It can certainly be a great trial for Catholics to find themselves cutoff from Communion, particularly in the unexpected and jarring manner they are experiencing today.
Mass During Lent
For centuries, Latin Catholics who use the Roman Rite have been accustomed to daily liturgy, including the Mass, even during the penitential period of Lent. And even when Mass is not celebrated, such as on Good Friday, the Mass of the Presanctified is served so that Catholics may still receive the Eucharist.
In earlier times, it was not uncommon for the celebration of Mass to be limited during the weekdays of Lent. The Ambrosian Rite historically does not call for the celebration of Mass during Fridays in Lent. Though the record is sparse, it does appear that so-called “aliturgical days” where no Mass was celebrated were more common, though practices varied among regions and rites. On Wednesdays and Fridays, for instance, strict fasting prescriptions likely forbade receiving the Eucharist.
It is also important to note that before the modern period, frequent reception of the Holy Mysteries was uncommon. Even where the Mass was celebrated frequently and publicly, most of the faithful refrained from Communion except on major feast days and Easter. This is consistent with the Church’s historic penitential practices and the view that receiving the Eucharist should be preceded by weeks, if not months, of ascetical preparation.
A glimpse into the Universal Church’s traditional praxis on the liturgy during Lent can be found in the Byzantine Rite, which is used by certain Eastern Catholic churches like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Orthodox communions. Except for the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine name for the Mass) is forbidden during the weekdays of Lent. Rather, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the Byzantine Rite calls for the Presanctified Liturgy of Pope St. Gregory the Great to be served.
This evening service, which combines St. Gregory’s Liturgy with Lenten Vespers, allows the faithful to commune from Eucharistic bread consecrated the previous Sunday. Even so, historically many Byzantine Christians opted not to receive Communion during these services, particularly during the first week of Lent when the Eastern Church’s fasting regulations were especially stringent. Rather, many would wait to commune on the first Saturday of Lent, which is dedicated to St. Theodore the Tyro (“Recruit”), an early martyr of the Church who thwarted an attempt to trick Christians into eating food sprinkled with the blood of animals sacrificed to pagan idols.
This theme of Eucharistic abstention is further reinforced on the fifth Sunday of Lent, which honors St. Mary of Egypt. Due to her sinful lifestyle, St. Mary retreated to the desert for decades, deprived of the Eucharist. It was only during the penultimate year of her life that she received Communion from St. Zosimas of Palestine, a devout monk who, like many of his brethren, used Lent as an opportunity for solitary prayer away from the Church’s liturgical life. The story of St. Mary’s life and her encounter with Zosimas is read aloud at Thursday Matins during the fifth week of Lent.
Patience and Penitence
Although it is uncommon for Catholics to be deprived of the Eucharist during Lent, history testifies to periods where this was the norm. It can certainly be a great trial for Catholics to find themselves cutoff from Communion, particularly in the unexpected and jarring manner they are experiencing today. In God’s good time, this trial will pass; the churches will be reopened; and Catholics all over the world can once again join in liturgical prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the interim, now is the time to practice patience and penitence. While Easter draws near for Christians who celebrate according to the Gregorian Calendar, there is still more than a week left to reflect deeply on our own sinfulness and seek strength from God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints. Look to the example of Christians in earlier times, including St. Mary of Egypt. Today, we find ourselves deprived of the Eucharist for 40 days. She voluntarily forewent the food of immortality for over 40 years.