Worthiness vs. Humility

In the news lately, our most sacred and holy treasure has been in the headlines, and not in the loving, reverent tones we ought to wish it were, but as a point of political contention. I hesitate to say “bargaining chip,” however, some words have even been spent on the idea of “weaponizing” the Blessed Sacrament as part of a political ploy.

By way of very brief recap, in case you hadn’t seen an account, former Vice President and presidential candidate, Joe Biden (a Catholic) was denied communion while attending Mass at a parish in South Carolina. The justification offered for this course was his persistent and public support of abortion, an act the Church has always held to be a grave evil.

To the question “can a priest do that?” the short answer is ostensibly “yes.” There are canonical grounds for that decision, in fact. Is he making a judgment on an individual’s soul? Not on his soul, but rather on his stated public support for a grave and intrinsic evil.

Another question that is raised in arguing either for or against this kind of decision is, “How can any man judge who is worthy or unworthy to receive Communion?” I think this question is far more interesting and engrossing.

Is anyone, in point of fact, “worthy” to receive the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in Communion? Is there any man or woman who is “worthy that [Jesus] should enter under [his or her] roof”?

The Church (according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) says that the Catholic must fast for an hour before receiving and must not be conscious of any unconfessed grave sin. That’s the admittedly short list of qualifications, but I would argue that fulfilling those relatively small conditions does not make one worthy. In fact, I would argue that “worthiness” is entirely out of the question. 

To seek to be worthy of receiving the Eucharist is barking up the wrong tree, to my mind. However, we are called to receive and to be well disposed to that communion we seek. It was never a question of whether we were worthy or somehow “deserving” of so heavenly a blessing. Instead, it was and is about being drawn by the Lord to receive. Those who are in communion with the Church through Baptism and the assent of faith to all she teaches to be true, who have observed the hour fast, and who have discerned that they are free of grave (mortal) sin—these are called to enter into sacramental Communion.

In the few years following my awakening in the faith, I wrestled briefly with scrupulosity—in short, finding sin in myself where there wasn’t any sin committed. Over the course of those years, I had concluded that no matter how holy I could possibly get, it wouldn’t be “good enough” to merit the Lord. There was no basis upon which I would become or be made worthy.

Communion, this foretaste of heavenly, eternal union with the Most Blessed Trinity, had to be on a wholly different set of terms. Rather than a shallow, human appraisal of good enough or not, Holy Communion is on Christ’s terms alone.

While the Church is not making us worthy to receive by virtue of our one hour without food or drink and our refraining from doing evil, she is helping to clarify who the Lord is calling into sacramental Communion.

To be clear, Jesus is always calling every one of us to come to him for life, grace, sustenance, forgiveness, and that spiritual union with God for which the human heart so desperately hungers. But to the unspeakable privilege of actually receiving that taste of eternal life, he calls those who humble themselves to take some small steps toward him. This is so much less about judgment than humility. Let us embrace the humility of submission to the spiritual authority of the Church, as she opens for us the revelation of God and makes available to us the power of the Holy Spirit.

David Dunst
Director of Music and Liturgy


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