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St Francis on individual confession and receiving Holy Communion
On the ecclesial level, for quite a number of years, throngs of faithful line up to receive Holy Communion at Sunday Masses - a most heartening scene indeed! At the same time, very, very few Catholics frequent the Sacrament of Penance - the First Rite, individual confession.
On the other hand, the Third Rite became a popular "penitential" feature in many churches. While a spiritually enjoyable devotion, it is hardly a viable alternative for those penitents burdened with grave sin or sins. The latter need an auricular confession, priestly absolution and penance imposed.
It was timely and beneficial when, abiding by the instructions of the Holy See, many local bishops clamped down firmly on the abuse or malpractice of the Third Rite, which is only permissible in cases of dire emergency.
Every conscientious Catholic should know that the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion requires a soul cleansed from serious sin and in a state of grace. The Holy Father has repeatedly warned that unbridled secularism has infiltrated the Church and corroded the very core of religiosity and reverence towards God, with moral values in family lives and society tossed out of the window.
The present spiritual crisis regarding the lack of deep faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and its reception in Holy Communion is not a matter of scruples but of sacrilege committed by Catholics in a state of grievous sin.
From the early stages of Christianity, it has always been the normal catechetical instructions by the Church to nurture deep faith in the Real Presence among the faithful who in turn most fervently received Holy Communion regularly, with dignity.
As for the prevalent irreverence of those who dare to receive the Eucharist while in a state of grievous sin, when confession is readily available, it is most pertinent that such Catholics realise that without a sense of sin, it would be impossible to appreciate how Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the human race, by his death on Calvary redeemed us through his victory over death and sin.
A loss of a sense of sin leads to religious indifference, inducing an individual to look down on essential religious tenets as trivia. Without a sense of sin it is impossible to appreciate the Church's identity and to cherish its indispensable mandate given by Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners through the wonderful gift of the Sacrament of Penance, the "sole ordinary means by which one of the faithful who is conscious of great sin is reconciled with God and with the Church" (Catechism, 1484).
Commenting on the widespread decline in a sense of sin and of the relevance of Christian values, Pope John Paul II in a post-synodal exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984), argued that "secularism" has been the principal factor, as it has regarding the weakened urge to confess to a priest.
It is pertinent to note here that when the present Pope was Archbishop of Cracow, one day, after correcting a young priest of a grave misdemeanour, he invited him to share a prayer and then asked him. "Father would you please hear my confession?". The stunned priest obliged and gave absolution to the future Pope John Paul II.
St Francis of Assisi, one of the Church's most popular saints, regarded the Catholic priesthood with the greatest esteem, showed the utmost reverence to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and gratefully appreciated the supernatural gift of the Sacrament of Penance.
Considering himself as utterly unworthy, he refused to be ordained a priest himself, but encouraged other friars to prepare themselves piously and humbly to become priests.
In order to be in the state of grace when receiving Holy Communion, Francis exhorted the sinner - friar and layman - to go to confession to a priest who alone could absolve from sin: "We ought to confess all our sins to a priest because the power of binding and loosing has been conceded to priests only".
His deep respect for priests was evident in his writings: "I am determined to reverence, love and honour priests as my superiors ... I refuse to consider their sins ... I do this because, in this world, I cannot see the Most High God with my own eyes, except for his Most Holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others".
Respect and reverence
Writing to priest friars, he strongly advised them to treat the Eucharist with utter respect: "Kissing your feet, I beg you to show the greatest reverence and honour for the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and implore all my friars who are priests ... to be free from all earthly affection when they say Mass". Then to all friars he wrote: "Our whole being should be seized with fear, the whole world should tremble and Heaven should rejoice when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of the priest".
On the model of St Francis' love for the Eucharist, may all Catholics deepen their appreciation of the sacraments Our Lord gave us and, by good example, strive to lead others to be proud of their Catholic Faith and be worthy members of the Mystical Body of Christ, Our Lord and Redeemer.
Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM, LTh, MA, PhD, OAM, is chaplain of the Maltese Franciscan Sisters and of the Sisters of St Joseph in the Archdiocese of Adelaide.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 4 (May 2003), p. 20
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