The Practice of the Primitive Christians. What is and what is not Frequent Communion.
On the subject of frequent Communion much confusion prevails even among pious souls, arising from not clearly understanding what is, and what is not, frequent Communion. They often confound _ the dispositions required for what is not frequent Communion with those required for frequent Communion; as also the dispositions of precept with those of counsel only. Thus many, from this cause, are kept away from the holy table. Hence a clear exposition of the teaching of the Church on these points will benefit the devout reader.
The Practice of the Primitive Christians.
The Apostles, educated in the school of Jesus Christ himself, taught the first Christians to communicate every day. This we learn from the Acts of the Apostles (ii. 46), "continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart.'' The best interpreters understand this of Holy Communion. St. Jerome and the earliest writers attest this fact, and hence St. Thomas concludes, "It is certain that in the early ages', all who assisted at Mass received Holy Communion."
The Congregation of the Council of Trent says, "Formerly all who assisted at the Holy Sacrifice participated in the holy mysteries; it is then permitted to communicate every day, because, as the faithful sin every day, they must be exhorted to have recourse every day to this remedy."
"It is certain," says St. Francis of Sales, "that in the Primitive Church the Christians communicated every day, even those engaged in the married state." By this habit of daily Communion the Christians were animated with courage to meet death, at all times and in its fiercest, forms, for the faith.
This holy custom of daily Communion prevailed for several centuries in the Church. Afterwards, when with increasing number the fervor of Christians began to wax cold, all were commanded to communicate every Sunday _ Benedict XIV., de Syn., lib. 5, c. i.
This law of weekly communion existed up to the eighth or ninth century. The faithful began to grow more tepid, and neglected weekly communion; then the Church made a new law, obliging all to communicate at least three times a year at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Benedict XIV., Syn., lib. 5, c. i.
In after ages the tepidity of the Christian became so great, that Innocent the Third, in the Council of Lateran, in the year 1215, obliged all, under the most severe penalties, to communicate at least at Easter. The spirit of the Church is ever the same, but fervor and piety had grown cold, and so the discipline of the Church had to be relaxed.
The Spirit of the Church.
The Church has at all times encouraged and exhorted her children to frequent Communion. We have seen that the Apostles, educated in the school of the Redeemer, taught the primitive Christians to communicate daily. The Council of Trent, assisted by the Holy Ghost, about 1500 years after the Apostles, taught the same doctrine to her children in the words following: "The sacred and holy Synod" (Sess. xxii., c. vi.) it would fain indeed, that at each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only by spiritual desire, but also by the sacramental participation or the Eucharist." And (in Sess. xiii., chap. viii.) the holy Council, in the most touching appeal, exhorts the faithful to frequent Communion: "The holy synod, with true fatherly affection, admonishes, exhorts, begs, and beseeches, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, that all mindful of the exceeding love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his own soul as the price of our salvation, and gave us his own flesh to eat would believe and venerate those 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, superstantial bread, that it may be to them truly the life of the soul and the perpetual health of their mind, and 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 the veil, that same bread of angels which they now eat under the sacred veils."
Let us add a few of the testimonies of the teachers of the Church and Fathers. Pope Innocent, in the year 1679 (decretum 12), in a decree to all Christendom, praises and approves of daily communion for persons in every state of life, provided they bring with them the proper dispositions. Pope Benedict XIV. (Bullarium, tom. i. page 440), expresses the ardent desire of seeing renewed in the Church the fervor and daily communion of the first centuries. St. Ambrose says (liber 5, de Sacr. c. 4), "Receive the Eucharist every day if permitted, so that each day it may become useful to you." St. Basil says (Epist. ad Caesari), "It is useful to communicate every day, to participate of the body and blood of Jesus Christ." St. Jerome remarks (Com. in Ezechiel, c. 18), "In the Lord's Prayer we ask for the living bread descended from heaven, in order that we may merit to receive every day in this life that supersubstantial food, which we shall receive forever in the next." St. Bernard teaches the same doctrine: he says, "We have within us an inveterate ulcer, as long as we are under the yoke of sin; communion is the sovereign remedy for curing it; receive it then every day, if you are deemed worthy by your confessor." Sermo in Coena. "Eucharist," adds St. Augustine, is your daily bread, necessary for this life." Homilia, 43, in Quinqua. "In fine," concludes the Catechism of the Council of Trent (pars 2, num. 63) "the words, `If thou sinnest daily: receive daily,' convey the sentiments not alone of St. Augustine, but of all the fathers who have written on the subject."
