One of the best days of the year in every Catholic parish is the Saturday on which we celebrate First Holy Communions. Everybody is dressed up and the church is filled with the buzz of excited family members. The best part of the experience for the priest, of course, is giving the young men and women their First Holy Communion. Without exception, they approach the sanctuary with great reverence, hands folded with an intense expression on their faces. When the priest says to them, “Body of Christ,” they respond with conviction: “Amen.” They know what it is they are receiving, and their example serves as a living reminder to us of what it is we receive when we receive the Eucharist.
It’s important to experience this because, like anything in life, the things we do regularly can quickly become routine. When receiving the Eucharist becomes routine, we can treat it casually, forgetting that our “Amen” is a profession of faith that the little white disc held before our eyes – that looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread – is not bread, but the living flesh and blood of Christ Jesus, Son of the living God. You may have noticed recently that the servers have started standing next to the priest while he distributes Holy Communion, holding little metal plates with wooden handles. These little plates are called “patens,” and they help to keep Hosts from accidentally falling to the ground. Patens also remind us that what we receive is precious, and that we must take great care in the way we receive the Eucharist. Reception of Communion on the tongue remains the ordinary manner of reception, but one may receive either on the tongue or on the hand. If one prefers to receive on the hand, it is very important to do it properly. One’s hands should be clean, with the strong hand supporting the weak hand, stretched out flat so that the priest can easily and safely place the Host on that hand. The strong hand then picks up the Host off the weak hand and places the Host in the mouth before returning to the pew. It’s never appropriate to pluck the Host from the priest’s hands or bring the Host back to the pew. If someone is carrying something (or someone) in the Communion line, he or she should be prepared to receive Communion on the tongue.
While our physical posture is important, our inner disposition is also important. We should always do an examination of conscience before Mass. If we are aware that we have committed a serious sin, such that we are not in what’s called a “state of grace,” we should refrain from receiving Communion until we have had the chance to go to Confession. If we were to receive the Eucharist while not in the state of grace, we wouldn’t receive any benefit from the Sacrament. In fact, St. Paul says, we would be committing sacrilege (cf, 1 Cor 11:27-29), something else to bring to the confessional. As we process in the Communion line, we should be thinking about what we are about to do, perhaps holding in our hearts a particular intention to offer Our Lord when we receive Him. Afterwards we should take some quiet time to thank Him for the gift of the Eucharist.
There’s an old saying that you can find written on signs in some church sacristies that says: “Priest of Jesus Christ, offer this Mass as though it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” Since my ordination, I have tried to include this in my daily prayers of preparation for Mass. On this First Holy Communion weekend, perhaps all of the faithful might begin the habit of saying to themselves as they approach the sanctuary: “Lord Jesus, may I receive this Eucharist as though it were my first Eucharist, my last Eucharist, my only Eucharist.”