There is generally no difficulty speaking about Holy Eucharist as Communion Sacrament. In fact, this is the most common way most Catholics think of Holy Eucharist. However, our perspective will be more specific. We will reflect on the meaning of Holy Eucharist as a channel of grace and on how Holy Communion is a means of obtaining supernatural sustenance for the divine life we received at baptism.
The Church’s doctrinal history of Holy Communion goes back to the first century as found in the Didache, the teaching of the twelve Apostles, written around the year 90 A.D. From then on, there has been a steady stream of ecclesiastical teaching which continues to our day. As might be expected, this teaching has grown in depth and clarity due to the challenges of erroneous doctrine, so by now, we can speak without ambiguity about the sacramental effects of receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion.
Source of The Church’s Teaching
The primary source of our faith in the effects of Holy Communion is the clear teaching of Christ Himself as recorded by the evangelist St. John. As we have already seen, heretical sects arose before the second century claiming Christ was not truly God or not truly man. That is why, as history tells us, St. John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the fourth Gospel — mainly to show Jesus was indeed both true God and true Man. That is why John concentrates so much on showing Jesus was God Himself in human form. That is also why St. John devotes the whole sixth chapter of his Gospel (72 verses) to the account of Christ’s promise to give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. Just as uncompromisingly as Christ taught that He was giving His real body and His real blood for our spiritual nourishment, so the Catholic Church has taught ever since.
From the dawn of Christianity, the Church understood Holy Communion to be the reception of the living Christ Himself. But now, there has been such a medley of erroneous ideas about the Eucharist as communion that we better make sure we know what we mean by Holy Communion. We believe Holy Communion is Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His divinity and humanity, whom we receive into our bodies in order to sanctify our souls.
State of Grace Required
When we say Holy Communion confers grace, this does not mean it confers sanctifying grace. On the contrary, Holy Communion is a sacrament of the living. In order to receive faithfully, a person must first of all be living in friendship with God — living in the state of grace. Otherwise, so far from benefiting from Holy Communion, a person commits a sacrilege. And in St. Paul’s words, such a person “draws condemnation on himself.”
I’m no mystic who can read the hearts of human beings, but we don’t have to be mystics to know that a lot of people, especially in our country, are receiving sacrilegious Communions. With a horrendous drop in the amount of people frequenting confession, common sense tells us many people with mortal sins are still going to Communion. But as St. Paul tells us, this Communion brings their own condemnation.
This follows logically from Christ’s own teaching that Holy Communion nourishes the life of God already possessed by the communicant. We do not feed a dead body with natural food and drink. No less can we feed a spiritually dead soul with supernatural food and drink. The sacrament Christ instituted to restore supernatural life to a person in mortal sin is the Sacrament of Penance, not the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
The flood of errors rampant in allegedly Catholic circles is a deluge. I was recently shown a parish bulletin in which parishioners were instructed to tell only one sin when they go to confession. What if I’ve committed two mortal sins? How could I revitalize my spiritual life in order to receive Holy Communion faithfully?
Effects of the Sacrament of Communion
There are nine effects of Holy Communion which are produced in the person who receives Our Lord in the state of grace. Each of these effects has a mounting library of literature explaining what the effects mean and how they sanctify those who receive Our Lord worthily. We’ll just cover these nine effects briefly:
- Sustenance of supernatural life.
Following the promise of Christ, the most basic consequence of Holy Communion is to enable the communicant to remain supernaturally alive. Not once, but several times in the Gospel of John, Jesus came back to this theme: “If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever.” Again: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.” Still again: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has life everlasting.” And once more: “As the living Father has sent Me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me.” (John 52-59).
- Promise of Bodily Resurrection from the Dead.
In the same context of John’s Gospel, Christ promised the person receiving Him in Holy Communion: “I will raise him up on the last day.” Consequently, receiving the Glorified Christ into our pathetically mortal bodies is a prelude and promise for having our bodies immortalized and glorified on the day of resurrection at the end of time.
- Remission of Venial Sins.
As explained by the Church, whatever the soul loses by venial sins can be totally restored through Holy Communion. Thus, we can follow through on the same analogy as bodily sustenance. The daily “wear and tear” on our bodies resulting from effort, exertion and fatigue has its spiritual counterpart in the human soul. There are strong, healthy bodies and strong, healthy souls. And there are weak, debilitated human bodies that need repair just as there are weak debilitated human souls in need of repair. In the words of St. Ambrose, “this daily bread (of Holy Communion) is taken as a remedy for daily infirmity.”
- Protection against future sins.
Two basic forms of spiritual protection are taught by the Church. Holy Communion protects the recipient from the contingent of sin, like a “spiritual vaccine.” And it protects the soul from the assaults of temptation like a supernatural armor against the attacks of the world and the devil.
St. Cyprian, writing in the early third century, says Christians imprisoned and tortured for the name of Christ received from the hand of the bishop the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, so they would not yield to a Roman prosecutor and deny the faith. Before going on trial, they pleaded, “Give me Communion, so I’ll be able to resist.”
From the very beginning of the Church, this was the reason Holy Communion was brought to the early Christians in prisons — for their faith and to strengthen them in their struggle with the enemies of Christ’s name. If you think for a moment that the age of persecution has passed, you’re living in a dream world. The real world in which we live is a world that hates Christ and his followers. And yes, the verb is “hates”. Anytime I begin to doubt that, all I have to do is turn to the media, which will do anything to tear down the name of Christianity and especially loves to humiliate the Catholic Church. Leave it to the media; they don’t miss a single opportunity. We desperately need to receive Holy Communion as often as we can to protect us against the virulent hatred found in Christ’s enemies today.
