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Who can receive Holy Communion?

May 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Eucharist/Mass, Fr. Bartunek, Liturgy, Mass

Dear Father John, It is my understanding that only Catholics who are in the state of grace may receive Holy Communion. I know that only God really knows the state of a person's soul. I am also receive Holy Communionaware that there have been hurts inflicted by very fallible and imperfect members of the Church that may prevent a person from fully and outwardly embracing the Church. If a person is not a member of the Catholic Church, but believes that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, why should they not receive Holy Communion?

I am honored to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. I have been approached while in this position by just such a person. I have given him the Holy Eucharist, but am feeling more and more uncomfortable because I have been told that that someone who is not a Catholic should not receive.  I do not want to drive a further wedge between him and the Church, but feel that I need to talk to him about it. What can I say? How can I explain to this person why he should not receive the Holy Eucharist?

This question is extremely difficult for me to answer. I can only provide general observations, but you are referencing some specific situations (or at least one) without detailing them. I apologize ahead of time if my answer doesn’t satisfy. I am also wondering a bit about what they explained to you in this regard when they prepared you to become an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. Perhaps during that preparation you met someone closer to home that you may be able to approach about the specific situation you reference. Here also is a good summary of the biblical and Catechetical passages that are involved in this issue. Now here are a few more thoughts.

An Intimate Encounter

Receiving Holy Communion is a deeply personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who is truly present under the appearances of bread and wine, within Christ’s family of the Church. When Jesus gives himself to us in Holy Communion, he is saying many things, things like the following: “I know you and I love you. I long to share your life and to allow you to share my life. I want you with me, and I want my grace to heal, strengthen, enlighten, and guide your difficult journey through this fallen world. I give you this spiritual nourishment as a sign of my love for you and my commitment to you. All that I lived, taught, and suffered, I did for you…”

When we receive Holy Communion, we are accepting Christ’s love and Christ’s grace. That includes accepting all that he has taught, and all that his Church teaches, about the meaning of life and the path to fuller and fuller “union with” (this is what “communion” means) our Lord and Savior here on earth, and to a complete union with him forever in heaven. When we receive him, we are telling him: “Lord, I believe in you, and in all you have taught, and in all you have done for me. I believe in your Church, through which you give me this Blessed Sacrament. I long to follow you more closely. I long for my life to give you glory and to be a mirror of your goodness in this dark world. I promise to do everything I can to obey your commandments, since that is how you have asked me to show you my love (cf. John 14:15). I want to live in true friendship with you, today, tomorrow, and forever.”

Avoiding a Lie

Now, someone who does not accept what the Catholic Church teaches about faith and morals, cannot actually say those things. They cannot be in full communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, because the Catholic Church believes that Christ continues to act in the world through his Church. A Lutheran, an Episcopalian, or a Buddhist, for instance, does not accept all the basic teachings of the Gospels as explained in the Catholic Catechism, and so they are not in “communion” with Christ in his Church – if they did accept those teachings, they would become Catholic. So, for someone in that position to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is, in a sense, for them to say something that they really don’t believe (i.e., “I am in communion with Christ and his Catholic Church”) – it’s a kind of lie. (Here is a short essay I wrote explaining the differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, and here is another short essay I wrote explaining the Church’s view of non-Christian religions.)

If someone who does believe what the Catechism teaches about faith and morals (and the Catechism is simply a systematic explanation of what Jesus taught in the Gospels and the Holy Spirit teaches in the rest of the Scriptures), but refuses to live by that teaching, they would also be contradicting themselves by receiving Holy Communion. Someone who is having an affair, for example, would need to repent of the sin, confess the sin, and make a firm resolution to break off the affair before receiving Holy Communion. An affair is a grave sin against marriage, against God’s plan for marriage, against God’s plan for the people having the affair. To receive Communion without repenting from and confessing that sin is like saying to Jesus, “I want to follow you, but I think you are wrong about the meaning of marriage and the evil of adultery, so I am just going to keep doing my own thing in that area.” It’s a contradiction; it’s saying that I am in communion with Christ, but then, in my next breath, turning around and rejecting him, slapping him in the face. It’s, again, in a certain sense, a lie.

