Denying Communion: not an easy matter
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.