With Eucharistic discipline being on the forefront of many Catholics’ minds these days, I thought it might be helpful—for the sake of some perspective—to take a brief look at the normative prescribed practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and her heirs. Although the Orthodox do not embrace a “clean distinction” between mortal and venial sin, serious sin has always been an impediment to receiving Holy Communion in the East. This is why those who regularly receive the Eucharist are encouraged, if not directed, to make frequent use of the sacrament of Confession and to spiritually prepare themselves in advance (more on this in a moment). In previous centuries, the demands of preparation, coupled with popular Eucharistic piety, meant that few people, other than monastics and clergy, took Communion more than a couple of times a year. During the course of the 20th Century, this situation began to change as (primarily Russian émigré) theologians like Fr. Alexander Schmemann began promoting the centrality of the Eucharist in the life and mission of the Church. Even before Schmemann’s time, however, St. John of Kronstadt—perhaps Russia’s first religious celebrity to gain worldwide notice—had begun encouraging the faithful to attend the sacraments more frequently in order to nourish themselves on the long journey to Heaven. While conservative Orthodox critics bemoaned what they saw as an erosion of discipline in the Church, today regular (though not necessarily weekly) Communion is commonplace.
Like all local Orthodox churches, the Russian Church demands that those receiving Communion abstain from all food and drink from midnight until the time of reception and that married couples refrain from marital relations the night before. While practice varies from parish to parish, it is generally expected that those who approach the Chalice at the Divine Liturgy attend Vespers (or Vigil) the night before unless there is good cause for them not to (e.g., care of young children). Moreover, according to the norms found in most popular Russian prayer books, including the so-called Jordanville Prayer Book (i.e., the prayer book published by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY), the faithful are expected to recite “The Order of Preparation for Holy Communion,” which includes several Psalms, a Canon, some brief hymns, and 11 prayers of various length. Additionally, the Jordanville Prayer Book directs those receiving to also recite three more canons and an akathist as part of their spiritual preparation. For those wondering, the entire exercise can take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes depending on which canons are selected and speed of recitation. (For those curious, an arrangement of three canons and an akathist can be found here.)
Now, to be clear, not every Orthodox Christian following Russian praxis actually prepares themselves with such vigor. As I noted in the first paragraph, this is simply the normative prescribed practice. However, in my experience many priests (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Orthodox Church in America, and Moscow Patriarchate) encourage their flocks to undertake some form of spiritual preparation before approaching the Chalice and to listen to the “Prayers after Holy Communion” which typically follows the Divine Liturgy. With the exception of nursing or expectant mothers and the infirm, no Orthodox Christian receiving Communion is allowed to deviate from the aforementioned fasting rules and none may have serious sin on their souls. The nature of spiritual preparation may vary from person to person, but the absence of any real spiritual preparation is not only looked down upon, but may itself be deemed gravely sinful if motivated out of pride or laziness.
In the Latin Catholic communion, the idea of serious preparation for the Eucharist—specifically prayer, repentance, and fasting—is almost unheard of. The 1983 Code of Canon Law cuts the Eucharistic fast down to one hour. There is no normative prescribed rule of spiritual preparation for Communion in the Latin Church, just some random prayers scattered in various books that few, if any, bother to read. Even traditional Catholic communities are not particularly big on Eucharistic discipline, following as they do the 1983 Code with no emphasis on spiritual concerns outside of offering frequent Confession. At this juncture, the view is that if one puts in the time to attend Mass, one should just receive Communion. Is it any wonder then that so many now believe it is “grossly unfair” to exclude individuals living objectively sinful lifestyles from the Eucharist? Granted, no human being can ever earn their way to the Chalice; it is an unmerited Gift from God. But that hardly means we ought to receive this Gift unworthily, for in so doing—as St. Paul reminds us—we risk damning our souls.