The Communion Fast: An Essential Element of Eucharistic Rapport

We worship God on the Lord’s Day because it’s the right thing to do, whether we receive Holy Communion or not.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

For me, the time between deciding to become a Catholic and actually going through with it was intense – like it is for many converts. It’s a huge, unsettling step, fraught with anxiety and self-doubt mixed in with anticipation and longing, especially for the Eucharist.

It’s a lot like an engagement, really, and just as romantic — a putting off of consummation that naturally heightens ones desire of it.

Now, after 30+ years in the Church, that anxious intensity has receded in favor of confident hope and a lot of freedom. It’s the freedom, almost a latitude, that is consistent with being at home. You can see it in play most readily when college kids leave their dorms behind and travel home for breaks. They raid the fridge, they borrow the car, and they sit down for meals with no special invitation. They make themselves at home because they’ve come home, they are home. 

A similar liturgical latitude, or what I call rapport, is what I’ve gradually adopted since becoming a Catholic. When I go to Mass, I make myself at home, and I almost always go up for Holy Communion. That’s in line with the U.S. Bishops’ recommendation that we “receive communion devoutly and frequently” – and I like to emphasize the “frequently” part. A scrupulous Eucharistic anorexia is spiritually defeating, especially since the Eucharist itself forgives our minor offenses and helps us avoid offending God in the future. Besides, I don’t know about you, but if I wait until I think I’m really worthy to receive the Eucharist, I’ll never receive it. It’s like waiting until we’re ready to get married – or waiting until everything is in place to have a baby. We’ll never get to that place, and we’d be waiting forever.

Along these lines, I also think it’s even a good idea to receive Holy Communion when we’re in a crummy place with God (short of mortal sin) than to skip it. J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son, seems to agree:

The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.

That being said, we also know that participating in Mass isn’t just about receiving Holy Communion. It can’t be, because, while we’re obligated to get there every weekend and Holy Day, we’re never required to communicate – other than our annual Easter duty. The Sunday obligation is less about what we might receive than what we’re required to bring and give – that is, ourselves and our worship. 

As “the celebrating assembly,” we’re the “lit” in “liturgy,” the “community of the baptized who, ‘by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood,’” as the Catechism says, quoting Lumen Gentium, “‘that through all the works of Christian men they may offer spiritual sacrifices’” (CCC 1141). At the very least, it’s an issue of justice: We worship God on the Lord’s Day because it’s the right thing to do, whether we receive the Eucharist or not. 

OK, but given what I’ve said about Eucharistic latitude, what would keep me from receiving Communion if I’m at Mass – assuming I’m not in outright, obstinate sinful rebellion. Every Holy Communion is Jesus – why wouldn’t I want more Jesus whenever he’s available to me? Plus, there’s this sensible assertion from Dom Hubert van Zeller: “From one Holy Communion, a soul may derive the grace to become a saint.” My gosh – I don’t want to risk missing out on that “one,” do I? 

Even so, sacramental abstinence at Mass is still occasionally appropriate because the Eucharist, like any sacrament, isn’t automatic – it doesn’t work moral and spiritual wonders without our cooperation and effort. Van Zeller puts it this way: “Frequent Communion is not magic. The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.”

It’s true that Jesus is really present whether we apprehend him or not, and his grace is present in the sacraments whether we assimilate it or not. The point is that the apprehending and assimilating in sacramental encounters requires something of us. That is to say: God does all the heavy sacramental lifting, but we have to do our part! And doing our part means being at least minimally disposed to properly receive him – not just in terms of the state of our souls (that is, no unconfessed grave sin), but also, more immediately, our minds and hearts as well. 

The Church, thankfully, has codified that minimal interior disposition in what we call the Communion fast – the avoidance of food and drink (other than water) a mere hour before we are to receive Communion (CCL 919). It’s hardly a burden, hardly even a fast – especially compared with what had been the communion fast in the old days that went from midnight on. Now, it’s only a single hour – and you can even dicker as to whether it ought to be an hour before Mass begins or an hour before you expect to receive the host. 

Either way, the fast itself isn’t about clearing out our guts to physiologically make room for our Eucharistic Lord – to carve out a nook for him in our alimentary canals. No, it’s more about carving out a nook for him in our attention. It’s about aligning our schedules and our frame of mind with what we’re about to do and partake of in another 60 minutes or so.

I believe the Communion fast is vitally important for a full flourishing of Eucharistic living. Jesus expects us to approach him in Holy Communion with all manner of mixed motives and complicated aspirations, but the very least we can do is to approach him with a nominal openness to what he wants to accomplish in us. An hour of conscientious fasting makes it more likely that we will give some thought to what Communion is all about: Becoming whom we eat. Really.

And that leads me back to the idea of Eucharistic rapport – something I especially learned at Chicago’s St. Peter’s in the Loop. If you know downtown Chicago, you know this Franciscan landmark on Madison between LaSalle and Clark, with its pink granite façade and the enormous stone crucifix out front. They have confessions and Masses all day throughout the week – particularly at midday to serve the lunch crowd who want to dart in to make a visit, kneel or go to confession, to receive the Lord. 

Before I was Catholic, but living at the Chicago Catholic Worker house, I used to take the subway down to St. Peter’s to go to Mass and just rest there – to take a nap, actually, which can be a luxury in a Catholic Worker House. But in between naps, I used to watch carefully as people came and went, seemingly at ease just walking up for Communion and then leaving again, even if they weren’t there for the whole Mass. 

Also, there were plenty others like me who just hung out there – probably some were homeless, sure, but others appeared to be office workers and laborers who were evidently prayerful and pious, but also holding back from receiving the Lord for whatever reason. They, like me, I can only assume, just enjoyed being there with Jesus and his crowd. 

The same principle drives my behavior today. When I go to Mass, I’m going to be with an old friend – a friend who knows me well, knows me better than I know myself – and I’m content to relax in his presence, even if I don’t receive Holy Communion. That applies to Sunday mornings when I thoughtlessly grab a doughnut on the way out the door to church, but also those occasional random Mondays or Thursdays when I make my way to the only daily Mass I can get to even after I just downed a bagel or a burrito. 

I go to Mass every day because I want to be with him – to be there where he is, to talk to him and to listen (although, to tell the truth, I do more talking than listening, but I’m working on that). That is, I want to commune with him whether or not I can receive Communion. It’s like being at home with him, even when I, out of respect, have to forego inviting him to take up residence in me

That doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’ll find my way to my usual spot on Mary’s side of the church, between Simon of Cyrene and St. Veronica, throw my arms across the back of the pew, and bask in the liturgy. Such days are unanticipated little gifts that hearken back to my youthful Romance of Eucharistic fasting. I get to briefly relive the anticipation of my eager Catholic-wannabe days and I’ll leave all the more eager to properly anticipate actual Communion with my Lord the next day.