There’s a famous story about St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) in which he noticed that there was a man in his congregation who had the habit of leaving Mass immediately after receiving Communion. St. Philip eventually decided that he needed to address it, so he instructed two of his altar servers to follow the man out the door with lighted candles. The man made it down the street before he realized what was happening, and returned to the church to demand an explanation from the priest. Now, another priest might have gotten socked in the nose for pulling a stunt like that –and deserved it. But St. Philip was known for his charity as well as his playful sense of humor. His humility made it difficult for people to stay mad at him for too long. So, when the man found St. Philip, the priest gently smiled at him and explained: “We have to pay proper respect to Our Lord, whom you are carrying away with you. Since you neglect to adore Him, I sent two servers to take your place.” St. Philip wanted to help the man see that when we receive Communion we bear God within us in a special way. And the man resolved from that moment not to leave Mass early anymore.
Receiving Communion is no small thing. Indeed, we can come no closer to God, this side of Heaven, than when we receive Him in the Eucharist. So it’s only right that, after receiving Him, we take advantage of the opportunity to spend some quiet time with Jesus in the pew. But, you might ask, can’t we do that in our cars? Certainly. But there’s another reason why we should not leave immediately after receiving the Eucharist: it’s always and necessarily a communal act. We never receive Communion as an isolated individual. That’s because each Host is not an isolated individual Jesus. Jesus cannot be divided, and so Our Lord is fully present and fully alive in all the Hosts. That means that when we receive the Eucharist, we receive the Body of Christ together as the Church, enjoying the experience of Communion not only with God, but also with each other. Communion is the moment when we are most closely united not only to Jesus, but also to all who are united to Him – the saints in Heaven, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and the people receiving the Eucharist with us. To leave early is to choose to remove ourselves from that most highly privileged moment of Communion with the Lord and the Church – a foretaste of Heaven – in favor of something else. At the Last Supper there was only one Apostle who broke Communion and left before the meal had ended in favor of something else. Which one was it? I’ll let you look up that one for yourselves.
Of course, on occasion someone might have a serious reason for having to leave Mass early, and we must always give people the benefit of the doubt. But often it’s simply a habit that we’ve inherited or developed ourselves. If that’s the case, there’s no time like the present to resolve to stay until the end. And we know the Mass is officially over when the priest, after blessing the congregation declares: “Go forth, the Mass is ended” (in Latin: Ite, Missa Est). Then, perhaps after a quiet prayer of thanksgiving, we leave the place to join the work of Christ’s disciples through the ages, sanctifying the world and sharing with others the news of what we’ve received, and inviting them to come and share it with us.