Penance Through Eucharist ?
Forgiveness Through the Celebration of Eucharist
Over the years I’ve heard many people express their fears of receiving Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin. These fears are rooted in the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians. St. Paul warned the Christians at Corinth not to receive the Body of our Lord unworthily. Our fears are also embedded in the traditional practice of going to Confession before receiving Holy Communion.
Reconciliation through the Celebration of the Eucharist
Many of us grew up with the assumption that the Eucharist is for “good people”, not sinners. In our catechesis, we learned that the appropriate sacrament for sinners was the Sacrament of Penance. We also learned that the Eucharist forgives venial sins, and a person who receives Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin commits a grave sacrilege. Since a person could conceivably commit many mortal sins, he or she could be afraid of receiving Holy Communion without first receiving absolution by going to confession.
Sunday Celebration of the Eucharist in the Early Church
In the early Christian centuries, the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist was the most frequent liturgical way of seeking pardon and forgiveness. This statement is understandable if we recall that frequent Confession or Confession, as we know it, only entered the Church in the 6th and 7th centuries. Before that period, the majority of Christians never went to Confession.
I am sure, like the average Christian in the Church today, that Christians in the early centuries offended God and others, and sometimes even seriously. We might rightly ask “how did these Christians seek forgiveness and pardon for their sins? According to an early Church Catechism, the Didache, forgiveness took place through prayer, and especially in the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. In the Didache, the early Christians were urged to “confess your sins you’re your sacrifice may be pure” (page #). Many of the early Church Fathers stressed the importance of the Sunday Eucharist as the place for seeking the forgiveness of sins, even serious sins.
Now, we jump from the 3rd century to the 13th century, and to St. Thomas Aquinas. Speaking of the celebration of the Eucharist, St. Thomas writes:
“Considered in itself, this sacrament has the power to remit all sins, and derives this power from the passion of Christ, which is the source and cause of the remission of sins”.
That’s a strong statement!
The Council of Trent
In the 16th century, in a place called Trent, the Catholic Bishops met to counteract the teachings of the Reformers. This gathering became known as the “Council of Trent”. The Bishops spoke of the forgiveness of sins through the celebration of the Eucharist in two different places:
In Canon 1638, the Council states that a devout celebration of the Eucharist frees us from daily sins and preserves us from mortal sins.
In Canon 1743, the Council states that “appeased by this Sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins”.
These teachings and the ones that follow are not the words of some liberal theologian, but are the words of a General Council of the Church.
(c). The New Rite of Penance
The New Rite of Penance, which was issued from Rome in 1973, continues the emphasis on the celebration of the Eucharist as a Sacrament of forgiveness.
“Therefore, on the night he was betrayed and began his saving passion, he instituted the sacrifice of the New Covenant in his Blood for the forgiveness of sins”. (n.1 )
I am giving you these quotations and information to show you that what I am saying is based on authoritative Church teaching.
(d). The Liturgical Prayers of the Mass
Let’s now look at the Liturgical Prayers of the Mass themselves. I don’t think it is by chance that the celebration of the Eucharist begins with the Penitential Rite. In the CONFITEOR, we admit before God and each other, that we are sinners, and we ask God and each other for pardon and forgiveness. In the other forms of the Penitential Rite, we also ask for mercy and forgiveness. (Keif) p. 23.
You were sent to heal the contrite
You came to call sinners
You are seated at the right hand of the Father
Many of the Scriptural Readings during Mass are a call to repentance and conversion as well. Other readings proclaim God’s merciful love and his attitude towards repentant sinners. The Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep come easily to mind.
Many of the Liturgical Prayers of the Mass are explicit prayers for forgiveness (Mitch p. 80) The most obvious prayers for forgiveness in the Mass occur immediately before Holy Communion beginning with the “Our Father”. The use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Eucharist goes back to the 4th century. St. Augustine emphasizes the reason: “Before Communion, these words remove our sins of weakness.
The Liturgical Prayers that follow the Lord’s Prayer also contains petitions for forgiveness. The prayer we say just before Holy Communion “Lord, I am not worthy”… is still another example of a prayer for forgiveness.
These prayers, together with the acclamation, “Lamb of God… are, in a sense, a smallPenitential Rite. All of these prayers give some indication of the many times during the celebration of the Eucharist that we pray for pardon, mercy and forgiveness.
With regard to Eucharist as a Sacrament of forgiveness, we need only look to these prayers and the teachings of the Church to understand that the celebration of the Eucharist can be viewed as a normal, regular, and frequent liturgical way of asking God for pardon and forgiveness. Although forgiveness is not the chief purpose of the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ made forgiveness an essential part of it.
From my own pastoral experience, I feel that the average Catholic does not really see the Liturgical Prayers of the Mass as prayers through which he/she personally asks for pardon and forgiveness. While these prayers may be said by the priest, he is saying them together with the assembled community.
(e ) Holy Communion and Mortal Sin
I find it difficult to understand the question, “If you are in mortal sin, can you go to Holy Communion?” This question indicates a very poor appreciation and understanding of the Mass. The question seems to infer that the Mass is a religious ceremony that one goes through in an impersonal way, or observes from a distance. The question implies that a person does not see the Mass as one long prayer of the assembled community, a prayer that includes many petitions to God for pardon, mercy and forgiveness. I also wonder about the person’s understanding of “mortal sin”.
I may be laboring on about this issue, but I am doing so intentionally. Most Catholics do not really see the Liturgical Prayers of the Massas prayers that they personally pray. As I said previously, these prayers may be said by the celebrant, but he says them in union with the gathered assembly. Some people have told me that they say an Act of Contrition before receiving Holy Communion. I wonder if that’s necessary.
Let’s look at it more closely. What more beautiful an Act of Contrition have we when we say:
“Lord, I am not worthy to…
Hopefully, going forward, you will see all these prayers as your own individual prayers; prayers through which you intimately ask God for mercy, pardon and forgiveness. As we continue our understanding of the celebration of the Mass, let’s remember the words of St. Thomas:
“Considered in itself, this sacrament has the power to remit all sins, and derives this power from the passion of Christ ” … (Council p.46)
Remember also, the words of the Council of Trent:
“Appeased by this Sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardon even of the gravest crimes and sins ” (p. 296.)
You may be wondering if God forgives the most serious crimes and sins through a devout celebration of the Eucharist, why go to confession at all? If Christ instituted the ‘sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins”, why then do we, who celebrate the Eucharist so frequently, still seek forgiveness for them in the Sacrament of Penance?
These are good questions worthy of further dialogue. You are invited to join me on Tuesday nights at 7pm in LeSage Hall to continue the conversation. God bless you.