Abstaining from Mass and Communion: A Reply to Dr. Kwasniewski

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(In light of Saint Anthony Maria Zeccaria, and other saints of the ‘devotio moderna’ who advocated frequent, even daily, reception of the Eucharist, here is a reply to an exhoration by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski published in OnePeterFive).

Peter Kwasniewski is right that we must return to Tradition if the Church is to survive, never mind thrive, but what that means in praxis is controversial. He has done yeoman’s work in that noble cause, and we are grateful, and may agree with much of what he has written, but his recent article on Mass attendance and reception of Holy Communion requires a response and clarification, to three points in particular:

  1. He suggests avoiding any daily Novus Ordo liturgy, regardless of how reverent. On Sundays and days of obligation, he advocates driving a long distance to get to a traditional liturgy of some sort. He does not seem to have gone as far as the SSPX that one should never attend, but he does imply that the deficiencies in the Novus Ordo are just too debilitating to one’s spiritual life.
  2. He says that we should fast from Holy Communion, even at the TLM, to build up our devotion.
  3. He also implies that the current fast before Holy Communion needs serious reconsideration, and that we should impose not just the previous three-hour fast, but go the full midnight-before, presumably from water as well.

Although these points overlap to some extent, we will take each in turn, for they are distinct enough.

Abstaining from Mass, at least the Novus Ordo

We may agree, that the TLM is ‘objectively’ more perfect than the Novus Ordo, and especially more so than how the latter is usually celebrated. But should this entail that we reject the new usus of Mass entirely, and refuse to attend? This is personal for me, for I have friends and students who seem to have gone this route, depriving themselves of daily Mass (and Communion), even though our local celebration is almost as reverent as it gets, Novus Ordo-wise (Communion rail, kneeling, receiving on the tongue, proper antiphons and so on).

Dr. Kwasniewski makes clear his principle:

Moreover, the assertion some make—that we should “offer up our sufferings at Mass”—is true if one is talking about the crosses God sends us in life, which should be placed on the paten together with the host: a physical debility or sickness, a family crisis, hardships at work, trouble with friends, anxieties and stresses of all sorts. The liturgy itself, however, is not supposed to be one of those crosses! Rather, it is our privileged encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord, so it should be a time of strengthening and nourishment, of building up the interior man. If it’s not doing this consistently, it’s failing to benefit the ones for whom Christ instituted it. Nor can it be maintained that embracing a badly celebrated liturgy is a form of asceticism or detachment.

Does any liturgy that one considers ‘detrimental’ deserve avoidance? Could not such a negative devotional reaction also occur in a TLM with, say, a discordant schola, a sloppy priest, a hasty or unduly prolonged liturgy, a rambling sermon, a stuffy, cramped church, bothersome unattractive people, or winsome attractive ones? There is one TLM I have attended where a good portion of the sermon and other parts are repeated in French, even though most, if not all, of the francophones in attendance understand English, and few of the anglophones understand French. It is distracting, but tolerable.

Dr. Kwasniewski continues:

One principle is that assistance at weekday Mass is meant to be beneficial for our souls, so we should not believe that we are obliged to attend a Mass if it is going to be spiritually disturbing, take away our peace, tempt us against charity, or otherwise set us back in our spiritual progress. 

Might not any Mass – TLM or otherwise – have these temptations, and it seems patently clear that, at times, some part of the suffering we offer up at Mass is the suffering of the Liturgy, even if accidental. Even the most transcendent High Mass can produce some level of tedium, and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect Mass’ – only the more and less perfect. Those who love the traditional liturgy – myself amongst them – must beware an enervating aestheticism, an over-focus, and dependence, upon beauty. This, perhaps, is part of the reason God has permitted our current deprivation, so we learn how to live without it, for a time. That is the spiritual desert, not neglecting the Mass. We need not ‘embrace’ badly celebrated liturgy,  as he suggests. Rather, we should tolerate it – endure it, sicut vir – for the greater good of what the sacraments offer. Of course there are limits, but the principle holds.

