Fasting from the Eucharist

Good Friday

St. Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Lent of 1995

The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, to which we and 98.6% of the world’s Catholics belong, has just one day each year when no Masses are to be celebrated. That day is today, Good Friday. After a reading of Christ’s Passion from the Gospel of John and reverencing his holy Cross, the Good Friday liturgy contains a Communion service in which presanctified (previously consecrated) Hosts are distributed and consumed. However, in the early Church, there was no reception of Holy Communion by the faithful on Good Fridays at all. This fact was once noted by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger, this highly-esteemed theologian, would go on to be elected pope and take the more familiar name Benedict XVI. In his 1986 book “Behold the Pierced One,” he reflected upon the spiritual benefits that could be found by Catholics in full communion with the Church abstaining for a time from receiving our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Obviously, these interesting passages are relevant to us now during this Long Lent of 2020.

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

“When [St.] Augustine felt his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and took upon himself ecclesiastical penitence. In his last days, he set himself alongside, in solidarity, with the public sinners who seek forgiveness and grace through the pain of not receiving the Communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for Him, the righteous and gracious One. Against the background of his sermons and writings, which describe the mystery of the Church as a communion with the Body of Christ and as the Body of Christ, on the basis of the Eucharist, in a really marvelous way, this gesture is quite shocking. It seems to me more profound and fitting, the more often I ponder it. Do we not often take things too lightly today when we receive the most Holy Sacrament? Could such a spiritual fasting not sometimes be useful, or even necessary, to renew and establish more deeply our relation to the Body of Christ?

In the early Church there was a most expressive exercise of this kind: probably since the time of the apostles, Eucharistic fasting on Good Friday was part of the Church’s spirituality of Communion. Not receiving Communion on one of the most holy days of the Church’s year, which was celebrated with no Mass and without any Communion of the faithful, was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Passion of the Lord: the sorrowing of the bride from whom the bridegroom has been taken away (see Mark 2:20). I think that a Eucharistic fast of this kind, if it were deliberate and experienced as a deprivation, could even today be properly significant, on certain occasions that would have to be carefully considered—such as days of penitence (and why not, for instance, on Good Friday once more?) […]

Such fasting — which could not be allowed to become arbitrary, of course, but would have to be consonant with the spiritual guidance of the Church — could help people toward a deepening of their personal relation to the Lord in the Sacrament; it could be an act of solidarity with all those who have a yearning for the Sacrament but cannot receive it. […] I would not of course wish to suggest by this a return to some kind of Jansenism: in biological life, as in spiritual life, fasting presumes that eating is the normal thing to do. Yet from time to time we need a cure for falling into mere habit and its dullness. Sometimes we need to be hungry—need bodily and spiritual hunger—so as once more to comprehend the Lord’s gifts and to understand the suffering of our brethren who are hungry. Spiritual hunger, like bodily hunger, can be a vehicle of love.”

During this dangerous Coronavirus pandemic, faithful shepherds charged by Christ to care for the fullness of persons entrusted to them have prescribed sad but necessary measures which have restricted access to Holy Communion. In doing this, our Church leaders follow in the prudential footsteps of past prelates who likewise suspended public Masses during times of deadly contagion, from the medieval plagues to the modern Spanish Flu. Although public liturgies with Communion have ceased it is important to remember that the Holy Mass continues to be offered by priests in our Catholic churches. The graces of Jesus’ sacrifice pour forth from these altars into Christians souls around the world. Do not doubt that our Lord will provide sufficient grace for all that you are called to do in this season of our lives. As the Lord once told St. Paul when the saint prayerfully begged for a certain trial to be taken away, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

When we cannot physically receive Jesus in the Eucharist we can still unite ourselves to him through a prayer for Spiritual Communion. Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote that the practice of Spiritual Communion “has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Jesus wrote: ‘When you do not receive Communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a Spiritual Communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.’” Once, in a 14th century vision, Jesus showed St. Catherine of Siena two chalices, one gold and one silver. He said her Sacramental Communions were preserved in the gold chalice and her Spiritual Communions in the silver one. When our sacramental reception of our Lord proves impossible, Jesus desires our Spiritual Communion. Until the day we are all safely reunited around his altar, I urge you to make acts of Spiritual Communion, such as this famous prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori:

My Jesus,
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there
and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You.

Just one month ago, when pews were full for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, we heard the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. On Mount Tabor, Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. Ecstatic, Simon Peter said in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to never leave that euphoric time and place, but it was necessary that Jesus lead him down from that mountain top into the dark valley; from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Hill of Crucifixion.

It is a true sacrifice to fast from the Eucharist this Good Friday amidst this Long Lent. But our Christian sacrifice is not without purpose nor without hope. Like Jesus’ Passion, it is a sacrifice offered for the love of others. This is his Body given up to save many; we do this in memory of him. And like Jesus within his Passion, we can be confident that this arduous trial shall pass away and our suffering and obedience will soon yield great rewards, particularly a deepened love for our Eucharistic Lord. Being followers of the transfigured Christ takes us to Calvary, but the Passion is what leads us to his Resurrection. And the more we share in the likeness of Christ, the more we will share in his glory.

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