In 2022, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a National Eucharistic Revival to be held across the US, including a Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis next year. This revival is meant to counter the dire situation showcased in a recent Pew study, where only 30% of respondents seemed to believe in the Real Presence.
For me, a Eucharistic Revival is always welcome, since the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). However, we must not concern ourselves on whether we should undertake such a revival, but on how we are going to achieve it.
For example, there seems to be an emphasis on Eucharistic adoration which is — and I can’t stress this enough — a very worthy endeavor. Pope Francis himself lamented very recently that we have lost the sense of adoration in our day, and manifested his desire that the faithful would be inspired to spend time with Christ in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
However, as important as this objective is, it is still incomplete. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, noted that focusing on the real presence and Eucharistic adoration will certainly be beneficial for the faithful, but “the fruit will multiply only if the faithful learn that the Eucharist which they receive is meant to make them missionaries – who take the presence of Christ, which is now in them, to people who do not yet know the Lord.”
In the same speech where Pope Francis calls for Christians to spend more time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, he also urged the Eucharistic Revival to inspire the faithful “to commit themselves with ever greater zeal to being missionary disciples of the Lord Jesus in the world.” He continued:
“In the Eucharist, we encounter the One who gave everything for us, who sacrificed himself in order to give us life, who loved us to the end. We become credible witnesses to the joy and transforming beauty of the Gospel only when we recognize that the love we celebrate in this sacrament cannot be kept to ourselves but demands to be shared with all. This is the sense of a missionary spirit.”
This means that the Eucharistic Revival must take on several challenges at once. Here, I submit that it’s not enough to foster a more widespread knowledge about the Real Presence, because other errors have also become pervasive. This is especially concerning because such errors affect mostly a certain population of the faithful that sees itself as well catechized and which, for this reason, tends to resist correction from pope and bishops.
For example, I was deeply scandalized by the number of Catholics who, due to a controversy about the way the Blessed Sacrament was reserved during World Youth Day, proposed that the Eucharist should not be given during these massive gatherings.
During the Papal Mass, 1.5 million pilgrims received the Eucharist. I reiterate: 1.5 million people. One would assume that any attempt at Eucharistic Revival would see such a multitude partaking of the sacrament as an undeniable victory.
Unfortunately, the opposite happened. An increasing number of Catholics saw it as acceptable — or even as a sensible and prudent decision — to withhold the Eucharist from 1.5 million people merely because the Blessed Sacrament might be reserved in a less than perfect way, albeit with the greatest possible reverence given the contingencies and difficulties inherent to such events.
Here, they show a deep misconception of the primary function of the Eucharist, as stated by none other than Pope St. Pius X in his decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus:
“This end, that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid these graver sins to which human frailty is liable; so that its primary purpose is not that the honor and reverence due to our Lord may be safe-guarded.”
As we can see, it is very easy, in our eagerness to correct a blatant and widespread error, to end up falling into the opposite mistake. This danger of overcorrecting in the opposite erroneous direction looms across Church history, and we should do well to avoid it.
How then, can we undertake a proper Eucharistic Revival? I believe that we have a superb template in a much-maligned recent magisterial document: Amoris Laetitia. Through Amoris Laetitia, we can learn three invaluable lessons that can help us achieve an appropriate understanding of the Eucharist.
The distinction between mortal and venial sin
During St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s pontificates, the distinction between mortal and venial sin seemed to be fairly and generally well understood. However, since Amoris Laetitia was published, many faithful seem to have forgotten this most traditional principle.
In summary, for a sin to be a mortal sin, it must necessarily fulfil three conditions: grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent. If one disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent, then the sin is venial, not mortal (Catechism, 1862). As Pope Francis explains:
“The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (Amoris Laetitia, 301)
This solid body of reflection exists since at least the time of John Paul II and is described in paragraphs 1735 and 2352 of the Catechism, which Amoris Laetitia explicitly quotes.
However, this is nullified in practice by the pervasive caricature that as soon as a pastor tells the sinner that he’s sinning — thereby dispelling ignorance — then mitigating circumstances cease to apply.
This is a simplistic and erroneous reading. First, as Pope Francis tells us in Amoris Laetitia, 301: “More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values.’”
Second, this simplistic reading reduces all mitigating factors to limitations on full knowledge. Full consent is not considered. According to this misrepresentation, the only way to hinder consent is through coercion.
However, Amoris Laetitia lists a series of mitigating circumstances that limit full consent, once again drawing from the Catechism: inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, affective immaturity, conditions of anxiety, and other psychological or social factors (Amoris Laetitia, 302).
Grave matter can be objectively appraised, but full knowledge and full consent are dependent on the sinner and can be discerned only on a case-by-case basis.
In other words, we can’t judge the state of a soul from external actions. Why is this important from a Eucharistic point of view? Because, as paragraph 1394 of the Catechism states, a person who is in a state of venial sin can receive communion.