Dr. Kwasniewski quotes St. John Henry Newman from a letter he wrote on January 14, 1865: “It is no sin to feel it difficult to accommodate your mind to certain things, and it is better not, in the way of devotions, to force yourself at all.

The Mass is not just one devotion amongst many – like a novena to one’s favourite saint. It far transcends ‘devotions’, even the other sacraments. It is the ‘sacrament of sacraments’, the ‘source and summit of the spiritual life’. It is not the fault of the attendees if its presentation is less than perfect. And what are we to say to the untold millions of Catholics who have no access to the TLM? And of the hundreds of thousands of priests who say the Novus Ordo, even if a small (but growing) minority say the occasional TLM when they might? Is all of this deleterious to the spiritual life of such celebrants and participants, and is only a tiny minority in the Latin rite with access to the TLM effectively growing in holiness?

We should keep in mind that Liturgy works primarily ex opere operato, by ‘the work of Christ’, in our souls by His grace, imperceptibly, quietly, inexorably, prescinding from how we feel, even what we ‘do’. Yes, some of our own effort – ex opere operantis – is required, and the more the better, but, contra Pelagius, we should rely more upon the former than the latter.

To argue that because it is more difficult to ‘work up’ devotion in a given Mass that we should semper et ubique avoid it seems counter-productive. Do we starve ourselves of our daily bread at our own discretion and proclivities? He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, promised Christ. The Real Presence is made present in imperfect liturgies – and, again, they’re all imperfect to some extent, even with the sins, faults and imperfections we ourselves bring to Mass. I agree that is not all about validity, but it is to a large extent about validity. We must learn to see through whatever imperfections there be, and not rely overmuch even upon the perfections.

Abstaining from Holy Communion

Which brings us to the question of fasting – from the Eucharist and before receiving the Eucharist. To the first, Dr. Kwasniewski writes:

Although receiving Communion every day is ideal, it is not the only factor to be taken into account. The corruption of the liturgy is a tragic fact of our times, and it really does change the “calculus,” so to speak. If we are thrust into the desert, we should do the sorts of things the desert fathers and mothers did, who, in some cases, had only rare access to the Eucharistic liturgy.

This analogy gets perilously close to deeming the Novus Ordo effectively invalid, or at least so compromised that it cannot be a source of grace and growth in holiness. Yes, some celebrations may be beyond the pale, but many Novus Ordo liturgies are tolerable (see above), even reverent within their own limitations. The desert fathers, as far as we might glean (and there is historical ambiguity on this), did not avoid Mass because it was celebrated in less-than-ideal fashion, running to the wilderness to get away from early versions of the ‘Missal of Paul VI’. Rather, they were physically ‘in the desert’, and simply could not get to daily Mass (unless they were priests, or in a community with priests). To apply their mode of sacramental participation to Catholics today after two millennia of theological development is historical revisionism, a kind of antiquarianism that Dr. Kwasniewski otherwise contemns. And his citation of Cardinal Ratzinger seems to be taken out of context – for he was speaking of the pre-conciliar practice of not receiving the Eucharist on Good Friday – one day of the year, which was for liturgical reasons, not primary personal piety.

Christ teaches us to ask for our ‘Daily Bread’, that is, the Holy Eucharist. The original Greek term for ‘daily’ (cotidianum in Latin) is ‘epi-ousios’ in Greek (literally, the ‘super-substantial’ bread). Our Lord is bringing to mind the manna in the desert – one of the most evocative types of the Eucharist in the Old Testament – which God willed as sustenance for each day.

Saint Pius X in his 1905 decree Sacra Tridentina, on the frequent and daily reception of Holy Communion, against the insidious effects of Jansenism, states that the required interior disposition to receive is a ‘recta piaque mente’ – a ‘right and holy mind’, and he clarifies:

A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.

And as the good pontiff makes clear in the introduction:

Moreover, the desire of Jesus Christ and of the Church that all the faithful should daily approach the sacred banquet is directed chiefly to this end, that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid these graver sins to which human frailty is liable; so that its primary purpose is not that the honor and reverence due to our Lord may be safe-guarded, or that it may serve as a reward or recompense of virtue bestowed on the recipients. Hence the Holy Council calls the Eucharist “the antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sin.”