Dealing with Difficult Situations

If you know people who really want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but who are not currently in a position to be able to do so, I would encourage you to begin a relationship of spiritual friendship and instruction with them. Explain to them that Jesus too wants to give himself to them in this Blessed Sacrament. But explain to them that the Sacrament doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a central part of a relationship in which we must accept Christ for who he truly is: the Lord of the universe and the one Savior. And so, we must acknowledge our dependence on him, and we must “repent and believe in the good news!” as he said in his first homily (Mark 1:15). We must help people in this situation to undertake and persevere on a journey to the fullness of faith. Otherwise, we invite them to live a kind of lie every time they receive Holy Communion, and we only make the situation worse.

While they are on this journey, we should encourage them to come to Mass, to participate in the Liturgy, to receive blessings and to join in the prayer of the Church. But until they have repented from their sin or professed the Catholic faith, they really can’t receive Holy Communion in the way that God desires, and in a way that will nourish their souls with his grace.

“Speaking the Truth in Love” (Ephesians 4:15)

This may be a difficult process. People may be offended. We have to try and understand where they are coming from, and be gentle and respectful and patient, and explain, and not condemn – but at the same time, we must believe deeply in the power of God’s grace to change hearts, and in the power of the truth of our holy faith to “set us free” (cf. John 8:32). We do no favors to anyone by obscuring or disobeying the teaching of our Lord and of his Church. In this area, we need to ask for God’s grace to give us prudence and compassion, so that we don’t “break the bruised weed or put out the smoldering wick” (cf. Matthew 12:2). This is what St. Paul meant, at least in part, by the phrase “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It’s what St. Peter exhorts us to do: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Sometimes we will make mistakes. But God can use even our clumsy efforts to build his Kingdom.

St. Paul was very clear about the reverence and right-heartedness required for worthy reception of Holy Communion: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:27—28). Let us all pray that we will receive Jesus with the love he longs for, and help others do the same. He wants that – passionately.


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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • CFS

    This isn’t a decision that the EMHC is called to make. The pastor should be told and should deal with the matter. In some rare instances a person who isn’t Catholic may receive the Eucharist but it’s up to the pastor to decide.

    • If someone from an Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t have a parish near by they can assist at DCatholic mass and receive the Eucharist. (As long as their patriarch says its OK as not all of them do, but that is way beyond your responsibility.)

  • Genny

    This particular topic is of interest especially concerning my originally Catholic family members. They are all into New Age and still attend mass becoz their guru asked them to. isnt it a sacriledge for them to be receiving Holy Communion? They have deliberately rejected the Catholic Church and her teaching. But attend mass anyway.

    • Genny, you are right.  Your New Age ex-Catholic Members are committing a Sacrilegious Sin each time they receive Holy Communion.  You need to speak to the Parish Priest where they attend Holy Mass and ask him to talk to them regarding the seriousness  of desecrating the Holy Eucharist by receiving Jesus unworthly…..their situation is even more serious since they have already abandoned the Catholic Church

  • Rochemag7

    I read the article and a good summary, but was wondering about the Anglican community, and Pope Benedict’s outreach of ordinary communion to them. I ask because I had an Episcopalian approach me to ask at a recent First Holy Communion if he could receive. Without having too much time to think I replied do you believe this sacrament is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. He said, What? I asked, Do you believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? He than stated he understood and went back to his seat.

  • Thank you, Father, for this excellent explanation. Unfortunately, there is too much confusion in the contemporary Church with regard to this extremely important matter. It is obvious that very many people (Catholics including) receive the Eucharist without proper preparations. This cannot be good for their salvation. Priests must stress as often as possible the fact that only Catholics in a state of grace can worthily receive. As for the extraordinary ministers, well, with all the charity I can muster, the sooner they are abolished the better…

  • Thank you for  your explanation. It was good to hear the reasons explained so eloquently.  It amazed me that this post showed up in my inbox today. God does answer our questions.
    Yesterday I took Communion to elderly Catholics in a nursing home, which I do once a month. During the service as I was distributing Communion to those I knew were Catholic, a lady unknown to me who had been sitting with the group, wanted to receive Communion. I asked her if she was Catholic, and she said “no”. I told her that I could not give her the Eucharist. She said quite angrily that “Communion was for everyone.” While I know that Jesus wants to share His life with all people, I could not share the consecrated hosts with her. This lady walked away angry and complained to the nursing home staff that I would not share Communion with her. I felt terrible that I could not meet her need,  even though I know that I could not do so. In that setting it was not possible to explain to her why.

