An Ongoing Question

When is being late too late?

More than once in recent days, I have had a conversation regarding people coming late to Mass and still receiving Holy Communion. As it stands today, the discussion centers on whether there is a point when someone arrives for Mass that is too late to receive Holy Communion. Most priests and regular churchgoers agree there is something wrong with the practice but are hard pressed to substantiate why it is wrong. The reasons given typically center on the scandal or distraction it causes others. There is no talk at all about the objective order, the fonts of morality, or what the act is in itself. Almost no one uses words such as sacrilege to describe the practice, which is where the breakdown occurs. For the most part, there is no talk of grave matter or sin. The only question asked is whether the person should receive Holy Communion after coming in late because others are scandalized by his or her lack of preparation.

In trying to move beyond the subjective arguments, many attempt a legalistic approach by looking to canon law, which is silent on the matter. Others look to liturgical law, which is also silent on the matter. In fact, in searching for an authoritative statement, there is none to be found with regard to this specific issue. The only statement we typically find with regard to the reception of Holy Communion in general is that a Catholic must be “properly disposed," which does not speak directly to the question at hand. The usual clarification of being properly disposed is, “Participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour.” Again, this broad statement does not give any real insight to the question at hand and makes the error of using the word “conscious” with regard to mortal sin (which is a discussion for another time).

In order to understand the act more clearly, it may be helpful to return to the moral manuals and examine the discussion on how much of the Mass one must attend in order to fulfill the Sunday obligation. In the manuals of Moral Theology, the question of fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation was framed in relation to the definitive point of the Mass when a person was considered too late and, if they did not attend another Mass, committed a sin against the Third Commandment. With regard to the manuals, we must recall that the reception of Holy Communion was not the explicit question but rather what it took to avoid committing a sin against the Third Commandment. In the moral life, discernment of actions should always be focused on remaining in a state of grace by understanding what constitutes gave matter and avoiding such acts. Amongst actions that constitute grave matter, we must emphasize Sacrilege, which the Catechism (2102) defines as “profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions” and is “a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist.”

In the era during which the moral manuals were written, most Catholics did not receive Holy Communion frequently. In this regard, the faithful had a strong sense that “properly disposed” for the reception of Holy Communion meant being in a State of Grace and approaching the Eucharist worthily. It would never have dawned on someone to come late to Mass and receive because many who were on time for Mass did not receive. To come forward for Holy Communion after arriving late was understood to be sacrilegious. With regard to the question on how late one could arrive and still fulfill the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, one manual states, “It must be a complete Mass, i.e., assistance at it must extend from the beginning of the Mass to the last blessing.” In the subsequent discussion in the manual, anyone who was late or left early committed sin (against fulfilling the obligation) and the ensuing discussion was with regard to whether the sin was venial or mortal with the gravity being determined by how much or what parts of the Massed was missed. All lateness was seen as matter for sin but clarification was made as to when one’s lateness when went from venial to moral, from lesser matter to grave matter. The matter was considered grave if one voluntarily missed that which preceded the Gospel and left early, or if one came in as late as the offertory, or if one missed the consecration. In other words, the gravity of matter was determined by the amount of the Mass missed or the importance of what part of the Mass was missed. Again, we must keep in mind that the discussion centered on fulfilling the Sunday Obligation, which did not mean one had to receive Holy Communion but only had to be present and attentive during the Mass.

In the post Vatican II liturgical reforms, the encouragement for full and active participation was rooted in this same line of thinking. The faithful in attendance should be prayerfully engaged in the whole Mass, from beginning to end. The encouragement also included a more frequent reception of Holy Communion but this did not mean a suspension of the requirements such as being in a state of Grace and approaching Holy Communion worthily. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung to the other extreme and now everyone receives at every Mass with little consideration of being properly disposed. It has reached a point where many seem to believe they have a “right” to receive whenever they want for any reason at all.

It is in this context that there are so many today who have no problem arriving at a church as the distribution of Holy Communion begins and get right on the Communion line. What is wrong with this act is that it is sacrilegious, which is grave matter. This is so because the requirements for full and active participation for the whole Mass are needed in order to be properly disposed. In this regard and in light of the discussion of the gravity of matter from the moral manuals, to be properly disposed demands one be present for the entire Mass, from the opening blessing to the dismissal, and be fully attentive to what is happening at the Mass. Anything less than this would require one to NOT come forward for Holy Communion without being culpable of committing a sacrilege. Thus, one should NOT receive Holy Communion at a Mass to which they voluntarily arrived late and should NEVER receive at any Mass when they arrive at or after the Offertory without being guilty of committing a sin.