A New Perspective on our Eucharistic Fast

Joseph Ratzinger, 1986
A quotation transcribed from a talk given by Tony Hickey on 9/4/2020

In the present era we do not celebrate Mass on Good Friday, but we do receive the pre-sanctified Blessed Sacrament, whereas in the early Church the Eucharist was not received on Good Friday. In the light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown of our churches, the following excerpt from Ratzinger’s book, Behold the Pierced One, first published in 1986, gives us a new perspective to our ‘Eucharistic fast’.

As St Augustine sensed his death approaching, he excommunicated himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek pardon and grace through the renunciation of Communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who thirst for righteousness, for Him who is righteous, the merciful One. He denied himself the Eucharist to identify with those who cannot receive and, in their name and his own, grow in hunger and thirst for the Sacrament.

Against the background of his sermons and writings which are a magnificent portrayal of the Church and a communion with the Body of Christ, itself built up by the Eucharist, this is a profoundly arresting gesture by Augustine. The more I think about it, the more it moves me to reflect: Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this type of spiritual fasting be of service or even necessary to deepen and renew our relationship with the Body of Christ? The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind since they fasted from the Eucharist on Good Friday as part of the Church’s spirituality. The renunciation of Holy Communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion. It was the Bride mourning for the lost Bridegroom.

Today, too, I think fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions such as days of penance, and why not? Why not re-introduce the practice on Good Friday? It would be particularly appropriate at Masses where there is a vast congregation making it impossible to provide the distribution of the Sacrament. In such cases the renunciation of the Sacrament would in fact express more reverence and love than a reception that does not do justice to the immense significance of what is taking place. Fasting of this kind – provided it is open to the guidance of the Church – could lead to a deepening of one’s personal relationship with the Lord in the Sacrament. It would also be an act of solidarity with those who yearn for the Sacrament, but cannot receive, for example, the divorced and remarried.  The healing love which the Lord performed would be… for the ultimate healing of his loneliness on the Cross.

Naturally I am not suggesting a return to a kind of Jansenism, fasting because we are not worthy of receiving Holy Communion, but rather to move away from falling into mere routine reception of the Sacrament. Sometimes we need both physical and spiritual hunger if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gift and understand the suffering of our hungry brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of Love.