Mass every Sunday was an integral part of my young life, as was true for most and likely all of my neighborhood friends. The 9 a.m. Sunday Mass was the children’s Mass and all were expected to sit together by class in the middle aisle of the parish church. Our parents and other parishioners filled the side aisles. During my high school years, of course, I sat with my parents on the right side aisle, maybe just below the ninth station. So the Kileys were indeed there at Mass each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. However, during my youthful years my father only went to Communion once a year: his Easter duty. He would go to confession sometime during Lent, receive Communion sometime during the Easter season, and then rest secure that he had done his duty. During his retirement years, after I had become a priest, my father began to go to daily Mass, as my mother had done for decades. My father once observed, “Well, if you do nothing more with your priesthood, at least you made a good Catholic out of your father.”
In the present era when just about everyone in church receives Communion at every Mass, it is almost inconceivable that a good, practicing Catholic would approach the altar only once in twelve months. But, for most of the Church’s second millennium, the frequent Communion that Catholics are privileged and encouraged to enjoy nowadays was unthinkable. Recall that as recently as the 1890s, St. Therese of Lisieux had to ask her confessor for permission to receive Holy Communion regularly. He permitted her to receive the Body of Christ three times a week! And she was a doctor of the Church! Infrequent Communion had been the practice for most of the faithful for at least a thousand years. Recall that the Fourth Lateran Council in A.D 1215 had to mandate that Holy Communion be received annually at Easter time. The Council of Trent in the 16th century restated this obligation.
Infrequent Communion did not arise from lack of belief in the Eucharist’s excellence. Frankly just the opposite was true. Medieval Catholics had an abundant appreciation for the nature of the sacrament. So great was their awe for the Eucharistic Presence that they were afraid to receive Communion lest they be struck dead for their presumption and impertinence. Medieval Catholics felt spiritually nourished simply by gazing at the Sacred Species. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament became universally popular during this era. The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, offering a glimpse of the Eucharistic element widely throughout the town’s streets, was instituted at this same time. Churches began to line their side walls with small, individual altars so parishioners could behold the Consecrated Hosts at the elevation of several simultaneous Masses.
Later generations would of course be encouraged to make visits to the Blessed Sacrament, which was centrally present in every church and chapel. Shamed by the loss of the Franco-Prussian War, the basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmartre in Paris has had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day since 1885! Saints Peter Julian Eymard and John Marie Vianney, along with the recently canonized Charles deFoucuald, were great promotors of the spiritual benefits of quiet time spent before the Blessed Sacrament. Even apart from Mass, much Eucharistic nourishment has been derived by Catholic generations through the centuries.
Other saints, however, encouraged the actual reception of Holy Communion, even if in small doses by today’s standards. In the 17th century, the nine First Fridays of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque were certainly a step in the right direction. The five first Saturdays of the Fatima children, when carried out, also meant some progress.
Finally, Pope St. Pius X, just over 100 years ago, happily issued the following decree: “Frequent and daily Communion, as a practice most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church, should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the Holy Table with a right and devout intention can be prohibited therefrom.” As in my father’s case, it took some time for this decree to bear fruit.
Perhaps today a crusade is no longer needed for frequent Communion but rather for fervent Communion. Standing together as a body before the table of the Lord and sharing in a common antiphon or hymn, each communicant extends receptive hands, acknowledges the Real Presence by clearly responding “Amen!,” consumes the Host, and respectfully returns to the pew, aware of the sacramental bond with Christ and with each other that all have just experienced. A brief time of quiet prayer might then be observed.
The lepers in this coming Sunday’s Gospel were cleansed while on their way to show themselves to the priests. Catholic communicants too can be more fully cleansed and sanctified if they approach their priests regularly at Communion time with welcoming out-stretched hands and grateful hearts!