For those “informal” Catholics who come to Mass or a funeral/on rare occasions and wanted to know why they can’t receive communion because they say “I believe communion really is the body and blood of Christ”…what do I say to them at that moment?
This question is a delicate one because, like so many others that I have received, the answer is partly theological/catechetical and partly pastoral. (And, by the way, part of that pastoral approach is not to wait until “that moment” to discuss this but to have the conversation with them well in advance of the liturgy). The catechetical portion of your question is pretty straight forward. As a Church, we would say that simply believing that the Eucharist is Christ, body, blood soul and divinity is not enough. The person must also examine their conscience to determine whether or not they are guilty of mortal sin. And if so, they should first celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in order that they become properly disposed to receive it. Otherwise, by receiving unworthily (not properly disposed) one is not receiving the grace of the sacrament but instead is committing the further sin of sacrilege. This is based right out of sacred scripture. We read in 1 Cor. 11:27 and following, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves.” The Church identifies two requirements for receiving the Eucharist from this passage, assuming one is Catholic. One must examine themselves (i.e. that is examine their conscience for serious sin) and must also discern the body (i.e. believe that the Eucharist is not simply bread and wine as symbols but Jesus himself). At this point, it might be worth adding that the pastoral challenge described by the parishioner in their question also often occurs with non-Catholic visitors, especially at weddings and funerals when it is far more likely that the crowd gathered will be a diverse one. Sometimes Christians of other confessions will say to me that they believe that our Eucharist is Jesus and therefore, in their minds, they feel no obstacle should stand in their way of receiving. The problem in that case is that, in addition to the previously mentioned requirement of going to confession, the Eucharist is not just communion with God. It also represents communion with the Catholic faith community. One receiving the Eucharist is also saying that they are formally a part of the Catholic faith community and that they further accept all that the Catholic Church proposes for belief as a member of the Body of Christ. If one has not yet been formally and publically received into the Church by that community or if the person does not accept all that the Catholic Church believes, then receiving the Eucharist would be an unfitting lie. That is the theological or catechetical portion of the question. The much harder challenge is, pastorally, how to explain this to a non-Catholic or fallen away Catholic guest in a way that they can understand and not be offended by. For an informal Catholic who has been raised in the Catholic faith but has been away from the sacraments for some time it might be enough to gently remind them that if they want to go to communion during an upcoming event then they need to schedule a confession beforehand. If they are less familiar with our beliefs or if they are a non-Catholic guest then I have tried to explain to them beforehand that for Catholics, the Eucharist is not meant as a sign of hospitality but as an indication of a unity of belief. At that point, if I know the person well enough, I have simply quizzed them by selecting a few better known and controversial beliefs that the Church holds and that I expect they would disagree with and if they answer “no” to any then I say it would be dishonest then to receive. In some cases, I also explain what I sometimes refer to as spiritual communion (i.e. the process of how to go forward and receive a blessing from the priest). On two or three very rare occasions, I have met non-Catholic Christians who have surprised me by saying that they believe as we do about the Eucharist and our doctrine. In that case I celebrate this but remind them that the one remaining step is to take the time to join RCIA and be received into the Church formally at the Easter Vigil and I invite them to be a part of that program. If you have done your best to educate a guest on our Eucharistic disciplines and they choose to present themselves for communion anyway, that regrettable decision is on them and not on you. Our duty is to proclaim the truth steadfastly with compassion and to continue to pray for greater Christian unity.