Tomorrow is the Feast of Pope St. Pius X. Unfortunately, because of his hard stance against a heresy called Modernism (which is a hard thing to categorize—partially the philosophical movement started by figures like Immanuel Kant in the 1700s, partially the rise of the historical critical methods of reading Scripture/history in the late 1800s, and partially the economic/political movement called Classical Liberalism [what we would call in America Libertarianism]) and the use of his name in a group of traditionalist priests which schismed from the Church after Vatican II (the SSPX), he is often brought forward as a hero of traditionalist dissent from the Magisterium. But the real St. Pius X is much farther away from the traditionalist imaginings about him. Oddly enough, there are many parallels between him and our current pope, Francis. Just to name a few examples, both Pope Francis and Pope Pius loved poverty/strive to live with the discipline of poverty. Pope Francis said, in an audience shortly after his election: “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” He rode the bus with his cardinals back to the hotel and made sure to pay for his stay. He has eschewed many of the common honors/ceremonial aspects of normally associated with the papacy. And all of these find parallels in the life of St. Pius:
Ever mindful of his humble origin, Pope Pius stated, “I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor.” He was embarrassed by some of the pomp of the papal court. “Look how they have dressed me up,” he said in tears to an old friend. To another, “It is a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me around surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemani.”His Bio on Franciscan Media
But in preparation for his feast, I would like to focus on his reforms of Holy Communion and what they have to say to us today.
There were two major reforms to the reception of Holy Communion that Pope Pius inaugurated in his papacy: the lowering of the age at which people could receive Communion (in 1910) and making widespread the practice of receiving Communion more frequently/even daily (in 1905).
Before Pius X, the practice of the Western Church had developed so that Communion was received very infrequently and only after the age of reason (at that point, around 12). The earliest discipline of the Church (and that still practiced by the Greek Churches) was reception of Communion as soon as a person could take food. An infant would be baptized, then would be anointed with chrism (Chrismation/Confirmation), and then would receive a small particle of the Sacred Species (whether a drop of the Precious Blood or a very small fragment of the Body soaked in the Precious Blood). Gradually, because of fears about infants not swallowing, the reception of Holy Communion was delayed to a later age. On top of that, people began to view Communion and the other Sacraments in a scrupulous manner—”Communion is only for the really holy people, not for us sinners.” Over time this became so extreme (people avoiding Communion) that the Church began requiring people to receive Communion—first a canonist, Regino of Prüm, writing that the faithful should receive at least 3 times a year in 915 AD, then at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 codified that Communion ought to be received at least once a year (which is the current requirement of Canon Law). Rather than the Church limiting the amount of times one could receive, this limits were set by the Church to make sure that people would actually receive Communion (who wouldn’t otherwise). All of this was kicked into high gear with the advent of the rigorist heresy known as Jansenism, which took a similar reading of St. Augustine to that of the Calvinist movement. They taught (among other things) that Christ did not die for all people (only those who will be saved), that only those who have reached a high degree of perfection (for example, having no attachment even to venial sin) could/should receive the Sacraments, and (after some of their positions were condemned by the Church) they denied the infallibility of the Pope in certain matters of judgement (“Yes, the Pope can infallibly declare that XYZ doctrine is contrary to Church teaching, but he can’t necessarily say that this thing that I am teaching is XYZ condemned doctrine.”) While it was condemned several times by the Church in the 1600s and people stopped openly saying “I’m a Jansenist,” it still infected the spirituality of many Catholics in the following years. No one (aside from priests, who were required to offer the Mass every day [and therefore receive Communion every day]) was allowed to receive Communion frequently without express permission from their Confessor/Spiritual Director—even great saints like Thérèse of Lisieux! (See Story of a Soul, chapter 5) Even up until today, there was a rigorist or scrupulous reading of Catholic Sacramental Theology.
Enter the reforms of St. Pius. First, the Congregation for Divine Worship (now called the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) published the document Sacra Tridentina, “issued and approved by Pope Pius X on December 20, 1905,” which promoted the practice of frequent and even daily Communion. Pius argued that the Council of Trent had actually recommended that the faithful receive Communion “at each Mass…not only in spiritual desire, but sacramentally, by the actual reception of the Eucharist.” But describing the errors of Jansenism, he writes:
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…
[The Church condemned these errors but,] the poison of Jansenism, however, which, under the pretext of showing due honor and reverence to the Eucharist, had infected the minds even of good men, was by no means a thing of the past. The question as to the dispositions for the proper and licit reception of Holy Communion survived the declarations of the Holy See, and it was a fact that certain theologians of good repute were of the opinion that daily Communion could be permitted to the faithful only rarely and subject to many conditions.
