ASK FATHER: Friends returning to the Church say they can receive Communion without going to confession first

From a reader…


After a number of years away from the faith of my childhood, I made the decision to return to the Catholic church.  After attending a few masses, my heart longed to receive the Eucharist, so I made the necessary appointment to go to confession at the parish.  In my youth, we were instructed to go to confession every 2 to 3 months or as the need arose after an examination of conscience.  And I have done this.  Each time I received absolution and prayed my penance and reread Psalm 51.  During mass, I would repeat my prayers and my Act of Contrition before receiving Jesus again.
Recently people I know who have also been away from the church for years asked me to take them to mass.  I did so.  But when it came time for communion, they arose and went to receive it, even though they hadn’t made a confession for their lapses from the commandments over the years.  After mass, I reminded them of the need for the sacrament of confession and that our priest was very easy to speak with.  He makes special appointments as well.  I tried to explain that reconciliation is necessary, and they both said it wasn’t.  They said since they prayed every day that’s all they had to do and that I shouldn’t judge them.  Father, I wasn’t and am not judging anyone.  Only God can judge them.  But I was trying to share what I was taught before Confirmation, thinking that maybe they had forgotten.  It has troubled me deeply.  I know the Church requires all of us to go to confession at least once a year and to go to mass every Sunday and Holy Day, whether we receive communion or not.  I know that we are called to avoid the 7 deadly sins and to follow the ten commandments, and “to avoid the near occasion of sin.”  What should I do?  I was taught that what they are doing is sacrilege but I don’t want to lose their friendship.  What should I do?  Was I wrong to say anything?  I am confused by all of this.  I hope you have time to answer me.  I know that I will get a very straight-forward answer from you.  Please help me know what to do, Father.

I commend you for your return to your Faith, and making sure that you were confessed and ready to receive Communion again.  You did it the right way.

I also commend you for being available to take others to Mass with you.

Your concern for them doing this the right way is also commendable, as was your gentle approach.

Fr. Z kudos.

Yes, it is highly probable that your friends are not properly disposed to receive the Eucharist.

What should you do?

Firstly, don’t come down hard on them.  However, it is a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant.

We have to be properly disposed to receive Communion.  Because we are both body and soul, we have to be disposed in both body and soul.  We dispose ourselves in body by fasting.  We dispose our souls by making sure we are in the state of grace.  While there are extraordinary means to return to the state of grace, the ordinary means is the very means that Christ established in His Church: the Sacrament of Penance.  Going to confession and being absolved is how Christ wants us to be reconciled with Him, the Church and ourselves.  If it was sufficient to do something else, he would not have given His own power to the Church in the Apostles, bishops and priests, to forgive sins in His person: “I absolve…”.

It could be a good gesture on your part to invite them out after Mass for coffee or a bite and give then them as “Epiphany presents” copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [US HERE – UK HERE] bookmarked at the page describing disposition for reception of Communion.

For example, CCC 1415 says:

“Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.”

It could be that your people will not want to admit having committed a moral sin.  Happily there is also a section in the CCC on mortal sin.  Your breakfasts or lunches after Mass could wind up being an impromptu study sessions.

In my experience, sitting down with someone at a copy of any catechism, be it the CCC, or the Roman Catechism or the Baltimore Catechism winds up in a “one thing after another” chase, one paragraph and topic leading to looking up something connected.  The content of our Faith is interwoven such that by looking at one thing, we then also turn to another in a fascinating treasure hunt.

Or the late, great Fr. John Hardon’s Catechism.  Wonderful!

Hold the line on reception of Communion in the state of grace, but don’t be harsh or frowny.  Firm and cordial and ready to “give answers”.

“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” 1 Peter 3:15

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kathleen10 says:

    This situation must happen to a lot of Catholics. It’s really hard to imagine what to say to family and not sound judgmental and put people off that way. You end up worried if they don’t go to Mass then worried if they will and do not go to Confession first. As I wrote this I wondered if it might be easier to issue a written invitation, that included a gentle reminder about Confession. Maybe that’s less annoying to people than a verbal on the spot request.

  2. HvonBlumenthal says:

    I took my 90-year-old mother-in-law to Rome. In Santa Maria Maggiore there was a manned confession box with a Spanish speaking priest. We persuaded her to go in as it was many years since she last went to confession. After quite a long time, she emerged with a radiant smile and said « the priest was from my home town so we had a really good chat! He told me that at my age there’s no need to go to confession any more. »

  3. IaninEngland says:

    Why not invite them to go with you to Confession *as a separate event*?

    “I’m driving to Confession at 10:00 a.m. next Thursday. Would you like to come along?” Maybe lunch or shopping afterwards?

  4. j stark says:

    The other option is to celebrate their return to the Church, and nothing else be said at this stage. They havent been to Church in years; the fact that they have returned is by God’s Grace. Maybe that was not an opportune moment to bring up the Teaching on receiving communion. Maybe that should be gradually introduced. Confession for most people is the most difficult sacrament. Sometimes little steps! [Sacrilege is not to be taken lightly.]