    • judeen

      i have seen this too.. married couples all their lives. going to separate chuches.. 1 never wanting to go to the catholic church.. but when 1 is so crippled , on oxygen fighting to live… finally the spouce prays with us in receiving communion.. then 1 day asking if he could receive also and truely beleives in Jesus presence in the Holy Euchrist… a touch of the heart by God.. a life time of waiting for their spouce to truely give in and yes beleive in Jesus presents . I talked to the preist about this . it surely troubles the heart.. but the preist will guide you in what to say and do next time..

  • Longelizabeth

    The confusion continues as many, many people who claim their are Catholic receive communion yet promote pro choice, or artificial birth control, and other anti life issues. Many are receiving who have been divorced over and over. It is no wonder why well intentioned non Catholics think they should receive. My husband who is not Catholic but is Christian and who attends Catholic Mass is more Catholic than many if not most in the pews. Look at the confession lines…sparse at best.  The Church has failed Christ is many ways. But Christ never has and never will and inspite of ourselves He continually draws us in. It is a matter of the heart.  Unfortunately, very few take the time to learn their faith because their love is too weak and their sin causes separation from grace. That is why we need HOLY PRIESTS WHO MAKE SACRIFICES for their parish and beg God for the graces of repentence, forgiveness, conversion, and salvation for their people to need to enter through the narrow door.

  • FriendsR4keeps

    first time subscriber; where do I go to ask a question ?? thnk you so much

  • Jcsmitty1212

    I am an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and if my pastor found out I was taking it upon myself to give Communion to a non-Catholic, I’m sure I would no longer be permitted to be an EM. The person asking the question may mean well, but I wonder why he is not talking to his pastor about this or referring the want-to-be-communicant to him. That’s the pastor’s role, not the EM’s.

    • Good point – knowing a little about this person I suspect that the question is part of a decision process leading in the right direction. Pray for them!

  • Stan

    Dear Fr. Bartunek,  This was a terrific response and I look forward to reading the additional links that you provided.  You kindly inquired about the training given to new EMHC.  I can tell you that many receive very little which can cause problems.  I am an EMHC at a personal care (assisted living) facility.  I have run into may non-Catholic Christians who would not mind receiving but after a little explanation they are fine.  However, sometimes you do have someone who is insistent that they can receive because they used to receive by someone else or at a Church (on a regular basis).  It is hard to tell the elderly who have some idea that this is Christ that they can not receive Him.  I have used the violation of conscience argument with some success. What I do is offer to pray with them (the Our Father is usually the best) and hold their hand, if needed.  It is experiences like this that can lead to a deeper faith and understanding for the EMHC.  It focuses you on the reality of what that pyx contains.  That focus draws me to understand that I am unworthy to do such a thing but only by His grace can I perform this duty.  I have looked upon this time as my Holy Hour and as another reason to avoid sin.  God bless, Stan

  • Julie

    Thanks for a good answer to this delicate question! I myself am a convert to the Catholic faith and I remember that before I became Catholic I struggled with this issue. I wanted to receive communion when I went to mass but came to the point where I realized that if I want to be Catholic I have to also respect the rules and laws of the Church on this and other issues, otherwise I may as well not become Catholic at all! So I am happy to say I decided to wait to receive our Lord as a fully initiated member of the Church and I believe that is the only way to go! ON another note, I am now of the belief that the only person qualified to give out communion is a Catholic priest and not a lay person regardless of their being invited to do so a an “extraordinary eucharistic minister”- if you look up the teachings of the Church before 1970 and even after, you will find that a consistent teaching of the Church. The priest is the only one whose hands have been anointed to touch the body and blood of our Lord, not a lay person, no one else! let us pray for and honor our Priests! Not undermine them and take away their sacred and unique role in our lives! Amen!! No offense intended to you, though, and God bless!

