Sacra Tridentina 4-5: The History of Chilled Piety

Is frequent Communion the will of God? The Magisterium of 1905 thought so. The era of apostles and great doctors is lauded for not only the practice, but the fruits:

The will of God in this respect was well understood by the first Christians; and they daily hastened to this Table of life and strength. They continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread. The holy Fathers and writers of the Church testify that this practice was continued into later ages and not without great increase of holiness and perfection.

Piety, however, grew cold, and especially afterward because of the widespread plague of Jansenism, disputes began to arise concerning the dispositions with which one ought to receive frequent and daily Communion; and writers vied with one another in demanding more and more stringent conditions as necessary to be fulfilled. The result of such disputes was that very few were considered worthy to receive the Holy Eucharist daily, and to derive from this most health-giving Sacrament its more abundant fruits; the others were content to partake of it once a year, or once a month, or at most once a week. To such a degree, indeed, was rigorism carried that whole classes of persons were excluded from a frequent approach to the Holy Table, for instance, merchants or those who were married.

Jansen dates to the post-Tridentine century, but jansenism (I hesitate to capitalize the ideology) has been around a long time. People think they can get one up on God by professing unworthiness, especially directing it at others. It’s what I would call the hermeneutic of subtraction. It appears demanding, but is, in fact, a rather easy way out. If I think my house is too big, I’ll demolish my second floor. It might be a lot harder to clean up my house and sell it, or rent my extra bedroom to a student, or to be generous in offering my excesses to the community. If I burn my extra coats, I don’t have to be bothered with giving them away to the poor, eh? Very simple. Quite convenient.

The true test of asceticism is not in personal rigor alone, but also in the evidence of generosity to others. That’s where I see jansenism running off the rails from a healthy asceticism to fanaticism. A true ascetic would encourage others to partake of the sacrament, especially married couples and businessmen and women.

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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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4 Responses to Sacra Tridentina 4-5: The History of Chilled Piety

  1. Liam says:

    Ah, the married. Augustine, concupiscence and all that.

    Consider that there was a period in the history of the Western church where pious practice, recommended by confessors, would be for spouses to abstain from the marital act for three days before *and* after reception of Holy Communion.

    A somewhat blue double entendre about Wednesday evening comes to readily to mind, but I will leave that to reader wit to complete. (Let’s just say it’s not Prince Spaghetti Day.)

  2. David D. says:

    Any notion that at this point one extreme has simply replaced another? I recall that not so long ago my mother in law essentially admonished me for not taking communion at a mass we both happended to attend (her being my mother in law and a very nice one at that, I refrained from asking her when was the last time she went to confession). That seems to me in a way, another sort of rigorism. Also, I Imagine a true ascetic would encourage others to partake of all the sacraments.

    • nassauny says:

      This gives me an opportunity to raise again my complaint about orderliness at communion time. Too many parishes have their ushers work the pews so that each line files out, ordinarily emptying out to communion. Or, at weekday Mass, everybody goes to communion. This leaves suspect the person who, for example, has just eaten breakfast, or the person who dislikes doing everyone else’s piety. Sometimes, when I sense that non-Catholic Christians feel awkward, I let communion pass.
      In our crowded parish in the 1940’s, there was a chaotic surge to the communion rail, up and back any aisle, kneeling whenever a space opened at the “table” or rail. It was messy, but I still prefer that to the current neat order!

      • Liam says:

        I guess I so frequently see people staying in the pews, in so many different places, that I suspect this is is more an issue of internal perception/fear/apprehension than external reality. I myself do not always receive, so I am in a position to notice this.

        Where I grew up, it was always orderly, even before the Council, I was told. It was always back-to-front, enforced strictly by the ushers.

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