Canon 916 and the Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church

Recently the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began a process known as a National Eucharistic Revival: “The Bishops of the United States are calling for a three-year grassroots revival of devotion and belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. They believe that God wants to see a movement of Catholics across the United States, healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist—and sent out in mission ‘for the life of the world.’” The Revival itself will begin on June 19, 2022, the Feast of Corpus Christi, and will include years of teaching, with emphasis on the meaning of the Real Presence. It will culminate in a National Eucharistic Conference on July 17-21, 2024 in Indianapolis. 

It seems clear from this revival that the bishops of the United States feel, in various ways and for various reasons, that the Eucharist is not being properly understood, respected, or revered. This should give us pause. If the shepherds of our nation have such concern over this issue, we need to take time to understand how we might reevaluate and reconsider our own beliefs and actions with respect to the Eucharist. This revival after all is not just for some people or for other people. It is for all of us, a “grassroots revival of devotion and belief.”

So how might we heed the bishops’ call for us to revive our devotion and belief in the Real Presence? One way is by contemplating the notion of the Real Presence, that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ are present in the Eucharist. From this, we can begin to understand God’s infinite mercy and grace in providing a means for true communion with him, which we receive through reception of the Eucharist. The USCCB’s document, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, is an excellent source for developing understanding of the truths of the Eucharist.

These truths call us to honor and respect the Eucharist for what it is, for if we do not do this, we fail to love God and to acknowledge the gift that was given to us. We can imagine a good friend spending time finding us the perfect gift. If we do not appreciate that gift, or worse, if we callously destroy it or throw it away, we fail to love our friend and we offend the friendship itself.

But we do not seek to do evils like throwing away, desecrating, or destroying the Eucharist, like we have heard of others doing, right? We don’t want to disrespect it or show animus toward God. This all may be true, we might not have hatred toward God or want to destroy the Eucharist, but there is a much more common way in which Catholics do fail to give proper honor to the Eucharist. That is, by receiving the Eucharist after having committed what the Church calls a “grave sin” (that is, while “in a state of mortal sin”) without a previous sacramental confession. For this reason, the USCCB, citing scripture and tradition, states: 

As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace that the sacrament conveys; he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the sacred Body and Blood of Christ. St. Paul warns us that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself (I Cor 11:27-29).

As you might note, the Church actually identifies this action as “sacrilege,” which is defined by the Catechism this way: “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us” (§2120).

Why might this be so? Why is it so wrong to receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin? The USCCB goes on to explain:

To receive the Body and Blood of Christ while in a state of mortal sin represents a contradiction. The person who, by his or her own action, has broken communion with Christ and his Church but receives the Blessed Sacrament, acts incoherently, both claiming and rejecting communion at the same time. It is thus a counter sign, a lie—it expresses a communion that in fact has been broken. 

Put another way, it is a direct affront to communion, to God and to the gift He has given us. Put in terms we may understand, it is a bit like an adulterer kissing his wife and telling her that he loves her despite choosing to maintain extramarital relationships directly contrary to his promises. Such a man not only lies in his actions and words, but he also dishonors both his wife and the marriage bond itself.

Moreover, because the Eucharist “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism” (§1392), it is a continuation of the life of charity which we first receive in baptism. God gives us heavenly food, the body and blood of Jesus, to sustain us in the long pilgrimage of life. This food presumes that we are still in communion with Jesus, but “[m]ortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law [and] it turns man away from God” (§1855). It is therefore impossible to receive the fruits of such a communion while already having broken the communion through mortal sin. It is like pouring water and plant food on a dead plant.

In addition to scripture and tradition, canon law, the law of the Church, binds us and provides instruction to us. Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law states:

A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

This law is a teacher to us in our desire to respect the Eucharist, so it is important that we understand what it says. First, following what was said above, it instructs those who are conscious of grave sin not to celebrate Mass or receive the Eucharist. This is a subjective evaluation of one’s own state. While some sins are so public that the Eucharist might be denied (see canon 915), canon 916 is aimed internally at our own analysis of ourselves. This does not mean that we are simply evaluating our feelings though. This is instead an intellectual exercise based on a well-developed conscience. That is, we are obliged to determine if our actions qualify as grave sins. To follow this canon then, we first must understand what grave sin is, which we accomplish more fully through an intellectual understanding of grave sin and through the development of our consciences.

A grave sin is a sin that concerns “grave matter” which we commit with “full knowledge” and “deliberate consent.” You may have noticed the terms “grave sin” and “mortal sin” being used somewhat interchangeably. They fundamentally refer to the same thing but emphasize different aspects of the sin. “Grave” refers to the objective seriousness of the sin, while “mortal” refers to the subjective consequences of the sin; that is, their effect in cutting off life and severing communion with God.