Recovering this simple truth would be most instrumental in a true Eucharistic revival, since it could help counter a damaging trait that has developed in Catholic culture in the last decades: the habit of policing the communion lines for those who may be worthy or not.[*]
Since only the sinners themselves can have a certain moral security of whether they are in mortal sin, this could help the faithful recenter their focus on themselves. Instead of concerning themselves on whether others are worthy to receive the Eucharist, Catholics should focus on their own examination of conscience.
I believe this is going to be paramount for a healthy Eucharistic revival, so that the faithful may receive the sacrament with a disposition more conducive to their personal sanctification.
This lesson is also closely connected with the next one.
Medicine for the sick, not a prize for the perfect
I believe this typical Catholic discourse about others receiving communion stems from the notion that the Eucharist is a validation of the sinner’s lifestyle.
After all, if only those who are in a state of grace can commune, then those receiving the Eucharist must not have committed a grave sin. Hence, they are in good standing — so the logic seems to go.
However, once again, this is to misconstrue the Eucharist. The sacrament is meant for personal sanctification. Sanctification is a continuous process, which doesn’t end until our final breath. This process is sustained by God’s grace, namely through the Eucharist.
We, therefore, need the Eucharist precisely because we are sinners.
This brings us to the much-maligned footnote in Amoris Laetitia, where Pope Francis allowed certain divorced and remarried people (those not in mortal sin due to mitigating circumstances) to receive the Eucharist. His Holiness explains: “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (footnote 351).
If the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, then receiving the host is not a validation of one’s lifestyle.
Also, if the Eucharist is a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak, then our first reaction when we see a sinner receiving communion should not be judgment or scandal, but joy. The more sinful one is, the more one needs the Eucharist to receive the necessary grace to leave one’s life of sin (or at least to begin a gradual release from the bondage of sin).
But how can we know if this sinner is in a state of grace and, therefore, receiving worthily? That’s the thing. We can’t. Unless, of course, we are talking about ourselves. And that’s a good thing. Each person is responsible for their own discernment and their own sanctification.
As for others, we must charitably assume the best of them and not engage in vain speculation.
This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible for one to receive unworthily. Quite the contrary. But even here, there’s a lesson we can learn from Amoris Laetitia.
Causing division and receiving unworthily
It is customary for those who judge the worthiness of others to receive Communion to justify themselves with St. Paul’s famous quote: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:29).
“Eating and drinking unworthily” has been traditionally understood as communing while in a state of mortal sin. This is correct.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis also puts this quote in its proper context. What does it meant to “discern the body of the Lord”?
The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members. This is what it means to “discern” the body of the Lord, to acknowledge it with faith and charity both in the sacramental signs and in the community; those who fail to do so eat and drink judgement against themselves (cf. v. 29). The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a constant summons for everyone “to examine himself or herself” (v. 28), to open the doors of the family to greater fellowship with the underprivileged, and in this way to receive the sacrament of that eucharistic love which makes us one body. We must not forget that “the ‘mysticism’ of the sacrament has a social character”. When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily. On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need (Amoris Laetitia, 186).
Here, we once again see how the Eucharist possesses a “social character.” The Body of Christ is not only the sacrament, but also the Church.
Therefore, those who wound the ecclesial Body of Christ by sowing division (be it social or otherwise), are receiving unworthily.
Of course, we can’t forget the first two lessons, even here. We don’t know if those who sow division are in mortal sin or not, and neither should we see the Eucharist as a prize for those who don’t sow division.
However, it is not lost in me the irony that many of those who try to keep others from the Eucharist on account of sins of the flesh tend to be prone to disregard or explain away the Church’s Social Doctrine, or to sow division inside the Church. Let us not forget that the Pope is, in the words of St. John Paul II, the “guarantor of unity” (Ut Unum Sint, 86). Sowing division from the pope is a grave sin.
I believe that a true mark of the Eucharistic revival would be to include these sins of division into the examination of conscience of the faithful, so that the social character of the sacrament may be recovered, and less Catholics may receive unworthily.
This is especially important if we take into consideration Jesus’s warning: “For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Mt 7:2).
Those who judge others unworthy of the Eucharist, while they themselves commune unworthily, are ensnared in a Satanic trap, and must be cautioned to leave it, for the sake of their souls.
If we apply these three principles — in addition to all the worthy initiatives in place to increase the awareness of the Real Presence and to promote Eucharistic adoration — then the Eucharistic revival will be more successful and help in the sanctification of many.
If not, then the revival will be incomplete and not produce its proper effect, since Our Lord’s sacrifice will be merely contained in a tabernacle, while outside divisions wound His Body and sinners starve for grace.
This is the true sacrilege, even more insidious because few — I would wager much less than 30% of the people in the pews — seem to be aware of it.
[*] I’m aware of the possible objection relating to Canon 915. I deal with that objection at length in Chapter 13 of my book “The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia.” Either way, it does not befall the faithful in the pews to make canonical cases in the setting of a communion line. My point is that it’s much more productive for their faith to reorient their focus, so that they concentrate more on their own reception than on someone else’s.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.