Most American Catholics learn to receive Holy Communion in an orderly fashion, lining up pew by pew. This widespread custom differs markedly from the practices of many other Catholic countries. In most of continental Europe, for instance, Catholics approach the sanctuary in no particular order. If someone in the back of the nave feels ready, he walks towards the sanctuary without fear of reprisal from those seated before him.
This routine may seem rude – even impious – to the average American communicant. But this ostensibly “disorganized” practice may unintentionally preserve a principle of good order in church law: every person has a right to his or her good name. In these countries, should someone refrain from approaching the sacrament due to an awareness of grave sin, or simply because he forgot to fast, virtually no one will notice. Nor will anyone judge him.
In the American context, a person’s absence from the Communion line appears suspicious. It may be the case that a person receives Holy Communion when he knows he shouldn’t just to avoid the sneer of fellow parishioners. But this need not occur. Reclaiming spontaneous Communion reception will remind Catholics in this country that they shouldn’t fear properly exercising their consciences. Canon law obliges that a person conscious of grave sin not receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession (can. 916). Written out of love for a person’s immortal soul, no Catholic should fear implementing this in practice. Remaining in one’s seat is not extraordinary. After all, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy.