience. I think that we as priests should teach our faithful that confession is not only our duty but also our privilege, that it gives us so many spiritual benefits, and we should go to confession at least once a year, although we can go twice a year or even more often if we need to (priests are encouraged to go to confession once a month, St John Paul II used to go every two weeks). It is very good that we want and like to receive Holy Communion whenever we participate in the Holy Mass, but we should ask ourselves about our motives for receiving the Eucharist. Do I take Communion because it is my deepest desire and I truly believe that I am receiving the living and true God into my heart? Or maybe I take Communion because everyone does it and I feel uncomfortable when I stay in the pew alone? When I go to Communion, am I convinced that my conscience and heart are pure and I am free from any mortal sin?

I think it is worth recalling the words of Saint Paul in the letter to the Corinthians: ‘Let each one then examine himself before eating of the bread and drinking from the cup. Otherwise, he eats and drinks his own condemnation in not recognizing the body’. (1 Cor 11, 28-29) St. Paul does not write anything about the external form of receiving Communion, but he emphasises what is spiritual, that is, our awareness of what we receive. Please do not feel uncomfortable if you attend Mass and do not take Communion if you feel that there is some sin in your heart and you are not reconciled with God. Please do not be afraid to ask for confession whenever you need and get the chance. Please do not think that you are bothering the priest, because we priests and bishops also ‘bother’ our fellow priests by asking them for this sacrament and we also find this sacrament demanding and difficult but at the same time beautiful and precious.

Maybe instead of debating and arguing which form of receiving Communion is better, we should remind our brothers and sisters that only Communion received in a state of grace is able to enrich us spiritually. Maybe it would be better to encourage them to go to confession. Maybe it would be better to share with them our experience of a good confession, that made our joy of receiving Communion spiritual and real. Do we ‘examine ourselves before eating and drinking from the cup?’ ‘Let each one then examine himself before eating of the bread and drinking from the cup. Otherwise, he eats and drinks his own condemnation in not recognizing the body’. Should not these words touch us and somehow wake us up from our habits and routines?

There is one more important thing I wanted to share with you. Very often people express their opinions on what we should do to make our Catholic faith grow and how to stop the secularisation that is flooding this and many other countries. For some, the best solution to this problem would be to increase the number of priests by ordaining married men, for others to ordain more permanent deacons and replace Sunday Masses with another form of worship, for others to ordain women as priests, or to introduce some other reforms and changes regarding the moral teaching of the Church or the Liturgy. In my opinion, the first step we must take to build the Kingdom of God on earth is to appreciate the importance of the sacrament of confession, which will allow us appreciate the sacrament of the Eucharist. We cannot appreciate the Eucharist while removing the sacrament of Confession from our spiritual life. If we truly care about the future of the Church, there is no better recipe than our own personal regular conversion and spiritual strengthening that we receive through these two sacraments.

What about the two forms of receiving communion? I grew up in Poland, a country where the only form of receiving Communion is on the tongue. When I was a child, the only common form was kneeling and on the tongue. Here in England most of us receive Communion in the hand. Can we say that one of these forms is better and the other worse? Is one of them more respectful and the other less? Does God have any preference in this matter? I remember a very interesting discussion between a bishop and a woman who was convinced that the only acceptable and worthy form was receiving the Eucharist on the tongue. When the bishop asked her why she thought so, the woman replied that our human hands were unworthy and too sinful to touch the body of Jesus. Then the bishop asked her: “Which part of your body commits more sins – your hand or your tongue?” The woman did not answer this question and left very embarrassed because at that moment she remembered all the gossip and bad words she had been saying in anger.

What is the conclusion of my reflection? There is no better or worse form of receiving Holy Communion. The most important thing is our internal attitude and our state of grace, that is the inner conviction that there is no mortal sin in our heart and in our soul. For those who consider themselves conservative or traditional Catholics and who emphasise the external form of receiving Communion and criticise Communion in the hand, I recommend a very interesting text by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem – whose feast day we celebrated recently on 18th March – which explains the theological meaning of receiving Communion in the hand: ‘In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?’ Perhaps it is worth meditating on this text during Lent or even better on the upcoming Maundy Thursday when we remember the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Fr Gregory


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