By Jurell Sison
Growing up as a young Catholic, I remember my teachers and priests explaining the Church’s teaching on receiving Communion while in a "state of sin." On the surface, it’s straight forward: If you’re living in a state of mortal sin, you can't receive Communion until you go to Confession. It was a teaching I didn’t take seriously until I really began to grow in my relationship with God.
And now, looking back on my journey, I can say I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum.
I remember seasons of my life when I was trying to grow in my faith but didn’t take my sins seriously. They were times when I knew I needed Confession but still received Communion week after week, in a “God-loves-me-anyway” but “I-make-my-own-rules” sort of way.
I’ve also been on the other side, tricked by the evil-one into thinking that I was unworthy of God’s love because I was incapable of “not sinning.” I was a young Christian wrestling with my constant sinfulness and it ultimately left me paralyzed and fearful to approach Jesus in the Eucharist.
Now, neither one of these situations is a healthy way to approach Jesus in the Communion line but they both taught me something about God’s mercy.
Yes, it’s a complicated teaching but I promise, if you keep reading you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the Church’s wisdom and the endless ways that Jesus seeks our hearts, mortal sin or not.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW ON MORTAL AND VENIAL
First of all, it’s important to review the Church’s teaching on sin. While all wrongdoing is sin, Catholics hold a unique belief that certain offenses hold different weight in the eyes of God. Sins are therefore divided into two camps: venial and mortal. If you think about a friendship, there are some things you could do to wound the relationship but there are also things you could do to end it--once and for all.
In the same way, some sins weaken (venial) our relationship with God, while others destroy it (mortal).
The official criteria of mortal sin is actually very complex and but the heart of it can be summarized by three conditions that must be committed together: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is (1) grave matter and which is also committed with (2) full knowledge and (3) deliberate consent." If you are having trouble discerning a mortal from venial, Fr. Mike Schmitz provides an awesome resource here.*
Another interesting facet of the teaching is that faithful participation in the Mass--specifically the penitential rite** and the Eucharist--forgives all venial sins but does not forgive mortal sins.*** Therefore, if I am conscious of a mortal sin, then I am required to go to Confession before coming face to face with Jesus in the Eucharist.
TAKING OUR SINS SERIOUSLY
If you’re trying to grow in your relationship with God and not taking your sins seriously, I’m here to tell you that it’s doing some serious damage to the relationship. I know that sometimes this teaching can seem harsh or unnecessary, especially when we are taught that God forgives all of our sins and loves us no matter what. But again, I’m begging you to consider any important relationship in your life.
Think about it, if I have offended my best friend or spouse in a way that could potentially destroy the friendship/marriage, what would happen if I showed up on their doorstep acting as if nothing was wrong? Showing up and acting “normal,” without first acknowledging my faults in a direct and official way, would only contribute to the destruction of the relationship.
In this case, the first step to healing the friendship is an apology and the Church holds us to the same standard with God.****
It’s important to remember that the Eucharist is the most intimate gift God offers us and not asking forgiveness of our mortal sins before we approach Him is disappointing, disrespectful, and really destructive to the friendship. While some people think the teaching disconnects us, it’s designed to do the exact opposite. God is always inviting us to be reconciled to Him--to reconnect with Him--and it’s up to us to have the courage to admit our faults in the sacrament of Confession.
This probably doesn't need to be explained but it's also important not to abuse the teaching “God forgives us no matter what.” For example, I honestly believe (with my whole heart) that my mother would love me and forgive me "no matter what"--but to take advantage of that love, simply because I can, would be really backwards and twisted of me.
This teaching isn’t backwards or twisted. It’s very fair.
In fact, it’s more than fair--it’s good, beautiful and true.
WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE A CONSTANT FAILURE
On the other hand, if you are scared to receive communion because you feel like you’re constantly committing mortal sins, let me be the first to tell you that you’re not alone. In fact, some of the Church’s holiest men and women suffered from this behavioral pattern and it’s common enough to have an official name. The Church calls it being “scrupulous.”
St. Ignatius, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are just a few saints who have documented the pain of scrupulosity. For example, Martin Luther was known for going to Confession and literally running back because he had impure thoughts. Yes, it sounds silly but I’ve felt this way so many times. I would go weeks and sometimes months without receiving Communion because I convinced myself that I was committing mortal sins constantly and therefore, was unworthy to receive communion--even shortly after Confession.
OVERCOMING THE EVIL ONE
This might be a hard pill to swallow but if you’re suffering from scrupulosity, it’s really important to seek guidance from a spiritual director or trusted minister.
Our obsessive doubt, discouragement, and despair are all signs that the evil-one is working to convince us that we can never be worthy God’s love.
Asking for help in this situation doesn’t display your “weakness” but rather your strength to trust in God--because even the saints had great spiritual mentors to battle the enemy. Not only can a spiritual director guide you through the complex criteria for mortal sin but they can help open your heart to receiving God’s forgiveness in the fullest possible way. Never be afraid to start this important and very mature step in your faith journey.
NOT A SUGGESTION BUT A REQUIREMENT
Regardless of where you are in your relationship with God, I want to leave you with a short excerpt from the Holy Cross Constitutions:
“There is no failure the Lord’s love cannot reverse, no humiliation He cannot exchange for blessing, no anger He cannot dissolve, no routine He cannot transfigure. All is swallowed up in victory. He has nothing but gifts to offer” (Constitutions 8:118).
One thing I know for sure is that God has nothing but gifts to offer. He reconciles and heals when we so often wound and destroy. And knowing all this, He still waits for us--with arms wide open, infinitely patient, understanding and merciful.
So yes, it’s one of our teachings that when we really really screw up, when we fail our most faithful friend, an apology isn’t suggested, it’s required.
It’s the first step towards healing the broken relationship. So from this perspective, admitting our faults isn’t always a bad thing--in fact, it can be grace-filled and healing. It can be beautiful.
*For those wanting to dive deeper into the complexity of this issue, it’s important for you to talk to a trusted spiritual advisor or friend to walk you through some of these teachings. I personally thought that this video helped me to understand more of the Church’s wisdom in these situations.
**Click here to learn more about the Penitential Rite
***Canon 916 states, “...a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession…”
****This explains the Church’s wisdom when they teach that mortal sins are conscious, grave rejections of God’s love and therefore, require our admission of guilt and need for His grace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Just a guy searching for the fullest life. I was born and raised Catholic and named after the father of Superman. I love laughing with my beautiful wife, Bridget and my son Isaiah James. I also love making videos, Filipino food, reading Catholic theologians. If you’re interested, you can follow my work on Instagram @jurellsison.