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Denying Communion: not an easy matter

April 17, 2012

EWTN news has an item about a pastor in Italy who refused Holy Communion to a handicapped child.  As usual, the press didn’t quite get it right the first time, highlighting the fact that this was discrimination against the handicapped.  The bishop of the diocese in question issued a statement supporting the priest, having included many pertinent details: the family was from outside the parish, they had spoken to the priest several times, they were not attending Mass regularly, the boy had spit out an unconsecrated host when practising how to receive Communion, etc.

What really seems to be at stake in this case, is not that the child is handicapped, but that the family is non-practising.  It is a problem that is very common in this part of Canada, and, I assume, in North America: how to engage people who have been baptised Catholic, sacramentalized, as it were, but who are not practising their faith in any tangible way.  Here in Ontario, we have a publicly funded Catholic education system.  People send their children to Catholic schools, and, if truth be told, have their children baptised so that they can enrol in the Catholic system, but never come to Mass, live in irregular marriage situations, have no explicit intention of living the faith, but want, nonetheless, their children to receive the sacraments.  As a pastor, it is a question I face almost every day.  Do I just admit the baptised children to First Communion and Confirmation, knowing that they are, for all intents and purposes, uncatechised and won’t learn how to practise the faith?  Do I assume that their presence in a Catholic school system (which has its own problems with being ‘Catholic’) provides the realistic hope (spes fundata) of them being raised in the Catholic faith (c. 868) allowing me to baptise them?  It is not a matter of wanting to deny the sacraments, or of wanting only perfect Catholics to receive the sacraments; it is a matter of evangelisation, of engagement.

So the pastor in Italy asked the family in question to come to Mass for a few weeks before Holy Communion and they aren’t willing to do that?  The handicapped, of course, have different considerations.  Perhaps they don’t have the use of reason and are in a state of grace.  The Code, however, does not deny the sacraments easily. For Confirmation the only prerequisite is baptism, unless the person has the use of reason, in which case s/he must be suitably instructed (suitable for the person in question, obviously), properly disposed and be able to renew baptismal promises (c. 889)  Moreover, the faithful are bound to be confirmed (c. 890). For Holy Communion, it is necessary, for children, to have sufficient knowledge of what the mystery of Christ means and to be able to receive with faith and devotion.  Only in danger of death is the bar lowered, so to speak, requiring only that the child can distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food.  I’m not sure a child who is not in danger of death and who has spat out an unconsecrated host, is able to understand the mystery of Christ or to receive with devotion.  In this case, it probably was certainly justified to refuse the handicapped child Communion.  That is not a judgment on him nor a deprivation.  It is a recognition that he is unable to receive properly and remains in a state of grace with or without the Eucharist.  If he weren’t handicapped?  Hmmm.  What to do? Stricte dictu he has a right to receive Communion, all things being equal.  Canon 914 provides some guidance.  The parish priest, with the parents, has the duty to ensure that children are properly prepared, as it is his duty to ensure that those who are insufficiently disposed are not admitted to Holy Communion. Thus asking the parents to come to Mass with the child for a few weeks before Holy Communion does not seem out of line: it would demonstrate the proper disposition of the child.

But what if the child wants to come to Mass and the parents won’t take her?  These are the difficult and heavy burdens of pastors who wade through all these considerations.  Some of the pastoral practices of the last forty or fifty years just don’t work any longer. We have to address the issues with new vigour, with new insight. Obviously they are phenomena that the Code hasn’t envisaged: nominal Catholics insisting on being admitted to the sacraments.  This news item from Italy gives us a chance to reflect.


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  1. +Marty Patton permalink

    Dear Father, My training in the fifties for handicapped children or adults was to break a small host in thirds and give that instead of a whole host…another way was if the person still spit out the piece of host was to use an eye dropper, bought for this purpose, to give a small amount of the blood as the Eucharist. I’ve not had a problem with one of the two methods. And as far as I know there was no conflict with Canon Law. In a large gathering, I would give communion immediately after Mass.

  2. Jennifer Fitz permalink

    Father, without knowing the details of the Italian case, I think you’ve hit on the source of the scandal.

    Question for you: Would it be reasonable to switch to an individualized approach to sacramental preparation? In which maybe the family or individual has a catechist contact at the mass they attend, who helps guide them through the preparation process (which might include individual study, or attending a religious ed course, or whatever their needs indicate) at their own pace, following the guidelines set out by the pastor or the diocese?

    –> My thought being that the group “communion class” and “confirmation class” approach creates a club-type mentality, in which individual students are strongly discouraged from discerning whether they are ready for the sacrament. And in which course attendance, rather than practicing the faith, becomes the primary focus of preparation.

    Thinking out loud here. I’m interested to hear others’ ideas.

  3. When I first read this post I was very comfortable with your reasoning and presentation. After I had lunch, the post was on my mind and I began to wonder why I felt uncomfortable with it. After rereading the post I realized that it emphasized the “Latin Rite (Roman Catholic)” perspective, but appeared that it was reflecting a “Catholic” perspective. Article 1233 of the Catholic Catechism is what made me uneasy with the tenor of your post.

    1233 Today in all the rites, Latin and Eastern, the Christian initiation of adults begins with their entry into the catechumenate and reaches its culmination in a single celebration of the three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. In the Eastern rites the Christian initiation of infants also begins with Baptism followed immediately by Confirmation and the Eucharist, while in the Roman rite it is followed by years of catechesis before being completed later by Confirmation and the Eucharist, the summit of their Christian initiation.

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