The reader will excuse a few citations from modern doctors of the Church and masters of spiritual life.
Of St. Liguori we may say, that by his theology and pious books he has revived in the Church the holy and primitive habit of frequent communion. St. Thomas, the angel of the schools, says: "The virtue of the sacrament of the Eucharist is to give to man salvation; therefore it is useful that we should participate in it every day, so as to partake each day of its fruits."Pars iii. quest. 80, art. 81. St. Charles Borromeo says: "Let the pastors and preachers frequently exhort the faithful to the salutary practice of frequently receiving the Holy Eucharist, by the example and practice of the primitive Church, by the words and testimonies of the holy fathers, and in fine, by the sentiments of the Council of Trent, which wishes us to communicate each time that we assist at the holy sacrifice of the Mass." Council iii. p. 74. The pious and learned Fenelon says: "Partake of this nourishment as often as it can profit you; and should that be every day, partake of it every day. The primitive Christians communicated every day: these times are not less dangerous. Never was this daily remedy so much wanted. Communicate, then, as the apostles made the primitive Christians that is, every day if permitted, and if your confessor thinks it useful for the sanctification of your soul."
The saints practised what they preached, and hence we find that they received Holy Communion every day. Witness St. Gertrude, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Teresa, and many other saints. Daily communion infused into their souls that angelic purity, that serene joy amidst the greatest trials and austere penances, that heroic sanctity, intimate union with God, and constant spirit of prayer, that made them the great saints they were.
Frequent communion, then, was taught by the apostles, educated by Jesus Christ himself; taught by the fathers, brought up in the school of the apostles; taught and practised by the saints of God in every age. The Church may vary her laws and practices, but her doctrine is ever the same; her teaching, like God himself, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
What is Meant by
By frequent communion the approved writers of the Church understand communion every day, several days in a week, or at least more than once a week. St. Alphonsus Liguori, whose writings have been approved by the Holy See, and who has been, praised by Leo XII. for recommending, the frequent use of the sacraments, is sufficient authority on this important point. Now this learned saint repeats again and again that communion once a week is not frequent communion. Let one passage suffice. The saint says: "Monthly or weekly communion cannot be called frequent, on account of the great coldness of these miserable times; for, according to the ancient discipline of the Church, it should be called rare rather than frequent. "Reply to Aristasio. Hence, we can safely conclude, that Holy Communion daily, several times a week, or twice a week, is frequent communion; and that Holy Communion once a week is not frequent communion.
The Dispositions of Precept and Counsel for Frequent Communion, and Weekly Communion.
In our preparation for Holy Communion, it is necessary to distinguish what is of precept from what is only of counsel, in order that we may not sin by abuse of holy things irreverence towards the august sacrament; or lose the life of our souls by keeping away from the holy table. A precept obliges under pain of sin; a counsel does not. By neglecting or violating a precept we offend God; by neglecting a counsel we do not offend God, but merit less grace, Now there are dispositions of precept and of counsel for frequent communion, and dispositions both of precept and counsel for weekly communion too. It will increase the devotion of the pious communicant clearly to understand them,
Dispositions of Precept for
St. Augustine says (Serm. viii. de Verbo Dom.): "Receive daily, that it may be every day profitable to you, but live in such a manner that you may be worthy to receive every day." What are the dispositions required, or of precept, for frequent communion? In one word, they consist in this the frequent communicant must be exempt not only from mortal sin, but from every affection for or attachment to deliberate venial sin. For this we have the highest authorities in the Church. The learned Pope Benedict XIV. (De Syn. lib. vii. cap. 12, n. 9), says: "Confessors should not allow frequent communion to those who, avoiding mortal sin, yet retain an affection for venial faults, of which they do not wish to correct themselves." St. Liguori says (Praxis, clxix.) "It is an error to grant frequent communion, that is, several times in the week, to those who commit venial faults, for which they retain an affection, and of which they do not wish to correct themselves." "As for persons," continues the saint, "who habitually commit deliberate venial sins, and in whom no amendment, or even desire of amendment, is visible, it would be well not to permit them to communicate more than once a week." "Hence a person," we use still the very words of the saint (Spouse of Christ, p. 635) "who commits deliberate venial sins, by telling wilful lies, by vanity of dress, by feelings of dislike, by inordinate attachments, or is guilty of other similar faults, which he knows to be an obstacle to his advancement in perfection, and who does not endeavor to correct these defects, especially if these defects were against humility or obedience, that person cannot be permitted to communicate more than once a week." Therefore, it follows that the frequent communicant must be exempt from every affection for or attachment to deliberate venial sins he must try to avoid and correct any venial fault which he had been in the habit of committing.
