A reader writes:
My grandmother had altzheimer’s for several years before she died. During that time, she went through a series of stages; first she started forgetting things, then she became deranged (trying to light a cigarette with a pen, etc), and finally, she became near catatonic. When my grandfather looked into having Communion brought to her, it was denied because it was speculated that she no longer recognized the Holy Eucharist as the True Presence of Christ. When he told me this, I was horrified! I can think of very few times when the administration of Holy Communion is more urgent.
In any event, when she died, it had been a period of several years since she had received Communion.
What justification can there possibly be for denying my grandmother Holy Communion, simply because she was very mentally ill? The explanation given above is insufficient on theological grounds, since in the Byzantine rite, Holy Communion is given to infants, who do not recognize Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist. How can communion, then, be denied in the Roman rite?
Please explain this to me …
What happened to your grandmother is reprehensible. I wish I’d known about it at the time, and I may have been able to point you in the right direction for getting the situation redressed.
Here are the facts:
While it is true that in the Latin Church there is a canonical requirement for people to be able to discern the Real Presence as a requirement for making their first Communion, there is NO REQUIREMENT that a person must retain this faculty in order to continue to be able to receive Communion.
The fact that the ability to discern the Real Presence is not an absolute requirement is illustrated by two things:
1) The Church’s practice (that you point out) of allowing infants to receive Communion in many of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and
2) The historic practice of the Latin Church itself in giving Communion–at least in the form of Viaticum–to people who have lost the use of reason due to illness or age.
The Church feels very strongly that the faithful receive Viaticum no matter what their circumstances, and it is normal to provide Viaticum even to people who are totally unconscious.
I know that if I’m rendered comatose on my deathbed, that’s what I want to happen (after I’m given the anointing of the sick)!
Even apart from Viaticum, though, the Church still make available Communion to those who are mentally handicapped.
This subject was touched on at the recent Synod of Bishops on the Holy Eucharist. The Propositions that the synod fathers wrote for the consideration of Pope Benedict contain the following:
The Eucharist and the Sick
We consider it of utmost importance to favor Eucharistic celebration for the sick, through an appropriate catechesis on active participation in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. A special significance of the Eucharist, as summit of Christian life, is enclosed in its reception as Holy Viaticum. Given that it opens paschal fullness to the sick person, it is recommended that its practice be intensified.
It is especially requested that Eucharistic Communion be provided to baptized and confirmed mentally disabled persons: The latter receive Communion in the faith of the family and of the community that support them.
The impossibility of knowing the effective sensitivity proper to certain types of sick people is not sufficient reason not to give them all the sacramental supports of which the Church disposes. It is important that those who suffer from disability may be recognized as members of the Church in all aspects, and have their just place in her.
It is desirable, moreover, that the architectural functionality of churches facilitates their participation in celebrations.
I need to point out that the Propositions released by the synod fathers are not a legally binding document, but they are illustrative of the attitude taken by the Church toward the interpretation of its law on these points, and the law simply does not prevent someone in your grandmother’s condition form receiving Communion.