I read an article last week answering the question about how frequently Communion was distributed to the faithful during Mass and I thought it was interesting to see the history of our current practice. The following is a summary of a question answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara and published by Zenit.
Doctrinally, the Church has always considered the reception of Communion as the logical and necessary conclusion of the sacrificial celebration. Logical, because any sacrifice that has the offering of food as its object implies the idea of consumption. Necessary, because this was the express will of Christ who invites us to take and eat. The liturgy of the Mass has always considered that at least the priest must receive Communion to complete and perfect the sacrifice of the Mass, and this was officially declared by the Twelfth Council of Toledo in 681. The Council of Trent, the center of our liturgical practice for centuries, reinforced this in 1551 stating that it was always the custom of the Church that priests, when celebrating Mass, always communicate themselves, and that laymen should receive Communion from the priest.
With respect to practice, however, things developed in a different way. In the first and second century not only do they state that all at the celebration of the Mass would receive Communion but they also attest to the practice of deacons bringing Communion to those who were absent. But in a few hundred years St. John Chrysostom (349-407) complained, “In vain we stand before the altar, there is no one to partake.” The Church had to recall the importance of receiving Communion even to clerics. From the fourth century on we find decrees making it obligatory for clerics who attend a solemn Mass to receive Communion. The situation reached such a point that in 1123 the First Lateran Council found it necessary to prescribe confession and Communion at least once a year for all Catholics as an absolute minimum. This law remains in force today although actual practice varies widely.
There were various reasons that caused this, the sense that we were not worthy to receive the Eucharist, and more restrictive practices of penance prior to receiving regarding fasting and abstaining from marital acts. While Mass attendance remained constant and faithfulness high, in the 12th century Eucharistic Adoration even replacedsacramental reception for some. If there was only a small congregation they might receive, but for larger celebrations the distribution of Communion to the people wasn’t even being logistically accounted for in the Mass. Sometimes for Easter and other major feasts Communion would be distributed throughout the Mass at a side altar.
Frequent reception of Communion would eventually return and become common in the 19th and 20th centuries, encouraged by the popes and connected to various spiritual associations and an increased devotion to the Sacred Heart. With this change liturgical practices managed to change to accommodate this distribution to the faithful. Fortunately our current practice has recaptured much of the early liturgy in the Church, and I know this was a good reminder for me to always be aware of what our practice is and why we are doing it. Our history is longer than the last 10 years, or since Vatican II, or even since Trent, hopefully it can help us learn and grow in our communion with God. And have a Happy 4th of July.