It does not seem from his words that we are meant to deliberately fast from the Eucharist, barring mortal sin or other canonical obstacle, for this gift is not like regular food, or any other sustenance in this life. The primary effect of Holy Communion is the increase of supernatural grace in our souls and our union with Christ, which, again, is the work of God, not our own.

Why would we fast from Christ Himself? Priests do not do so, and are strongly encouraged – enixe is the adverb in canon law – to offer Mass daily. They also do not give up their Office so as to return to the Hours more refreshed, and spouses do not deliberately separate from each other to return more ‘in love’. That may certainly happen by accident and dint of circumstances, and, sadly, daily Mass and Communion are not possible for many in our world given the paucity of priests and mid-morning Mass times tailored to retirees. But for those who can so attend and receive, well, fortunate are they, and may they intercede for grace for those who cannot.

Fasting Ante-Communion

Fasting before Holy Communion is certainly commendable, and required by the law of the Church, but Dr. Kwasniewski’s exhortation to return to the earlier practice of abstinence from all food and water from midnight the night before (mitigated to three hours by Pius XII) is, to put it mildly, supererogatory for most. One might agree that the one-hour fast is largely symbolic – put in place, in part, due to the allowance of Masses later in the day and in the evening. One could agree that some sort of ‘hedge’ should be put around this Eucharistic Torah, but symbols do mean something, and are not to be dismissed. We should recall that fasting, as beneficial as it may be, is not the only way to prepare for Communion, perhaps not even the primary way. There is prayer, Scripture, practising virtue, and fasting above all from sin.

After all, how much ‘fasting’ and spiritual preparation is enough? To ‘work up’ devotion so that we receive only when we feel like, or deem ourselves, worthy to receive is a kind of self-referential Messalianism that Cardinal Ratzinger criticizes as head of the CDF in his 1989 Some Aspects of Christian Meditation – an error that prayer (and, by extension, the sacraments) are only beneficial when we interiorly feel them to be so. We should keep in mind that the Council of Trent also required couples to refrain from fulfilling the ‘marital debt’ (i.e., conjugal relations) for at least a few days before receiving Communion. And this before the same Council also advocates daily reception, but presumably only for the perpetually continent (mainly priests and religious).

There has been a development of doctrine and praxis on this score, that the expression of sexuality in marriage in the New Covenant is not inherently sinful, nor defiling, but, flowing from the heart and mutual affection, an act of love, even virtuous, sacrificial and grace-giving. The marriage bed is holy, but not all roses.

Dr. Kwasniewski also – curiously enough – pre-emptively acquits himself of any tendency towards a quasi-Jansenism, perhaps because at some level he knows this is where his argument may well lead, that one must be – or, more to the point, discern oneself to be – at a certain level of devotion and preparation to receive spiritual benefit from the Eucharist.

To get to the nub of the matter, when are we ever worthy to receive Our Lord? The recitation of the Domine, non sum dignus has more truth than we might think. If we could see Holy Communion for what it – or He – really is, we would die, more from love than fear. There is a reason why Christ ‘hides’ Himself under the appearance of bread, even imperfect liturgies, and there is humility in bringing our weaknesses and faults before our hidden Lord, to be healed by the Eucharist, a medicine and balm for our souls.

Certainly we must avoid complacency and routine, but the opposite error – a kind of self-referential rigorism – is in some ways worse. Those striving to attend Mass and receive daily have by dint of that effort likely moved some degree beyond pure ‘routine’. What Saint Louis de Montfort said of the Rosary could be applied even more to the Eucharist – those persisting in sin (including the sin of complacency) will either give up their sin or give up their spiritual practice.

I agree with Dr. Kwasniewski’s worthy motive, to increase our devotion towards the Mass and Communion, by some return to traditional praxis, so that we can participate in both in as worthy and holy way as we might. But with all our efforts, we should recall that our salvation is primarily Christ’s work, and we should not turn away from His invitation to come to Him each day all who are heavily burdened, and I will give rest to your souls.