Third commandment of the Church
To receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once an year and that at Easter or thereabouts
Fr Tomasz Pelszyk
The similarity between the second and the third commandment is not coincidental. The sacrament of penance is an extremely important preparation of believers who want to meet Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist. The attitude of penance and conversion as well as awareness of spiritual hunger, which can be only fulfilled by the Divine Bread constitute the fabric of Christian life. Holy Communion is the first aim of the sacrament of the Eucharist as the Saviour says, 'I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world' (John 6:51). Teaching about the Eucharist, the Church, on the one hand, stresses its sacrificial character (Christ is both priest offering the sacrifice and victim - the sacrifice he offers is himself,) and on the other hand, she leads to the conviction that the Most Holy Eucharist is given to be received. 'Sacrifice' and 'Feast' are complementary terms and show the same reality. The Church also teaches about the constant presence of Christ under the species of bread and vine, thus we have the practice of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Practice and teaching of the Church
The basis for our coming to the Lord's Table to take the Eucharistic Bread is the command of Jesus Christ in the words of the Transubstantiation, 'Take and east...' and 'Take and drink...' Early Christians took this command literary and we had the practice of receiving the Body of Christ in every Mass they participated. The custom of using bread as gift in the Eucharist (remaining bread and other gifts were distributed among the poor) became common. The Bread was carried to those who could not come to the breaking of bread.
The errors of the agnostics and other sects that originated from Christianity (they claimed that body and matter are evil in themselves, therefore, people should avoid them) posed serious threats to faith. According to them Christ only had an apparent Body (Docetism). St Ignatius of Antioch fought against this heresy and preached that 'the Eucharist is the body of our Saviour Jesus Christ.' From the 9th century theologians began discussing the way of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. They stressed that 'the Body of Christ is really present, but it is present in the spiritual way.' In the 11th century they fought with the errors of Berengarius who could not accept the truth of the Transubstantiation. Many synods, which were held in those times, defined the teaching of the Church and because of that the heresiarch himself changed his mind and confessed that through the Transubstantiation the bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of Christ the Lord. That teaching was also given to the Waldensian (a folk heresy) in the 13th century when they wanted to return to the Catholic Church.
The Council of Constance (1414-18) reacted against the errors of Wyclef and Hus, instructing about the necessity to observe fast before receiving Holy Communion and explaining the reason to administer Holy Communion under one kind: the practise was used to avoid depravity, and moreover, one should believe in the truth of faith that Christ (with his Body and Blood) was present under both species.
The Council of Florence (1438-45) stressed the teaching about 'matter': it is unleavened wheat bread (unleavened in contrast to the Orthodox practise) and grape wine mixed with a small amount of water. The 'form' of this sacrament is the words of the Saviour, which he used while establishing the Eucharist in the Upper Room. The 'effect' is unity of man with Christ and growth of grace (separation from evil, strengthening in good, gratitude to Christ).
In his Decree on the Blessed Sacrament the Council of Trent (1551) rejected the Protestants' errors concerning disbelief in real presence of the Lord under the kinds of bread and wine (Calvin and Zwingli accepted only symbolic presence) and repeated the teaching on the 'constant presence' (Melachton claimed that the presence occurred only at the moment of receiving Holy Communion, and Luther followed his teaching in public, but privately he shared the teaching of the Church). Furthermore, the Council claimed that 'Christ is contained whole and entire under each species (that's why we try not to drop even the smallest piece from the paten or the chalice). Speaking about the worship and cult of the Blessed Sacrament the Decree emphasizes that we deal with the highest cult (cultus latraie) due to God himself (we kneel, bow, show the highest respect although we also eat!). One of the external signs of the cult is Eucharistic processions (especially on Corpus Christi). The custom of preserving the Blessed Sacrament in a worthy way should be kept in sanctuaries and the Blessed Sacrament should be carried to the sick. While preparing to receive Holy Communion we should pay attention to proper behaviour and 'sacredness', i.e. examining whether we are not in mortal sin (if so we should go first to the sacrament of penance). As far as the way of receiving this sacrament is concerned: some (sinners) receive it only in a sacramental way, some (by vivid desire) only spiritually, and others (properly disposed and prepared) both sacramentally and spiritually. The ancient tradition orders priests to administer Holy Communion to laymen and to themselves when they celebrate Mass. At one of its next sessions the Council instructed to exclude infants and small children from receiving Communion until they can differentiate between common bread and Holy Communion (they cannot sin and therefore, they cannot lose the grace received at baptism).
One of the consequences of Jansenism, which was wrong in presenting the issues of nature and grace, and claimed that man in general was not sufficiently prepared to receive Holy Communion, was a big weakening of the practice of taking Holy Communion and an increase of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Naturally, the call to do penance was praised but it convinced people that Holy Communion was 'the reward for the worthy'. And if no one was worthy you should come to the Lord's Table only on extraordinary occasions. That conviction lasted several ages. The Church reacted to the practice by pointing a concrete period (Easter) so that the faithful did not lose their contacts with God and the Catholic community. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that a serious change took place. St Pius X caused it to happen by encouraging people to receive Holy Communion frequently and at early age.
The era of Vaticanum II
After Vatican Council II the Church showed a direct relationship between 'participating in Mass' and 'receiving the Body of the Lord.' Dividing these realities means falsification of the truth, which the early Church believed in. Moreover, recently the Church allowed to receive the Body of Christ even twice a day provided that a person receives Holy Communion for the second time during Mass. Laymen can receive Holy Communion under two kinds in special situations (the new introduction to the Roman Missal defines the situations).
Holy Communion is an essential and integral part of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ and the Church. Receiving the Body of Christ we confess our faith in the real presence of Christ and in the truth that 'here and now' the mystery of Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection takes place (although it is a bloodless sacrifice it is the same sacrifice that happened on Golgotha and here it is made manifest. The Most Holy Eucharist is a sign of unity with God and brothers and therefore, it requires an attitude of unity and love for all people. Moreover, it gives strength to abide in unity with your neighbour and prepares to unity with saints in heaven. The teaching of the Fathers of the Church makes us sure that Holy Communion causes us to be gradually like our Master (the material food we eat is transformed into a particle of our body, the Eucharistic nourishment transforms us into Christ). Holy Communion protests us against sin, strengthens our love and at the same time it cleanses us from our common sins and protects from future mortal sins.
In her commandments the Church defines necessary 'minimum' for Christian life. The expected 'maximum' means both a good preparation to Mass, a full participation with receiving Holy Communion, an appropriate thanksgiving (the sacramental presence of the Saviour is in us till the Eucharistic kinds last) and right 'yielding fruit', i.e. life in accordance with the teaching of Christ by the power of his grace. Why is Eastertide so important? Because then the Church commemorates the most important salvific events that focus on the Eucharist. The Code of Canon Law (canon 920) clearly points to this period.