While the Mass is primarily the re-presenting of the sacrifice of Christ in the sacramental manner of the Last Supper, the partaking of the Eucharist as Holy Communion offers us to receive the effects of His sacrifice: including union with God and with all who faithfully partake of the offering, as the word “communion” implies. That this sacramental re-presentation was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper (during the celebration of the Passover), the element of eating of the sacrifice as found in the Passover is continued and truly fulfilled in the Eucharist – that the sacrificial “meal” would join us fully to the effects of His sacrifice in the forgiveness of sins and the sharing in His eternal life. Accordingly, that the Eucharist is also seen as a meal is proper to its nature as our receiving of Jesus’ one-time sacrifice as instituted at the Last Supper. How do we rightly prepare to receive this gift of Holy Communion? How ought we receive it? Who rightly receives it? These questions will be the subject of the next three installments – beginning here with preparing to receive.
As was discussed earlier in the section on the sacrament of the Eucharist, the right recipient of the Eucharist is one who is baptized and not prohibited by law (Code of Canon Law, canon 912). This base-line understanding of the recipient of Holy Communion presumes that in most instances a person first receives formation in the faith and particularly in the mystery of the Eucharist prior to receiving (near-death emergencies being an exception). Such formation includes basic catechesis on what the Eucharist is, how to participate fully in the Mass, and the effects of receiving the Eucharist. While in earlier times a person’s first reception of Holy Communion did not take place until later in one’s youth, since the early years of the 20th century one’s first reception of Holy Communion has usually taken place at the time referred to as the “age of discretion,” or around age 7 or 8 (in Grade 2 of our American education model). For it is at this age that children are seen as both able to comprehend the deeper teaching on the mystery of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus, though it still appears as bread and wine, and to receive it with faith which is both personal and simple.
In addition to catechetical formation, receiving Holy Communion requires immediate preparation before and during each Mass or opportunity to receive. The first area within which to prepare is by examining our conscience and discerning whether or not we are in a state of grace or a state of serious or “mortal” sin. As mortal sin literally kills the life of Christ in one’s soul, it is only by first being forgiven of mortal sin that one is restored to right relationship or the state of grace to be able to receive the Eucharist as Holy Communion. Thus, if one discerns that they have committed a mortal sin, they are to first make use of the sacrament of penance (confession) to prepare for receiving. In addition, preparation for Holy Communion includes fasting from food and beverages for at least one hour prior to receiving Holy Communion (water and medicines being exceptions). Finally, one ought to offer prayers that ask for the grace of God to receive Holy Communion well, particularly through right participation in the worship of the Mass, or if one is receiving Holy Communion outside of Mass, through the prayers led by the minister of Holy Communion who comes with the Eucharist.
In the next part, the question of the manner of receiving Holy Communion will be explored – both in how we approach to receive and how we ought to respond to receiving.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1382-1390 offer more on what Holy Communion is and how to rightly receive it.