The centrality of this “Bread of Life Discourse,” both in John’s gospel and in the Church’s official cycle of scriptural reading, highlights the Eucharist’s unique place in our Church’s life. For much of the Church’s history, the Eucharist was treated with tremendous reverence – so much so that most ordinary people received Holy Communion only occasionally, often no more than once a year. Medieval efforts to get people to communicate at least three times a year were unsuccessful, and the 4th Lateran Council (1215) finally settled on a precept requiring at least annual Communion at Easter.
This situation changed dramatically (and, in the longer-term perspective of the Church’s history, somewhat suddenly) in the 20th century. The result is that receiving Communion is now seen by many as the ordinary thing to do at Mass. A key person in making this change happen was Saint Pius X (1835-1903), born Giuseppe Sarto, who reigned as Pope from 1903 until his death in the tragic opening weeks of World War I and whom the Church’s calendar commemorates today.
Unlike many prelates of the period, Pius X came form a humble, ordinary background. He is supposed to have said: “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” Besides the symbolic gesture of not promoting his family members to princely status, he practiced actual charity that mattered to people – for example, housing refugees from the 1908 earthquake in the Apostolic Palace while Italy’s secularist royal government dithered.
Well grounded in the experience and needs of ordinary Catholics, he concentrated on the basics – catechesis and liturgy. The latter area was one where he especially left his mark - beginning with efforts to restore sacred music and eventually initiating the process of official liturgical reform, which would eventually be taken up by Pope Pius XII and the 2nd Vatican Council. His radical reform of the Roman Breviary mainly concerned the clergy, but his lowering of the age for 1st Communion and his vigorous promotion of frequent Communion affected the wider Church community and dramatically changed the ordinary believer’s experience of Catholic worship.
This change was helped along in the 1950s and 1960s by radical revisions to the traditional fast before receiving Communion. For many centuries, one was obliged to fast from all food and drink (including water) before receiving Communion. This was intended to highlight the specialness of the Eucharist, its difference from ordinary food, and to foster the interior, spiritual preparation appropriate for so special a sacrament. In 1906, during Pius X’s pontificate, some very modest mitigation of the fast was introduced to permit the sick to receive once or twice a month. Then, in the 1950s, with the introduction of afternoon and evening Masses, the fast was radically reduced to 3 hours from solid food and 1 hour from liquids. (I was in 4th grade, and I remember what a big deal that change was). Finally, in 1964, the fast was further mitigates to the current requirement of a mere hour’s fast before Communion. This virtual disappearance of the traditional practice of Eucharistic fast has presented us today with the new challenge of how best to how to highlight the specialness of the Eucharist and to prepare ourselves spiritually to receive it.
The apparent casualness with which almost everyone receives Communion nowadays has not gone unnoticed in some quarters. In an effort to re-inculcate some of the seriousness and reverence that seems perhaps to have been lost, some have even argued for a return to the traditional fast from midnight. Others, more realistically recognizing the value of afternoon and evening Masses in our contemporary context, have proposed a return to at least the 3-hour fast of the 1950s. There may be merit to that suggestion and to the concerns that seem to be motivating it. That said, there can be no doubt that one of the most significant benefits of the 20th-century liturgical reform for ordinary believers has been the encouragement to enter more completely into the Eucharistic experience as it was obviously originally intended to be experienced. And for that the Church and all of us owe Pope St. Pius X a deep debt of gratitude.