Non Sum Dignus


What’s that? Don’t know the Latin? It’s what you say before receiving Communion (unless you’re a St Joan’s parishioner):

Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Don’t misunderstand me. The gospel account (Matthew 8:5-10) reveals a man of deep faith and confidence:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

In Luke’s gospel (7:3), the centurion sends Jewish elders and does not even meet Jesus himself. For a long time I’ve looked at that passage as more of a missed opportunity. The centurion was satisfied to keep Jesus at a distance. Like many people who are afraid of what terrible thing God will ask of them.

I also think of Catholicism having such a rich tradition of incarnation, I can’t help but wonder what more profound graces are available when we do let God in under our roof. Was the centurion afraid of letting God in?

On the other hand, it is an American sensibility to think we have earned our share of grace. Our unworthiness before the altar of God? Theoretically so. But non sum dignus may also be a veneer of false humility on top of a sense of entitlement. I can’t say if that’s the case with St Joan’s foregoing the given wording.

From a spiritual view, despite being literally contrite, I think the “non sum dignus” is a little too narcissistic. Unlike many expressions of worship, it puts an individual (not a community) as the subject of speech and God is the object. Is it any worse to pray, “Lord have mercy as I receive you; only say the word …”

If you pressed me (and you won’t have to press hard) I’ll tell you there might be a better utterance to make before we receive Communion. Maybe just the Agnus Dei with the prayer “… have mercy on us” is sufficient. Nothing more. Keep it uncluttered. Non sum dignus isn’t even a prayer, really. It is two declarative statements merged together. And while they are both true enough, they’ve never captured the full essence of what the Christian should be about at that time of the liturgy.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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