    • Dear Friend – No offense taken. Welcome home and I am glad you jumped in to comment! Regarding your comments, either I misunderstand them or I see a glaring contradiction – feel free to set me straight. If you are properly submitted to the Church, wouldn’t you also submit to this temporary (hence the term “Extraordinary”) provision deemed appropriate by the Holy See? Don’t get me wrong, if I have the opportunity to decide from whom I will receive communion, I would prefer a priest or deacon… however, as a convert, I didn’t sign up for submission to just part of the magisterial authority of the Church but all of it. Otherwise, I would think that my protestant mentality would be creeping back in. Let me know your thoughts – I am sincere in my desire to understand your position.

  • Benjamin_k

    Just thaught id comment that, when dealing with people that arent Catholic but want to receive communion, it would be important that they understand it as not a rejection but an invitation to true communion in Christ and His Holy Catholic Church.

  • Thank you, Dan, for this forthright answer.  I am a bit worried about this Statement which comes up when one wants to do what they really want to do and disregard what the Church actually teaches:  

     “… is my understanding that only Catholics who are in the state of grace may receive Holy Communion. I know that only God really knows the state of a person’s soul.”

    Does the questioner mean that when I go for Confession, with true contrition, confess to Jesus in the person of the Priest, and Jesus Himself forgives me and gives me Absolution I am still not sure I am in a State of Grace????…..

    The Catholic Church has taught us that to be worthy to receive Holy Communion, one must have first confessed any and all mortal sins one is aware of having committed.  To receive Holy Communion without fulfilling this Edict first means the Faithful piles upon one’s  Soul a Sacrilegious Sin upon one’s un-confessed  mortal sin/s……One should not try to justify oneself that they are OK and only God knows the State of their Soul and since they believe in the Real Presence, they can go ahead and receive the Holy Communion, even if they are non-Catholics.

    I agree with the Commentator who has stated that the Extraordinary Ministers have no authority to decide to give Holy Communion to non-Catholics. We need to remember the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy taught by our Catholic Church.  The first 3 Spiritual Works of Mercy are: 1) Admonish Sinners, 2) Instruct the Uninformed and 3) Counsel the Doubtful.  We are all called to do this with regard to proclaiming our Catholic Faith and be ready to explain our Faith to those who are not well informed about why  – as in this case – a non-Catholic cannot receive Holy Communion even if they believe in the Real Presence.

  • LizEst

     Thank you for this.

    Now, in regard to speaking the truth in love, there are some very specific exceptions to this which can be found in Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law.

    Section 4 reads as follows, “If the danger of death is present or if, IN THE JUDGMENT OF THE DIOCESAN BISHOP OR CONFERENCE OF BISHOPS [my emphasis], some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments [penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick] licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”

    So, there are some very specific exceptions…but it is NOT up to Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to decide this themselves. Specifically, it is up to the Bishop to decide this because he is responsible for all the sacraments in his diocese.

  • Ian

    Thank-you Father for this wonderful and clearly written explanation.As an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, I feel I must comment on some of the comments. First, Extraordinary Ministers, as Dan pointed out, are fully sanctioned by the Holy See. This is a fact. As an EM, with God’s grace, I attempt to carry out my duties with the utmost awe, reverence and love for the Risen Lord whose Body and Blood I help distribute to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I am ever aware of my deep unworthiness for this task yet I have been asked to help my pastor and I submit to his authority in every respect. I agree that having EM’s is not an ideal situation. I, too, prefer to receive Holy Communion from the anointed hands of a fully ordained priest. I, too, look forward to the day when EMs will no longer be required. However, the reality is that there are not enough priests. More priests=less EMs. Would that every parish could have at least three priests. Perhaps those who wish to see EMs eventually abolished could also offer up abundant prayers for more vocations to the priesthood! As Our Lord says “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”.