It may be asked, does it then follow that the frequent communicant must avoid all venial sins? By no means. Exemption from venial sin, and exemption from an affection to venial sin, are two distinct and different things. The Council of Trent (sess. vi., cap. xxiii.) teaches, that it is impossible, without a special privilege of grace, to avoid all venial sin. That privilege belonged to the Immaculate Sinless mother of God alone. A holy soul may and will sometimes fall into venial faults, but she retains no affection for them as long as she hates and detests them, and endeavors to correct and avoid them for the time to come. On the other hand the soul has an affection for those venial faults which she continues to commit, into which she easily and frequently falls, without making any effort to avoid or correct them. St. Francis of Sales says, "We can never be perfectly exempt from venial sins, but we can very well avoid all affection to venial sin. Truly it is one thing to tell a lie once or twice, with full deliberation, in a matter of little importance, and another thing to take pleasure in lying, and to be attached to that kind of sin." "Affection to venial sin," continues the same saint, "is contrary to devotion; it weakens the strength of the soul, prevents divine consolations, opens the door to temptations, and, if it does not kill the soul, it renders it extremely infirm, and it is in this that it differs from venial sins; these last happening to a soul, and not there continuing long, do not injure it much; but should the same venial sins remain in the soul, by the affection it feels for them, they cause it to lose the grace of devotion." Such are the suitable dispositions, the dispositions required by theologians for frequent Holy Communion.
St. Liguori allows one exception to this general rule. He says (Praxis, num. 149), "It is sometimes good and desirable to allow frequent and daily communion to those who are in danger of falling into mortal sin, that they may receive grace and strength to resist the temptations." And the saint relates, "That a certain nobleman was so habitually addicted to a certain grievous and sensual sin, that he despaired of overcoming his bad habit. Having communicated every day for several weeks, according to the advice of his confessor, he was entirely delivered from the vice which had tyrannized over him so long, and never afterwards committed sin against the holy virtue of purity."
The Dispositions of Counsel for Frequent Communion.
"Nothing," says St. Jerome, "ought to be more pure, more calm, more adorned than that soul which prepares within it a dwelling for the Lord." Jesus Christ is so holy that the dispositions to be desired are those which filled the soul of the Blessed Mother of God herself, when she knelt down at the holy table. The better dispositions we bring to the altar, the more graces shall we, receive from our Blessed Lord. "Holy things for the holy," and how holy ought the communicant be whose soul is daily fed and nourished by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The highest sanctity is not high enough for such a soul.
What are those dispositions! They are:
1. A sensitive, nervous fear of the smallest venial sins, not because they deserve punishment, but because they offend so good a God. They who love God ardently endeavor to avoid by all means in their power the slightest venial offence.
2. Mental prayer or meditation according to the capacity and state of life of each person. The soul that loves God loves to commune with God in holy prayer. In prayer the soul finds light and fervor, and other graces which the Holy Ghost himself breathes into the heart.