But others had held faithfully to the Church’s more ancient tradition—that Communion ought to be approached frequently, as it is “the antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sin” (Council of Trent, Session 13, Chapter 2, as quoted in Sacra Tridentina). So, Pius mandated that:
1. Frequent and daily Communion, as a practice most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church, should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the Holy Table with a right and devout intention (recta piaque mente) can be prohibited therefrom.Sacra Tridentina (Emphasis mine)
2. A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.
3. Although it is especially fitting that those who receive Communion frequently or daily should be free from venial sins, at least from such as are fully deliberate, and from any affection thereto, nevertheless, it is sufficient that they be free from mortal sin, with the purpose of never sinning in the future; and if they have this sincere purpose, it is impossible by that daily communicants should gradually free themselves even from venial sins, and from all affection thereto.
Pius made clear that the Eucharist was to be used as “a divine remedy for [human] weakness and defects.” Even people in a state of venial sin are encouraged to receive Communion, so that they can receive the grace available to them. The ideal, of course, is to be without sin entirely, but “it is sufficient” for people to be free of mortal sin.
The desire of Jesus Christ and of the Church that all the faithful should daily approach the sacred banquet is directed chiefly to this end: that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid these graver sins to which human frailty is liable.Sacra Tridentina
St. Pius continues this theme five years later, with his document Quam Singulari, which lowered the age at which Communion was received to around the age of 7. In this document too, he goes through the history of the various practices and how it was affected by Jansenism. He agrees with the Fourth Lateran Council, which said that people who receive Communion should be at the age of discretion (not condemning the Eastern practice of communing infants, just saying that the Latin practice was to wait), but he says that “in the precise determination of ‘the age of reason or discretion’ not a few errors and deplorable abuses have crept in during the course of time” (Quam Singulari). There were a variety of ages used for the age of discretion in the different parts of the world—some even waiting until the age of 14! And people were putting undue burdens of knowledge on those who would be allowed to receive Holy Communion—saying that if they were not able to read or know certain more nuanced parts of Catholic Doctrine they would not be allowed to receive at the age of reason (see the lives of St. Bernadette Soubirous or St. Paulina of the Agonizing Heart of Jesus—who both, as uneducated girls, were nearly not allowed to receive Communion, because they did not read very well). Pope Pius says, “This practice of preventing the faithful from receiving on the plea of safeguarding the august Sacrament has been the cause of many evils. It happened that children in their innocence were forced away from the embrace of Christ and deprived of the food of their interior life.” He says that when people don’t have the grace of the Eucharist and Confession at an early age, it is easy for them to slip away from the faith.
But worse still is the practice in certain places which prohibits children who have not yet made their First Communion from being fortified by the Holy Viaticum, even when they are in imminent danger of death; and thus, when they die they are buried with the rites due to infants and are deprived of the prayers of the Church.Quam Singulari
He goes on to say:
Such is the injury caused by those who insist on extraordinary preparations for First Communion, beyond what is reasonable; and they doubtless do not realize that such precautions proceed from the errors of the Jansenists who contended that the Most Holy Eucharist is a reward rather than a remedy for human frailty.Quam Singulari, emphasis mine.
For all of these reasons, St. Pius lowered what the Church considered to be the age of reason and made simpler the requirements of belief for Holy Communion:
From all this it is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion [defined later in the document to “around 7”]. Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required, for an elementary knowledge suffices-some knowledge (aliqua cognitio); similarly full use of reason is not required, for a certain beginning of the use of reason, that is, some use of reason (aliqualis usus rationis) suffices.Quam Singulari
What does all this say to us? We should approach the Eucharist the way St. Pius recommends us to: not as a reward, but as a remedy or source of healing for human frailty. His successor, Pope Francis, put it very similarly: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium, 47). While we ought never to receive the Sacraments in a state of mortal sin (for, as St. Paul put it: “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” [1 Corinthians 11:27 RSV]), we need to really discern what a mortal sin is—that if a potentially sinful action is not at the same time: 1. Grave matter, 2. Truly understood by the person, and 3. Chosen with complete freedom by the person, then there is no mortal sin (if only one or two of these qualities are present, the action is either venial or not even a sin—see CCC 1854-1864, 1740, and Amoris Laetitia, 301-303). If a person is struggling with venial sin, then the Church actively recommends that you go to this “powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” As St. Peter Julian Eymard, called the “Apostle of the Eucharist,” once said: “You receive Communion to become holy, not because you already are.” Rather than running from Communion because you are not perfect, run to Communion, that you may be made perfect!
Pope St. Pius X, great Liturgical Reformer and Pope of the Eucharist, pray for us that we might approach the Sacraments worthily, always trusting in the Mercy of Jesus and in the healing He offers in His Body and Blood. Pray for your successor, Pope Francis, that he may continue to guide the Church as you did—and pray for his detractors, that they may heed your words: “whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.” Papa Pio, prega per noi!