By Timothy Hutchinson

The Catholic Mass is centred on the Eucharist—Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity truly made present under the appearances of bread and wine. We also call it the “summit of our faith”. Although there are many things that initially sparked my own interest in Catholicism, it was the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that has had the final and strongest pull. For Catholics this is what evangelism is all about: an exhortation and invitation to non-Catholics to centre their own lives on Christ in the Eucharist. It is the Sacrament in which we find the fullness of love and redemption.

Why then, when a non-Catholic comes to Mass, are they not permitted to receive Communion? It’s sometimes a tough and uncomfortable question to answer.  We needn’t shy away from it, however.  As a lay Catholic who, more than anything, longs for his friends to be fellow sharers in the mystery of the Eucharist, I humbly offer a few helpful approaches for explaining this to our non-Catholic friends more appropriately.

Unfortunately a non-Catholic visiting Mass for the first time will usually get left to figure this out for him or herself.  The person who invited them either doesn’t know that the newcomer should not partake or is too shy to say anything about it.  The priest is then left to awkwardly whisper over the consecrated host: “Excuse me, are you a Catholic?” and I know many people who’ve been left bewildered and even upset by this experience.  Maybe wanting to spare your non-Catholic friend the embarrassment you’ve whispered to him or her, just in time, “Don’t take communion!”  This is arguably better than nothing, but it’s also not very helpful.  You probably left that person feeling judged, and Heaven knows how people these days feel about being judged!

I’d like to suggest a different approach. I must warn you, however, from the outset, dear reader, that although I sincerely want you to hear all I have to say, I really can’t promise a completely non-offensive way of approaching this issue.  We can avoid being unnecessarily offensive. By this I mean we should never be glib, superior or uncharitable.  Also we should never take pleasure in being offensive, regardless of how unavoidable that offense may be.  However, we must also realise that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a scandalously offensive truth, which we cannot hope to avoid!  In chapter six of St John’s Gospel the people who first heard Christ talk about “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” were naturally very offended. Most of Jesus’ followers left Him upon hearing this teaching. Nevertheless, Jesus did not call them back and soften His language, or make any allusions to it being a mere metaphor.  Instead He turned to the Twelve Disciples and asked if they too wanted to leave Him! An important observation to make here is that those who left Christ were offended by what they were being invited to do, and not by what they were not being invited to do.  That’s an important distinction.

Therefore, I would suggest that we prepare our non-Catholic friends for Mass in the following way. Let us suppose I were driving to Mass and I pick up my friend Sam who is curious about this whole Catholic thing I am always talking about. I don’t want to leave Sam in the dark when it comes to the Communion part of the Mass and so I say, “Sam, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Catholics have a very specific understanding of Communion.” (I use the word understanding, not the word belief.) Then I ask, “Are you familiar with this understanding?” Sometimes the conversation ends here. Sam says, “Yes, don’t worry I know what to do. I won’t go up for Communion.” Or the conversation may go on and Sam will say, “No, I’ve never heard of it. What’s the big deal?” I now have an opportunity to explain a little bit of the heart of my faith to my friend Sam, a friend I dearly want to share in this mystery too.

And so I might go on to say, “When the priest prays over and blesses the hosts, with the words used by Jesus Himself at the Last Supper, Christ actually becomes present under the appearance of what was, just moments before, mere bread and wine. And just as Christ left the upper room that night to be arrested, scourged and crucified, what is actually offered as a sacrifice to God during Mass is not bread and wine at all, but rather the Victim of Golgotha Himself: Jesus Christ. We are, spiritually speaking, at the foot of the Cross when we go to Mass. This is the whole point of the Mass: to be united to Christ by placing our own lives on the same altar upon which He is sacrificed—to offer the one Sacrifice that is pleasing to God and can save us from our sins.”

After that the conversation can go in a hundred directions. I’m presenting Sam with a window into what the Mass is, to whet Sam’s appetite so to speak, but also to prepare him for what to do as a non-Catholic when Communion is served.  Therefore I go on to say, “In light of what we understand Communion to be, we prepare ourselves in a very intentional and reverent way to receive the Eucharist and the Church asks that anyone who is not prepared to honour that understanding by not partaking.”

This of course is the hard part of the whole conversation, but it is essentially an invitation to full participation (which is what communion means, by the way) in the mystery of the Eucharist rather than a casual attempt to “try it out”.  That full participation in Communion with Christ would mean a whole new way of living, a way of living informed by the fact that once a week (or more) we come face-to-face with our Saviour during Mass.  Even though this is the greatest gift we have in this world, the receiver must be aware of what they are partaking in.  They may decide that they do not want any part in this strange ritual of bread and wine become flesh and blood or they may decide that they do not want to make the necessary changes to their life that Communion with Christ requires.

But supposing they do want it.  Supposing the person decides, if that truly is Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, why would I not want to partake?  Indeed, why delay?  Well, that’s where we as the Church, especially priests and bishops who have stewarded these mysteries for the last two thousand years, step in to prayerfully help that person understand what it means come into Communion with Christ.  There should be no false pretenses.  Just as a young man prepares for marriage, even though he has a strong and good desire to be with his bride, there is prudence in preparation – a time for him to learn what he is about to step into.

There is, after all, a reason why most catechumens undergo a period of prayer and study of almost an entire year before they are received into the Church and are admitted to Holy Communion.  Like the man preparing for marriage and entering a whole new way of life, he should also be aware that he isabout to become part of a new family.  Coming into Communion with Christ’s Body – the Eucharist –is inseparable from becoming Catholic, which is to be in communion with His Body – the Church.   In short, to prepare to receive Communion would necessitate converting to Catholicism – the two are one and the same.

I’ve had the above conversation a few times and usually the person is quite respectful in response.  I can encourage Sam to come up for a blessing from the priest if he really doesn’t want to stay seated when I go up, but I would also explain that not even Catholics have to go up every Sunday to receive Communion—there are always those who don’t receive for whatever reason, but no one is watching them or keeping track.  We go to Mass to worship Christ and our eyes are on Him.

The challenge to us as Catholics is to be ready and willing to share these truths with our non-Catholic friends and this requires us to have a firm knowledge for ourselves to begin with. It may seem daunting but fear not, many saints have gone before you, standing by these mysteries and some even giving their lives to defend them. May their prayers be with us. The least we can do is make sure we understand them enough to accurately share them with others.

Timothy Hutchinson



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