Is Holy Communion Meant For The Perfect?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis says: “I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (footnote, 351).

As any Catholic should know, in this life, everyone is a sinner, heavy, medium or light. Because of inherited concupiscence, we have a tendency or disposition to sin. At the same time, we can at least fight against committing mortal sin because God gives each and all assisting, or actual, grace to struggle for heaven, while at the same time not taking away our freedom to impede His loving merciful grace by sinning. If God wants all of his human creatures to be with Him in heaven, as St. Paul says in I Timothy, He gives sufficient grace to refuse the easy way to spiritual death and experience the difficult way of obedience to Him and His precepts.

eucharistWhen Jesus tells disciples and all of us who believe in Him, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” what does that mean?! It may even sound to some like an act of a terrorist! Traditionally, this means be perfect in grace as your heavenly Father is perfect in His very being or nature. This means striving for perfection of grace and virtue. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas asks the question whether anyone can be perfect in this life. From the point of view of the object of love, namely, God, only God loves Himself perfectly because He is infinite love and no creature has infinite power to love Him infinitely. So Aquinas goes on to discuss human’s love for God in the following manner:

On the part of the person who loves, charity is perfect, when he loves as much as he can. This happens in three ways. First, so that a man’s whole heart is always actually borne towards God: this is the perfection of the charity of heaven, and is not possible in this life, wherein, by reason of the weakness of human life, it is impossible to think always actually of God, and to be moved by love towards Him. Secondly, so that man makes an earnest endeavor to give his time to God and Divine things, while scorning other things except in so far as the needs of the present life demand. This is the perfection of charity that is possible to a wayfarer; but is not common to all who have charity.

Here, Aquinas is thinking about people who renounce the three goods of this world to seek God more deeply on a conscious level by the three vows of religion. Going on, he concludes

Thirdly, so that a man gives his whole heart to God habitually, viz. by neither thinking nor desiring anything contrary to the love of God; and this perfection is common to all who have charity (ST II-II 24, 8).

In the history of spirituality, those not martyred sometimes were given a miraculous gift of not needing much sleep, such as St. Martin de Porres or St. John Vianney, and that enabled them to do extraordinary work for people, and pray with prolonged fervor. However, that reality for them does not mean that someone engaged in family life, a career, and its responsibilities—thereby making it relatively impossible to go to daily Mass, and spend an hour or more in prayer—are not perfect given Thomas’s insight into “habitual” divine love or being in the state of grace while doing one’s work. That is why he and others explain that there are three stages on the journey to heaven: beginners, advanced, and the more perfect in grace and virtue. Carmelite theologians would say, the purgative, illuminative and the unitive way of growing in perfection. Either terminology boils down to this:

In like manner the diverse degrees of charity are distinguished according to the different pursuits to which man is brought by the increase of charity. For at first it is incumbent on man to occupy himself chiefly with avoiding sin and resisting his concupiscences, which move him in opposition to charity: this concerns beginners, in whom charity has to be fed or fostered lest it be destroyed: in the second place man’s chief pursuit is to aim at progress in good, and this is the pursuit of the proficient, whose chief aim is to strengthen their charity by adding to it: while man’s third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God: this belongs to the perfect who “desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ” (Ibid. 9).

Much later in the Summa, he will add to the idea a little further:

…Now the perfection of Divine love is a matter of precept for all without exception, so that even the perfection of heaven is not excepted from this precept…. The lowest degree of Divine love is to love nothing more than God, or contrary to God, or equally with God….(so he concludes) one does not transgress the precept, if one does not attain to the intermediate degrees of perfection, provided one attain to the lowest. (ST II-II 184, 3 ad 2).

Perfection of charity before receiving the Eucharist can be like playing chopsticks on the piano perfectly or a difficult piece by Rachmanioff perfectly. No matter how low or high one’s state of perfection, one can and should go to Holy Communion for grace and healing of the wounds of sin. Of course it is not a “prize” for high perfection as the Pope rightly points out contextually, but it does demand a reception in the state of grace even if we are not worthy. Most of us are not worthy because of a lack of generosity to do more difficult works of charity called acts of supererogation, such as praying the rosary or fasting more often, going to Confession and Mass more often. These acts facilitate obeying God’s commandments but are not precepts. However, at least being in the state of grace we are relatively perfect even though we are not yet heroic saints in this life.

Finally Aquinas warns us about expecting ordinary people to do more perfect good deeds:

Just as, though all are bound to love God with their whole heart, yet there is a certain wholeness of perfection which cannot be omitted without sin, and another wholeness which can be omitted without sin, provided there be no contempt, so too, all, both religious and seculars, are bound, in a certain measure, to do whatever good they can, for to all without exception it is said (Eccles. 9:10): “Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly.” Yet there is a way of fulfilling this precept, so as to avoid sin, namely if one do what one can as required by the conditions of one’s state of life: provided there be no contempt of doing better things, which contempt sets the mind against spiritual progress (Ibid. 186 2 ad 2).

While Holy Communion is not a “prize’, it is for the perfect, relatively speaking however!

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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