- Curbs the urges of concupiscence.
We know that concupiscence is the wound of original sin. Concupiscence is the unruly desires of the will and the body which require supernatural control. There is no way known to God or man that we can control our passions of flesh or soul by ourselves or even with the help of other human beings. And for years I’ve told my students in teaching comparative religion that Christianity, with emphasis on Catholic Christianity, must be the one true religion. It provides the means for human beings to live as human beings by controlling themselves.
If we rely on our own human nature, we simply cannot control our passions of flesh or soul. We need to use supernatural means, especially those found in the Eucharist. This is so true and the verdict of history is certain: either a person receives Holy Communion frequently or regularly or human nature is no match for the passions of the flesh and spirit that plague every human being.
Forty years in the Priesthood has taught me many things, but this stands out: no one can control their passions on their own. This is especially true for the two most demanding passions of pride and lust — pride to dominate others and lust to enjoy pleasures of the flesh. Either we receive Holy Communion and acquire mastery of these irrational drives, or we become further moral casualties in the war between ourselves and the forces of evil. The greatest saints were among the most passionate people known in human history. But they needed the means of controlling and actually stilling this passionate machine going at 90 miles an hour. They found the supernatural means to do this in the Eucharist.
- Spiritual joy.
The Church compares the effects of savory food and drink for the body with a spiritual satisfaction assured the soul through Holy Communion. For example, we can eat food A and we can eat food B, and both foods may nourish the body equally. But there’s a great difference between eating food you enjoy and eating food with which you have to make an act of faith that it’s good for you!
Similarly, we are not only to practice virtue; we are to enjoy doing the will of God. Of course, this happiness may be joined with physical or emotional pain. But even so, our living the life of grace should be peace-giving, joy-receiving and happiness-producing. And faith tells us that the principle source of this earthly beatitude is the frequent reception of Holy Communion. For example, people often tell me, “Father, I’m trying to do God’s will, but it’s such a burden. I read the lives of the saints, and I can’t believe it; it must be spiritual fiction. I can’t live a life like that.”
In turn, I ask, “How often do you go to Communion?”
“Start going at least twice a week or even every day if you can. Then come back and talk to me again.”
Having a doctorate, not in medicine, but in Theology, I know one way a doctor recognizes the value of the medication he prescribes: he asks, “Does it do any good?” With 45 years of experience in the Priesthood, I can tell you, this works. This “prescription”— frequent reception of Holy Communion — truly works.
- Perseverance in Grace.
One of the most sobering truths of our faith is that even a lifetime of virtue is not of itself a guarantee of final perseverance. Final perseverance is a special gift from God that we cannot directly merit as a reward for a lifetime of service to God. Indeed, with a lifetime of struggling and laboring to do the will of God, we might think: “the least God can give me is the guarantee that I’m going to die in His friendship.” No. I must obtain that gift of final perseverance, the most important grace which will open the doors of Heaven.
Final perseverance must be prayed for. That is why we close every Hail Mary with the invocation, “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” And we can obtain the grace of final perseverance. The Church tells us the single most powerful guarantee for assurance of dying in God’s friendship is frequent and fervent reception of Holy Communion.
- Growth in the Supernatural Life.
It stands to revealed reason that Holy Communion increases sanctifying grace, nurtures our spiritual life and enables us to grow in God’s grace as no other means available to us in this valley of tears. There is more here than meets the eye. Every worthy reception of Holy Communion deepens the life of God in our souls, draws us closer to the Holy Trinity and makes us more pleasing to the Divine Majesty. After all, this is the source of growth in the spiritual life. The essence of holiness is not in the practice of virtue but in the person’s possession of grace. A newborn child just baptized is holy because that child possesses the grace of God. That is why over the centuries, the Communion Sacrament of the Eucharist has been called “Holy Communion.” It should really be called “Holifying Communion” or “Sanctifying Communion.” The Holy Eucharist sanctifies. The Holy Eucharist makes us more like Christ and increases the divine life in our souls.
- Remission of sin.
It is part of Christ’s teaching that Holy Communion removes both the guilt of venial sin and the debt of pain due to our forgiven sins. This does not minimize the importance and value of the Sacrament of Confession, but it does mean in Holy Communion, we have a divinely ordained means for the remission of sin on these two levels: on the remission of guilt of venial sin (not mortal sin) and on the remission of temporal punishment (not eternal punishment) for those sins. Through Holy Communion, our duty to suffer is medicated by the merciful God. In Holy Communion, we receive the merciful God who exercises His mercy every time we receive His body into our body, His soul into our soul. As a result, He makes us less sinful with every Communion we receive. You might say this is the parallel to growth in sanctity.
I’d like to close this meditation with the prayer of Thomas Aquinas for thanksgiving after Holy Communion.
“I give you thanks, Holy Lord, Father Almighty, everlasting God, that you have vouchsafed to feed me, a sinner, your unworthy servant for no merits of my own, but only through the goodness of Your great mercy with the precious body and blood of Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I ask that this Holy Communion may not add to my guilt for punishment, but become a saving intercession for pardon. May it serve as an armor of faith and a shield of good will. May it drive out my evil inclinations, dispel all wicked desires and fleshly temptations, increase my charity, patience, humility, obedience in all my virtues. May it be a firm defense against the plots of all my enemies, both seen and unseen; a perfect quieting of all movements to sin both in my flesh and spirit; a strong attachment to You, the only true God; and a happy ending of my life. I beg of You to tend to bring me, a sinner, to the ineffable face where we will, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit who are two holy ones, two alike, full satisfaction, everlasting joy…my pleasure and perfect happiness. Amen.”