“Grave matter” is outlined in summary form in the ten commandments. Such sins are grave because they deal with realities central to human life and with charity toward God and others. The first three of the ten commandments deal with our relationship with God, and we know that our relationship with God is essential to who we are as humans. For instance, we keep the sabbath holy by celebrating the Lord’s day principally in our participation in the Celebration of the Eucharist. Our failure to fulfill this obligation on Sunday is a neglect of a central human reality. The fourth commandment, which reveals the importance of honoring our parents, likewise deals with a central reality: the family. When we act against the reality of a family, for instance when a child abuses a parent or a parent abuses a child, then we act against a central reality of who we are. The fifth commandment, which is a prohibition against murder, is grave because of the sacred character of human life, which ought never to be treated expendably. The sixth commandment, the prohibition against adultery, reveals the sacred character of human sexuality. Actions which contradict naturally ordered sexuality are grave because sexuality is integral and central to who we are as humans, personally and as a community.

Having “full knowledge” means being aware of the nature of the sin, which entails knowing that the act is sinful and how serious it is. “Deliberate consent” refers to the freedom of the choice made; the sin must have been committed freely and intentionally. Canon 916 goes on to note that if one is in fact conscious of grave sin, reception is possible if the individual sacramentally confesses those grave sins and receives absolution for them. That is, if we have committed grave sins, we are able to receive the Eucharist after we seek absolution in the Sacrament of Penance (often called Confession or Reconciliation) and receive absolution.

It is important to note that the Sacrament of Penance requires the penitent not only to explicitly confess sins but also to express contrition for those sins. This expression of contrition requires a resolution (a present intention to change) in the life of the penitent. Sometimes it is sufficient for a penitent to express the resolution to not sin again. Other times a penitent becomes enmeshed in ongoing circumstances that are sinful themselves or which are tied to sin. In such a case, the penitent must also express and have the resolution to abandon the ongoing circumstance in order to be absolved and receive the Eucharist. Returning to the example of our adulterer above, his resolution would need to include the intention to not commit adultery again along with the intention of removing himself from the illicit relationships, which have become an occasion for adultery.

Put another way, a person cannot be removed from a state of mortal sin through the Sacrament of  Penance if there is an intention to remain in or return to the sin following the confession. It is of  course possible that an individual might sin again following confession and absolution, and we may even be aware of the likelihood that we may sin again. Our weaknesses and other circumstances which lead us to sin usually remain following our confessions after all, even though the Sacrament of Penance works to heal us. It must be emphasized that absolution does not require perfection; it merely requires genuine contrition for the sin and the real intention to not commit the sin again.

You may have noticed that Canon 916 does provide an exception to the general rule requiring confession before reception while in a state of mortal sin. It holds that one may receive when “there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.” It adds that “in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.” This exception includes two elements. It requires that there is 1) a grave reason to receive, and 2) that there is no opportunity to confess. Unless both are present, this exception does not apply.

What is a “grave reason” according to this exception? “Grave” is one of the highest standards in canon law. A grave reason is a reason that is so pressing that it is like a kind of necessity, where one must choose between doing the action or face harming others or himself by not acting. For example, it is considered a grave reason if a priest needs to celebrate a scheduled Sunday Mass for the faithful even though he is aware of mortal sins that he was unable to confess. This is considered grave because failing to celebrate Mass would not only harm the faithful in that they are unable to fulfill their Sunday obligation, but it may also have the effect of revealing to the community that the priest is not celebrating Mass because he may have committed mortal sin. In such a case, the priest is put in a particularly difficult situation, so the law permits him to celebrate Mass and receive the Eucharist, provided that all other requirements are fulfilled.

When might a grave reason exist in the case of the lay faithful? Note again that this is a reason that approaches a kind of circumstantial necessity. It is more difficult to think of reasons that would be so serious in the case of laity. It would certainly apply in the danger of death and situations equivalent to this. Another common example is a bride or groom at their wedding Mass, when there is an explicit expectation for them to receive and not doing so may reveal a grave sin and cause great embarrassment to the couple. Another example might exist in situations where Mass is rarely offered in remote locations and this is the one of the few opportunities for a person to receive.

Simply wanting to fit in, not wanting to feel uncomfortable, or merely having a desire to receive are not considered grave reasons for reception. Grave reasons are instead cases where we have certain obligations to receive—when we are put in a situation where we feel we must receive or cause some sort of harm. Since there is certainly no requirement for every person at Mass to receive  the Eucharist (though the priest must), especially Masses outside of days of obligation, this exception would apply more rarely to the lay faithful.

As an aside, it is important to emphasize here that we should not judge others who choose not to receive the Eucharist at Mass. There are many reasons why a person might not receive the Eucharist, and we should not presume that they are choosing not to do so because of the presence of a grave sin. And even if they are abstaining because of grave sin, we should privately admire them in charity for their willingness and desire to respect the Eucharist.

The second requirement notes that there must be “no opportunity to confess.” This is not merely referring to a difficulty in confessing. This means a situation where one has no possibility of getting to confession. Whether because of physical impossibility (no confessions are offered within any reasonable distance) or moral impossibility (situations where one is internally unable to confess, such as a father confessing to his own son or a pastor confessing to the parish parochial vicar, etc.). The canon does not envision or permit someone to receive the Eucharist and then go to confession at a later time merely because this is more convenient.

