Comparison: Russian Orthodox Eucharistic Discipline

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.

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14 comments

  1. Yes, indeed the present defects in fast law and observation within the Latin tradition is horrendous; and even the Society has not held to the old tradition, but have adopted the novus ordo fast laws as well as Saturday Masses instead of vespers; and although the Orthodox hold to the laws, it is often not as you have portrayed, except in the west where Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions of frequent communion hold sway (Remember that Schmemann was trained by the Jesuits) and have influenced them.

    But frequently in the Old Countries of the Orthodox world, no one goes to communion. In Russia and Greece often only the children communicate, but I have spent two Easters in Serbia, and on Easter day itself no one received communion (the Serbians usually do not communicate children either except on the day of baptism). So on paper they hold to the laws, in practice, they often never go. The same for most Sundays in Serbia as well, which is about the same as in most Orthodox Balkan countries, no one receives except the priest. And frequent communion is when a few old ladies, past the age of committing most sins, will sometimes receive as well; but even that is rare.

    I remember serving as a sub-deacon in the Serbian church in Paris when the Russian bishop visited. He turned to give communion, and no one, no one, approached, not even the children He finally cajoled a few women to bring up their babes in arms to give communion to them.

    1. Oh, I remember an old Russian priest who spoke on frequent communion, he stated that “four times a year was frequent enough.”; to receive after preparing to so do after the fast periods of the lents of the Byzantine ecclesiastical calendar.

    2. In the U.S. at least the rates have gone up considerably, even in historically ethnic parishes. Even ROCOR has moved closer to OCA praxis, though it still tends to be more vigilant about making sure people are prepared to receive.

      Some of the lowest communion rates I saw were among the Greeks in Chicago, though all bets were off on Palm Sunday. Some of the Greek parishes used to recruit OCA deacons to distribute communion (with pay) because (1) The Greeks rarely have deacons (there’s no money in it, might as well become a priest) and (2) They’re not used to that many people receiving Communion…ever.

  2. I have often thought that, in the West at least, the faithful’s perhaps unconscious longing for eucharistic communion manifested itself through the sensus fidelium by such eucharistic piety as processions, adoration and benediction, and the desire to see the Host at the elevation. “Heave It higher, Sir Priest,” as we find in late medieval English accounts. Perhaps this was manifested in the Eastern Churches by the continued devotion to and practice of the Hours.

    1. Yes, and no. One should attend a pre-Sanctified liturgy, which as a procession of the Blessed Sacrament and a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Very few, if any receive, but there is quite a bit of eucharistic piety going on, including prostrations before the Blessed Sacrament.

      Anglicans have also preserved, at least until recently, the offices as well in the parishes, I do not know if this can be construed as a longing for the eucharistic communion.

    2. IIRC, before the encouragement of St. Pius X, frequent reception of the Eucharist used to be a rarity among Latin Catholics as well. Of course, Latin Catholics also are used to daily Mass and have been for centuries. In Orthodoxy that is a rare find outside of monasteries or large metropolitan churches in the historic Orthodox homelands.

  3. You allude to, but don’t explicitly mention that in ROCOR the practice is generally an almost 1 to 1 correspondence of confession to Communion. The OCA pastoral guidelines say that those who communicate weekly should confess at *least* monthly.

    1. Right. I would probably argue that the OCA guidelines are more prudent, though I believe they come with the reservation that serious sin always needs to be confessed. In other words, if you go to confession on Day 1 and by Day 6 you murdered the guy who cut you off on the highway, you probably shouldn’t be Communing on Day 7.

    2. I think the 1-1 correspondence of confession and communion is a mistake, which contradicts the doctrine underlying both sacraments. Fr. Alexander Schmemann explained this well in his 1972 report to the OCA synod.

  4. Please forgive the lack of transparency here, but this is a sufficient confirmation of your excellent entry. Would that some Latins might learn from it.

    The beginning hymn is the one found in Passion Week: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes”.

  5. What of the Byzantine Catholics? My very limited experience of BC churches in Pennsylvania is that people act just like Roman Catholics. Everyone goes up, confession is by appointment only so I doubt it is frequent and I also doubt many people are fasting more than an hour before receiving. I wonder if observance is more strict elsewhere.

    1. In the US, the Ukrainians and Ruthenians have followed the Latins. I am not sure what the norm is abroad. However, as “recently” as the 1960s, the Ukrainians in America still followed the same practice as the Russians.

    2. Zeb, that has been my experience as well. They also do Saturday night “vigil” masses as well. Vespers and Matins seem dead in the water.

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