    • Well said

    • Ian,  I learned from my Father who was among the first batch of Catholic-trained Teachers, Catechists and Church Leaders when Catholic Missionaries came into our country in the early 1920’s, that in the ancient Church, there was a Ministry called “The Rafaelans” ( their Patron being Angel Rafael).  They were young pre-teen boys who used to take the Holy Communion to those who could not attend the Holy Mass or “The Breaking of the Bread”, due to reasons of, say, illness, old age, or to the Christians who were in Prison waiting execution.  It was, therefore, quite in order for the Holy See to institute the Ministry of the Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers.  

      We need to realize that Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament will come to you – whole – in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – whether you are receiving Him from the Ordained Priest, the Deacon, a Nun or the Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister.

      Here in our country, Kenya, we do have these trained Ministers who are appointed by the Ordinary to be taking Holy Communion to patients in Public and Private Hospitals where facilities of a Chapel where a Priest can visit to celebrate the Holy Eucharist are missing.  This is to ensure our sick Faithful continue their Sacramental lives even when hospitalized. The Faithful in the Parishes are called upon to always inform their Parish Priest when one of his Parishioner has been hospitalized, or is too ill at home to come to Church to visit them for the Sacrament of Reconciliation beause only an Ordained Priest can hear Confessions. 

      In passing, I would just mention this beautiful reality of our Catholic Faith regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we go for confession, it is to Jesus Christ Himself we confess our sins to.  As He told St. Faustina, His Secretary and Apostle of the Divine Mercy Devotion, it is Him we encounter in His Tribunal of Mercy.  The Priest is only His Instrument. He then  forgives us our sins, gives us Absolution, Blessings, advice and the Graces necessary to overcome temptations by increasing and strengthening the Sanctifying Grace in our souls.

  • devout2

    Dear Father, I was born a Catholic and have practiced my faith for almost 48 years. Last year, my Catholic husband of 18+ years shocked my three children and myself when he left us without any warning.  After some months it became known that he left to have an affair with one of his students.  This past Easter he was her sponsor as she became a Catholic. We have no separation, no divorce and he flat out denied his affair until he was faced with irrefutable facts.    He and his girlfriend are now living in sin for months and my children (according to the courts) need to visit him and his girlfriend even though they live in sin. I was horrified when the kids came home and said that their Dad and his girlfriend have become Eucharistic Ministers at their church.  The pastor knows that they are living in sin, that there is not even a separation agreement in place (so obviously no annulment) and yet the pastor continues to let these poor role models distribute the Holy Eucharist.    I am beside myself.    How can this be?

    • Dear Friend: I am sorry to hear of this situation. You need to write a letter to your Bishop.

    • Becky Ward

      Praying for you devout2!

      Tough situation – great opportunity for developing virtue. I agree with Dan; write to your Bishop.

    • Holy Mary Mother of God……what in the name of Heaven does that  “Pastor” ( why not Priest) think, allowing your husband and his girlfriend to be Eucharistic Ministers?????? 

      Please report this Priest immediately to the Bishop. THIS IS SIMPLY NEVER, EVER ALLOWED IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.  I guess they are also receiving Holy Communion as well.  That, certainly is heaping Sacrilegious Sins upon Mortal Sins of Living in Sin. 

      One of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to admonish the Sinner.  You are duty bound to report them to the Bishop immediately.

  • Cindy

    Although I am a convert to Catholicism, I am sad and offended that the Catholics would forget what Jesus would do with regards to breaking bread with any of his children. I too am a Eucharistic Minister and I would never turn anyone down from breaking bread with their fellow man nor make them feel less of a child of God. I was a Lutheran and to say that our wine and bread does not have the same meaning as a Catholic makes me sad. I do so much for the Church because I try to follow in Jesus’s footsteps as best that I can. Separating religions when we all believe in the same God is what will continue our wars amongst the children of God. Jesus did not invent Christianity that separates one another.

    • Luz Espinoza

      That’s why they’re called protestants ..they separated themselves .I’m curious you say you’re a minister let me ask u if you knew 100% that lets say a relative was pro choice .you would still give them the Eucharist..

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