Some may feel the exception undermines the general principle that receiving in a state of grave sin constitutes sacrilege. Is the canon implying that one is permitted to receive unworthily and so commit sacrilege sometimes if certain requirements are met? No. Great emphasis must be placed on the “act of perfect contrition” noted in the canon.

What is “perfect contrition?” To answer that, we must start with what contrition is. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” Contrition is recognition that one has done wrong and is therefore moved to remedy the wrong. Contrition, put another way, is the underlying desire to seek absolution or forgiveness.

The Church, recognizing that this desire can be spurred on in different ways, understands contrition in a two-fold manner: as imperfect contrition and as perfect contrition. When we sin and recognize the wrong we have done, we often feel the need to remedy that sin. When that desire to remedy is rooted in fear of consequences of the wrong, we have imperfect contrition. We are acting primarily out of a desire to avoid the harm that comes from our wrongdoing.

Perfect contrition on the other hand is the fullest expression of contrition. Perfect contrition arises out of love of God, in genuine recognition that we have harmed our relationship with Him and have put aside the communion which we should cherish. The Catechism states: “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity).”

But love is not merely an emotional exercise. Love consists of real acts and obedience. In particular, this love includes following the path God has laid out for us for the expiation of the harmful effects of sin. That is, seeking out sacramental confession as soon as it is available. For this reason, the Catechism goes on to say that perfect contrition “also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (§1452).

All of this is to say that because this act of perfect contrition obtains the forgiveness of even mortal sins, the canon envisions that anyone who receives the Eucharist will not be in a situation of unforgiven grave sin. Because perfect contrition is an act of love, something that, especially in the case of grave sin, we might struggle to obtain, it is very important that we never come to rely on this exception. We cannot expect ourselves to have perfect contrition at will. This is precisely why Confession has been given to us.

We have heard Pope Francis note that “the Eucharist is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners” and that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” These are powerful comments that align with scripture, tradition and law. They are true and in two important ways. One, as the Catechism notes, the Eucharist wipes away venial sins (§1394), and in this sense it is a strong medicine, for we are called to rid ourselves of all sin in our lives, not merely mortal sin. But it is true in another way. Pope Francis regularly and rightly recognizes that we are all sinners. That is, we all sin in our lives and fail to live up to the charity to which God calls us. For this reason, the Eucharist provides grace to sustain us, to protect us and to help us avoid sin and live a life of charity.

Pope Francis does not envision a scenario, though, where we can simply receive the Eucharist separate from the necessity of the Sacrament of Penance, or that one might replace one based on need, or that there is any conflict in them. In fact, he regularly ties the two together when speaking  on the issue, always emphasizing the importance of both:

Yet this filial relationship with God is not like a treasure that we keep in a corner of our life but must be increased. It must be nourished every day with listening to the word of God, with prayer, with participation in the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and with love . . .  

The Church offers all the possibility of following a path of holiness, that is the path of the Christian: she brings us to encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist; she communicates the Word of God to us, she lets us live in charity, in the love of God for all . . .

We say our prayers: this too is a step towards holiness. Then comes Sunday and we go to Mass, we take communion, sometimes preceded by a beautiful confession which cleans us up a little. This is a step towards sainthood.

Instead, he seems to envision a harmony between the sacraments. Baptism brings us into a true communion with God. When we sin, we harm or destroy this relationship, and Confession reestablishes this communion, like a kind of second baptism. The Eucharist is the deepest expression of this communion, which sustains us, elevates us and provides us with the grace to avoid sin, begin to heal the consequences of sin, and live in charity. As he has beautifully put it:

The Lord Jesus is very, very good and never tires of forgiving us. Even when the door that Baptism opens to us in order to enter the Church is a little closed, due to our weaknesses and our sins. Confession reopens it, precisely because it is a second Baptism that forgives us of everything and illuminates us to go forward with the light of the Lord. Let us go forward in this way, joyfully, because life should be lived with the joy of Jesus Christ; and this is a grace of the Lord.

While all of this may feel overly technical or complex, it is written with a hope that it might help others who know truly the immense importance of the Eucharist. When the bishops made a call for eucharistic revival, they were not simply asking us to better understand the meaning of the Eucharist intellectually. They were calling us to in fact live our Christian lives in a way that aligns with this understanding. When we approach the Eucharist, the source and summit of the whole Christian life, to which all other sacraments and ministries are oriented, let us do everything we can to honor it by responding to what the Church, the bishops, and the Pope ask of us.

Featured Image: Pope Francis Mass via Centro Televisivo Vaticano; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Gregory Caridi and Garrett Bockman

Fr. Garrett Bockman is parochial vicar of All Saints Church in Dallas.

Gregory Caridi, a civil and canon lawyer, is chancellor for the Diocese of Dallas.


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