3. Purity of intention, that is, not only in the morning, but frequently during the day, to offer all our actions to the greater glory of God, to perform them solely to please him, and during each action to keep alive in our souls a sense of the presence of God by short ejaculations and aspirations, which can be multiplied by thousands every day. Without fatiguing the mind, they keep the soul ever in the presence of God.
This is the sense in which I have called these dispositions "dispositions of precept."
4. Every day to practise many little acts of humility, selfdenial, and mortification of the senses; and moreover, to watch and obey the secret inspirations of God. These secret inspirations, these silent whispers from heaven to the fervent soul, are many every day.
5. The hearing of Mass, nay, of as many Masses as possible, every day, daily fervent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and lastly, tender filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The following passages may appropriately conclude our remarks on the subject of frequent communion.
St. Francis of Sales says (Introd. to Devout Life), "When a soul has attained a considerable degree of perfection, when she spends several hours in the day in mental prayer, and has moreover conquered the greater part of her evil inclinations, she may be allowed to communion every day." And St. Thomas says, "If any one finds by experience that by daily Communion the fervor of his love is increased, and his reverence not diminished, such a person ought to communicate every day." In 4 Sent. 2, Distin. 2, 9, 3, Art. 1.
The Disposition of Precept for Weekly Communion.
We have shown that weekly communion is not frequent communion What are the necessary dispositions, or dispositions of precept, for weekly communion? We reply, exemption from mortal sin. In other words, any person free from mortal sin can communicate worthily, once a week. Such is the teachings of the approved writers of the Church. Neither venial sins nor affection to venial sins prevent weekly communion. We have seen in the preceding section that Benedict XIV. (Syn. lib. 7, c. 12, n , .9), whilst he forbids frequent communion to those who retain an affection for venial sins, doesnot forbid weekly, which is not frequent communion. Saint Liguori repeats the same doctrine. "As for persons," he says (Praxit. n. 149), "who habitually commit deliberate venial sins, and in whom no amendment, or even desire of amendment is visible, it would not be well to permit them to communicate more than once a week." Therefore the saint would permit Holy Communion once a week to such persons. Again, St. Liguori says (Reply to Arist.): "My monitor will say that even in the early ages of the Church, exemption from affection to venial sin was considered necessary for weekly communion. I say it was not; for communion was forbidden only to those who had an affection to mortal sin." Again, "It cannot be denied that the mere exemption from mortal sin is not a sufficient disposition for frequent communion; but it is sufficient for communion which is not frequent, or for weekly communion; otherwise persons who have an affection to venial sins should be forbidden to communicate even a few times in the year." And again he says, "It has always appeared to me suitable and right to advise seculars who avoid grievous faults, or who commit them but seldom, . . . . . . . to communicate every week. In fact it is proved by experience that those who communicate every week never or rarely commit mortal sins. Many persons who avoid mortal sin by communicating every week would not have strength to do so if they communicated but once a month." Reply to Arist. Father Scaramelli, whose work (Directoire Ascètique) is highly prized, says, "A confessor may and ought to grant weekly communion to souls whom he finds disposed for absolution; such is the general sentiment of spiritual directors, and appears at present to be the practice of the Church." "Weekly Communion," says the learned Suarez, "ought not to be omitted because of venial sins, for it is one of the great fruits of the sacrament to preserve from falling into mortal sin." We shall give one passage from a living author, the learned and holy Mgr. De Sè of Paris. He says, "I am spending my life in directing and hearing the confessions of children and young people. Whilst on the other hand, with this holy practice, it becomes easy for them to avoid evil . . . . . . .. If you can, my dear little child, communicate every Sunday and feastday." This pious prelate advises and recommends Holy Communion once a week to children who have made their first communion.
Let us conclude in the words of the Council of Trent: "Those persons" (Sess. xiii. c. viii.), "communicate sacramentally and spiritually (that is. with fruit), who so prove and dispose themselves as to approach the divine table with the wedding garment."' "The wedding garment" is the state of grace, or exemption from mortal sin. It follows therefore, that neither venial sins or affection to venial sins are an impediment to weekly Communion. The only condition required is exemption from mortal sin, so that any
soul, simply in the state of grace, can approach the holy table worthily and with fruit once a week.
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