The third precept as given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2042 is “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once a year.” The same paragraph further explains that this precept “guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.” Like the second precept on confession, it specifies reception at least once a year - so why is it “once a year” for communion too?
Historically, the frequency of reception of Holy Communion has varied – often based on piety and according to sensibilities of what it is to receive communion “worthily.” While liturgical history is very limited for the first four centuries of the life of the Church, it is understood from such Fourth Century voices as St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine that regular/weekly reception of Holy Communion was practiced from the earliest times. However, during the Middle Ages most people rarely would receive – so rarely in fact that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the Church had to give us this precept, attaching to it the pain of mortal sin and even excommunication if one did not receive Holy Communion at least during the Easter season. The infrequency of receiving during this period of Church history is pinned on a way of piety that saw us as unworthy to receive Holy Communion – and thus it was perceived as better to simply attend Mass and to gaze upon Jesus’ Eucharistic presence as the priest would elevate the host during the consecration, without actually receiving communion. Clearly these practices are long forgotten by many. However, this precept remains in place as a way of reminding us that to receive Holy Communion is an essential act of living the Catholic Faith – especially as Jesus Himself has said that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no life in us (see John 6:53).
That one is bound to receive at least once a year must not be confused with the first precept to participate in Holy Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days. That we are to worship our Lord each Sunday and Holy Day is understood as what is rightly owed to God and for our remaining in relationship with Him. That it is good and proper to receive Holy Communion whenever we participate in Mass is understood by the nature of what Mass and Holy Communion are. However, it is also noteworthy that there may be times where it is better or even necessary to not receive – such as if we are in a state of mortal sin and have need of forgiveness of sins in sacramental confession; or if we are living in an unholy state of life, such as a sinful relationship of being divorced and civilly remarried or in a state of cohabitation (living as though married with another to whom one is not married). As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 – we should examine ourselves lest we eat and drink onto condemnation – showing that at times it is best to not receive, lest it be onto condemnation.
Thus, while the precept reads that we are to receive at least once a year, might we all use this moment to recognize the great gift that the Eucharist truly is – growing in greater love of and gratitude toward God for this gift. May such increase of love and gratitude also remind us of the necessity to receive the Eucharist rightly, so that it never becomes routine, taken for granted, or even expected – and most certainly not in a state of serious sin – but always as an act of humility and in true reverent worship of God who loves us and gives us all things.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2041 - 2043 gives the brief definition and the official formulations of the five precepts.