Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Legacy of Frequent Communion

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the pastoral pope who initiated the reform of the Roman liturgy beginning in 1903 with his attempt to restore Gregorian chant and culminating in 1911 with his thorough reform of the ancient Roman Breviary. But by far the most influential of his liturgical reforms in the lives of ordinary people was his promotion of frequent Communion and the admission of children as young as 7 to their First Communion.

By the mid-20th century when I came along, First Communion for children was already the norm. (I made my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955 - at age 7 - preceded by my 1st confession the previous day.) All reforms have unintended consequences. Thus Pius X's reform of First Communion left Confirmation all by itself, if anything even more out of sequence, a problem which continues to bedevil contemporary Catholic life. (I was confirmed two years after my First Communion, on September 22, 1957, at age 9. Nowadays, the situation is often much worse, with Confirmation not taking place until sometime in High School - or, increasingly, never.)

As children in Catholic school, we were socialized in the new culture of frequent Communion. New Year's was an exception, of course, because we stayed up late the night before and so ate after midnight; and in the 1950s still no one went to Communion at funerals. But. apart form such exceptions, I and my generational cohort typically went to Communion every Sunday. This was not yet the case with most adults, however. Apart from the ultra-devout who went daily, there were the men of the Holy Name Society who went to Communion (and presumably confession the day before) on the second Sunday of the month and the analogous women's sodalities that had their specific "Communion Sunday." And there were also those who were committed to the 9 First Fridays and the 5 First Saturdays, devotions which had as a major goal getting people to Communion at least monthly. Most other adults, however, went only occasionally - e.g., Christmas, Easter, the annual Parish Mission. With the mitigation of the Eucharistic Fast in the late 1950s, however, this whole state of affairs gradually began to change. In time, Communion came to be distributed even at funerals! (The Kennedy family famously went to Communion on national TV at JFK's funeral Mass in 1963.)

In the end, Saint Pius X's hope became reality, so much so that today hardly anyone doesn't go to Communion at Mass. (Of course, a much smaller percentage of Catholics are attending Mass today than did so then!) On balance, I believe the practice of frequent Communion has been a great benefit to the Church and has nourished the spiritual lives of countless individuals growing in personal holiness. Nor should it ever be forgotten that Communion at Mass also corresponds to the plain sense of the liturgy. The prayers of the Mass always assumed Communion, even if for centuries hardly anyone actually communicated except the one who actually recited the prayers - the priest celebrant himself. In the 20th century, when laypeople started reading the Mass in translation in their missals, it became hard not to notice the obvious sense expressed in the liturgical prayers.

But again there have been all sorts of unintended consequences - not least a certain routinization of Communion. It has become one more thing that (almost) everybody does at Mass, so much so that in many places children and non-Catholics join the Communion line also and ask for a "Blessing." This curious custom clearly suggests that participation in the Communion procession is now quite highly valued, something people don't want to be "excluded" from. And it seems to me to be no accident, therefore, that the larger debate about divorce and remarriage (a complicated issue beyond the scope of this discussion here) is often reduced to the question of access to Communion.

So there is some legitimate anxiety about whether we have routinized Communion too much. In some ways this is a very new problem. There has probably never been any period in the Church's history when almost everyone went to Communion - except perhaps at the very beginning, but those would have been very small and very spiritually intense groups that assembled in a home or wherever for Mass. 

A good case could be made, I think, for restoring the 3-hour fast before Communion - not too much for it to be too burdensome, but enough to highlight the seriousness of what one is doing. Of course, moving from laxity to greater strictness - unlike the reverse "reform" - is always difficult. How well such a change might be explained - let alone how well it might be received - might argue against it as a practical matter. Sill, it would seem worth considering.

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