The Catholic Church teaches about the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and that the sacrament is the “source and summit” of our faith. If we give our assent to this teaching, and believe that the Blessed Sacrament contains the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord, then we must necessarily concede that there are specific implications about how it ought to be received. Perhaps you have heard that we must “prepare ourselves” and be “in a state of grace” to receive communion, but what does that mean, and why is it important?

The Catechism quotes St. Paul to establish the basis of this teaching: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (CCC #1385, 1Cor 11:27-29). As you can see from scripture, the Eucharist is not something to be taken lightly and there are times when it can be unwise to receive the sacrament. Paul warns against consuming the Eucharist in an unworthy manner. He encourages believers to examine themselves and their consciences to discern if they should partake in the Eucharist because the consequences can be catastrophic for a person’s soul.

You must be in a state of grace to be worthy of receiving the Eucharist. I have previously written about the difference between venial and mortal sin, which can be read here. However, I will briefly summarize the different types of sin and their effects here. Venial sins are the more minor sins we all commit every day. These sins damage our relationships with God and others, but they do not cut us off from the life of God. Mortal sins, however, are grave sins. They separate our souls from God so that his sanctifying grace can no longer be within us, making our souls effectively spiritually dead. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: 1) the act must be gravely immoral, 2) the person must have full knowledge that the act is gravely wrong, and 3) the person must have committed the act with the full consent of their will. Depending on the formation of an individual’s conscience, what constitutes a mortal sin can vary from one person to another, but common mortal sins include being complicit in procuring an abortion and any sexual sins that occur either outside or within the Sacrament of Matrimony.

If you have committed a mortal sin and have yet to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and receive absolution, you are not in a state of grace. You are, therefore, not prepared or worthy to receive the Eucharist. As St. Paul strongly states, to do so would be to profane the body and blood of Christ and to bring judgment upon yourself. Essentially, because the Eucharist is indeed Jesus, to consume him and let him enter a spiritually dead vessel cut of from God is to compound the sin and offense to God. The Church places this sin under the category of sacrilege, saying: “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions… Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us” (CCC #2120). When a person is in a state of mortal sin and cut off from God’s grace, it’s not as if they can be cut off even more, but to receive the Eucharist in this state is an act of hypocrisy that further offends God. The consequence is that obstinance further hardens the individual’s heart. Suppose a person finds themselves in a state of mortal sin. In that case, it is far more commendable to recognize their meekness and humility, as well as their need for God’s mercy and healing, and to refrain from further offending God until they can go to confession and restore their relationship with God. When we are sincerely contrite and work to amend our lives, he will not hesitate to forgive us and pour his grace into our hearts.

While receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is a serious form of unworthiness, we ought to do a few other things to be as worthy as possible for this encounter with Jesus. We should have faith in what the Church teaches about the true presence in the sacrament. Even if we experience doubt occasionally, we can trust it is true and ask for the truth to be illuminated for us. We should also be intentional as we approach the Lord in the sacrament, avoiding acting out of complacency or habit but, instead, having prayerful reverence. Knowing we will consume the divine substance, we must fast for at least one hour before receiving it to give our spiritual sustenance primacy over our physical sustenance. As Pope Pius XII said, “Abstinence from food and drink is in accord with that supreme reverence we owe to the supreme majesty of Jesus Christ when we are going to receive Him hidden under the veils of the Eucharist” (Christus Dominus). Finally, the venial sins I mentioned earlier are dealt with at the beginning of Mass when we pray the Confiteor together (“I confess to Almighty God…”).

To conclude, let’s look at how the early Church spoke about worthy reception of the Eucharist:

“And on the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.” –The Didache (c. 50)

“Abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer [if you] do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” -St. Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrna 7 (d. c. 107)

“We call this food the Eucharist; of which no one is allowed to share except the one who believes that our teaching is true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration…” -St. Justin Martyr, Apology (155-157)

“How many receive from the altar and die, and die by receiving? Judas took it, and when he took it the enemy entered into him; not because he received an evil thing, but because, being evil, he received a good thing in an evil manner.” -St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John (354-430)

“If a great sin, contrary to the Commandments, is committed by us, and if we do not induce ourselves to turn away from sins of this kind, it behooves us to refrain always and without reservation from receiving Communion.” -Theodore of Mopsuestia, Catechetical Homilies (350-428)

This week, do a thorough examination of your conscience to evaluate whether you are in a state of grace or a state of mortal sin. If you are unsure, it can be helpful to talk to a priest and, of course, the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be most efficacious. If you are not in a state of grace, please refrain from receiving the Blessed Sacrament until after you have received absolution. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed about abstaining from the Eucharist, thinking that people around them or in their families will make judgments or assumptions. Do not be concerned about those things, as there is such a wide assortment of sins that no one can know yours, nor should they even be concerned with other people if they are being intentional and reverent about their own sacramental activity. Furthermore, it is far worse to offend God by receiving unworthily than to be embarrassed by not receiving. Finally, whenever an opportunity arises to help someone else understand what it means to receive the Eucharist worthily, do so charitably, out of love for Jesus and concern for the other’s soul.

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