Is Holy Communion for Saints, Sinners, or Both?

COMMENTARY: The Eucharist is medicine for the soul only if the life of Christ remains in us.

The Communion of the Apostles by James Tissot
The Communion of the Apostles by James Tissot (photo: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Should we understand the Eucharist as only for saints? Or should we see it as also for sinners? That’s an either-or formulation making the rounds in many discussions of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

Some of the Holy Father’s comments seem to suggest he accepts this “binary” way of putting the matter. For example, he emphasizes that the Eucharist is not “a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” To some people, that sounds like an either-or: either for saints or for sinners, with Pope Francis clearly on the side of sinners.

Yet Pope Francis often criticizes what he regards as a false either-or outlook, what he describes as a “this or nothing” attitude. He knows, we can be sure, that the “saints” of the Church in this life are also, in a certain sense, “sinners.” It’s a false either-or to speak without qualification of saints on the one hand and sinners on the other, as if these categories are mutually exclusive.

Even very holy people aren’t “perfect” in the unqualified sense — though Christ calls us to strive for perfection (Matthew 5:48). They certainly would not talk about the Eucharist as “a prize for the perfect,” with themselves in the category of the perfect. No, they would say, as we all must say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Saintly people are, in this sense, “holy sinners” — that is, sinners who repent of their sins, acknowledge they need God and receive his transforming forgiveness. They may be great sinners, or they may have achieved great sanctity and struggle now with relatively minor sins. But great or small, we’re all still in the struggle against sin.

The Holy Father knows this. Jesus’ followers, he believes, should strive to be holy. He certainly doesn’t think we can come to the Lord in any old way we please — “Take it, Jesus, or leave it.” Just the opposite. We must be humble. We’re the unworthy, the sick of soul, the spiritually hungry.

Does this mean we should make no distinction when it comes to being prepared to receive the Eucharist because we’re all sinners? Not at all.

St. Paul warns those who approach the Eucharist to examine themselves to see if they are properly disposed, lest they profane the Lord’s body and bring judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). We may all be sinners, to one degree or another, but we are not all unrepentant sinners. Those who rightly approach the Eucharist are those who have repented. Having repented doesn’t necessarily make you “perfect.”

When Catholic Tradition understands the Eucharist as medicine for the soul, it does not mean the Eucharist heals even when the sinner clings to his sin. The Eucharist isn’t magic. It heals repentant sinners — people who have been raised to life in Christ through grace, even while they still struggle to grow in that life. We may fall into serious sin and cut ourselves off from spiritual life for a time, but through the gift of repentance — especially through the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation — the Spirit restores us to life in Christ.

Yet, even restored to “the state of grace,” we still need healing in varying degrees. When it comes to the struggle against sin, Christ is always “there for us.” But “it ain’t over, till it’s over,” as that St. Louis Catholic and New York Yankee great Yogi Berra might have said about the matter.

“By his wounds, we are healed” (1 Peter 2:24), the Bible says, but that healing comes over time as we live the Christlike life we are called to live.

Some of us struggle with the deep sickness of habitual grave sin or vice. We need the healing the Eucharist brings. But the moral and spiritual masters tell us that to obtain such healing, we must approach the Eucharist “in the state of grace.” The Eucharist is medicine for the soul only if the life of Christ remains in us, even if only precariously so due to habits of sin and our struggles — or perhaps especially when precariously so.

It won’t do, then, to set being prepared to receive the Eucharist, i.e., being appropriately repentant and properly disposed, even if far from “perfect,” against being in need of the Eucharist as spiritual medicine for the soul. For the Eucharist to heal the sickness of sin, the patient must still be alive — even if only barely restored to life through the grace of repentance.

Is the Eucharist only for “the saints”? Only in the sense that all those made one with Christ through baptism are “saints” — consecrated, or “set apart,” for God. But we “saints” are also still more or less prone to sin. Even the best among us, setting aside Our Lady, achieve only a qualified “perfection” in this life, and they see themselves as among “the chief of sinners,” as St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:15) and St. Francis spoke of themselves. The rest of us fall far short of even a qualified perfection.

No, the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect; it’s a medicine for the weak, for sinners. But it is redeemed “sinners” who are healed and nourished; we who, in response to God’s love, repent of our sins and turn to the Lord.

Mark Brumley is the CEO of Ignatius Press.