  5. Mightnotbeachristiantou says:

    One thing you might want to stress is what if they are wrong? The author handled himself correctly. When dealing with people it is not about who is right and who is wrong, but the consequences of being wrong and they blessings of doing things the correct way. And no one wants to see ones friends receive consequences when all we had to do was speak up.

  6. Lurker 59 says:

    Just some notes.

    1.) When I came into the Church 20+ years ago, I found common enough amongst lapsed Catholics the attitude of “I don’t need to go to confession should I choose to return to the sacraments” that it struck me that it was something that was taught to a certain age range of people.

    2.) Judgement isn’t delineating between things, that’s discernment, a virtue that we are required to grow and practice. Judgement necessarily involves “passing sentence”. A judgemental person is not someone who delineates nor even someone with a critical spirit, but someone who subscribes to themselves authority that they don’t have to pass sentence on others (for good or for ill — people who engage in flattery are frequently guilty of positive judgementalism — passing a favorable and rewarding sentence that is expressed as the flattery itself.)

    3.) It is not “do not judge” but “Judge not, that you may not be judged,For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Putting that in more clear language, should we have necessity and authority to enter into judgement over someone, then we are to do so with the mind of Christ and no other. Fathers are tasked with judging the behavior of their children. Popes are tasked with judging the behavior of the members of the Church. Both are to do so with the mind of Christ — that a soul might grow in virtue and be conformed to Christ.

    4.) Priests need to be careful of how cavalier they are with confession and admittance to the Eucharist. If one has authority, then one becomes culpable for the sins of those under their care that they instructed them to commit.

  7. Brian64 says:

    My boss went through something similar. He attended Mass for a few weeks, then spoke to the priest about his return to the faith. His priest told him that he needed to go to confession – not individual, but some communal thing done for the entire congregation after Mass – but his wife (civilly married) did not, as she was not Catholic (I don’t remember what flavor of Protestant she was). So, after his “thought confession”, where he thought about his sins while the priest absolved the entire community without actually hearing them confess their sins, they we married. The priest did not perform the actually wedding ceremony, but, I believe, just said some things off the cuff, and voila!
    Compare that to my own return, which consisted of 5 years of Mass without Holy Communion while I waited for my (civil) wife to make her decision to continue her journey (she had been baptized as an infant, but nothing further). She had to attend some online classes put together by our TLM priest, then talk with him to prove she was serious and had learned the faith. After meeting with our priest individually and collectively, completing the proper forms and providing proof of all our previous Sacraments, we both went to Confession, were married (via the 1962 Missal) and then on Sunday received First (for her) Holy Communion. She was confirmed the following Saturday. The timing and order were important, as we did not want to separate during the process – something never mentioned by my boss’s priest.
    When I told my boss that we were married in the Church, he told me his story. While I was happy for him, I did mention that some of the process may not have been valid. He did not like to hear that and was adamant that if a Catholic priest said that was all that was needed, then it was fine.
    When speaking of our Catholic marriage – after 15 years of civil union – my wife’s eyes always fill with tears. I wonder if my boss or his wife react similarly? Oh! And she has the same reaction when recounting the placing of the ring on each finger while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
    By the way, Father, following this blog played no small part in my return. It helped me to understand that many of the things I disliked about the modern Church were in reality bad, and not just my own misguided, arrogant feelings. We are forever grateful to you, to my friend who for years prayed for my return, and to all those in our local Latin Mass community.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    Much of this is caused by the contamination of Protestant notions of salvation into the general Catholic population. Indeed, it is a profound misimplementation of the idea of ecumenism, since Vatican II believed, naively, that ordinary Catholics would hold to the Faith (as if it were clearly understood to begin with) when challenged by the easier, but more vociferously expressed doctrines of salvation from Protestants.

    What we have, here, is an apologetics problem, since, clearly the people who receive Communion without Confession (if they are not in a state of grace) seem to believe the Protestant notion of the direct prayer to Christ for the forgiveness of sins without the need for the Church. In other words, sin is a purely private individual matter, not affecting one’s relationship with others or the wider Church. One can simply point out that Christ gave a specific commission to bishops and priests to forgive sins – “whose sins you forgive are forgiven,” and nowhere told people to pray to him to forgive sins in a private affair.

    Yes, one can, in theory, make a perfect act of contrition, privately, but give human weaknesses, this should not be expected to be the norm. Auricular confession is a restoration to grace in a particularly human fashion, restoring a right relationship both with God and his Church in a public, but internal fashion (i.e., the confession is to another individual who publicly represents both Christ and the Church, but is done in private).

    I have often wondered what Sts. Basil, Gregory, Augustine, and Chrysostom would have thought about the document on ecumenism of Vatican II if they could have read it during the Arian heresy. “Those Arians are our separated brethren. They are validly baptized and share many of the graces we do. Sure, they don’t quite understand who Christ is, but if we just dialogue with them enough, they will see the light.” A side question for the theologians in the crowd: were Arian baptisms even valid, since they refer to a different understanding of the Son, than orthodoxy?

    I find it comically sad that those theologians who were so intent on a ressourcement – going back to the original documents, at Vatican II, failed so miserably to understand why there is no argument for ecumenical dialogue and heretics found in the writings of the Church Fathers.

    The Chicken

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