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BOLO: Patrolling the Communion Lines

In my first blog post for the Catholic Answers Blog, I discussed some of the horror stories I’d been told over the years of abuses of the Eucharist, the precious body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the stories of what people have done to the Eucharist, usually because of innocent ignorance, are truly mind-boggling.

In this post, I will discuss another type of abuse that occurs at Communion time. Whereas before I talked about some of the indignities God has suffered, here I’d like to talk about the indignities suffered by our neighbor in the pew.

You might be scratching your head. How can we possibly harm our neighbor during Communion time? Allow me to back up a bit.

A few years ago, I was privileged to pose a question to an esteemed member of the hierarchy, an American cardinal in Rome who has taken a vested interest in proper reception of Communion by Catholics. At the time stories were flying thick and furious over whether certain Catholic politicians at odds with the Church on matters of doctrine and morals should be permitted to receive Communion. He graciously answered questions by others on that topic. My question to him was a bit different.

To the best of my recollection, I believe I phrased the question this way: “Your Eminence, what are your thoughts on when ordinary lay Catholics seek to deny Communion to another ordinary lay Catholic on the basis of what they believe is going on in that person’s life?”

The cardinal seemed genuinely puzzled, as if he could not imagine that this kind of thing was happening, but he did explain that a Catholic who feared that another communicant should not receive Communion should present the matter to the pastor and leave it to the pastor’s judgment.

I very much agreed with and appreciated the cardinal’s advice; of course, he was correct that this is a matter that lay Catholics must leave in a pastor’s hands. But I was somewhat disappointed that he did not seem to believe that this was a real problem in parish life; perhaps he thought I was constructing a hypothetical scenario for his consideration.

I wish I could say it was a hypothetical scenario. Alas, it is not. Over the years, I have heard many, many variations on the question, “How do I stop this person I know should not be receiving Communion from going forward for Communion?”

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Here are a few of the various forms of the question I’ve heard, along with suggested responses:

A non-Catholic friend is coming to Mass with me. What do I do to prepare her for Communion?

This is the easiest to answer, and the one form of the question in which the inquirer needs to take action. Suggestion: Before Mass, not right before Communion when the people are standing to enter the line, show the non-Catholic friend the Communion guidelines that are printed on the inside front cover of most parish missalettes and allow her to read the guidelines for herself.

My Catholic relative has not been to confession in decades. How do I tell him he can’t receive Communion?

There is no way you can know that this person has not gone to confession in decades. For all you know, he could have gone to confession just last week and never told you about it. People do not always choose to announce that they have returned to the sacraments. Recent case in point: Famed movie director, Alfred Hitchcock, who we only recently learned returned to the sacraments not long before his death. Suggestion: After Mass, say, “I didn’t know you returned to the sacraments! How wonderful! When did this happen?” If this prompts discussion that reveals that the relative actually has not been to confession in 30 years, you can gently explain that Catholics are expected to confess their mortal sins at least once per year. If not, you may have given him something to think about. Or, best-case scenario, your relative might smile shyly and say he returned to confession just last week.

I know this Catholic is leading an immoral life and should not be receiving Communion. How do I stop him from doing so?

Again, be careful about deciding what you do and do not know. You may be wrong. Or, it may be that the person is going to confession on a regular basis and is struggling with the sin. Suggestion: If the sin is particularly scandalous, this is the time to talk privately with the pastor. Give him the information. Then trust him to handle it in an appropriate manner. It is unlikely that the pastor will be able to tell you anything about how he handles the matter. Give it over to him and then do your best to put the whole thing out of your mind.

In police lingo, “BOLO” is an acronym for “Be on the lookout.” There are many times when it is appropriate to BOLO. In the Communion line, though, the first person we need to be on the lookout for is ourselves. We can fully examine only our own conscience and determine only our own readiness to receive the Eucharist. If we do that well enough, we won’t have the time to pay attention to others in the Communion line, and our diligence in examining ourselves might act as a reparation to our Lord for the sins of those who do not.


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