Necessity of Holy Communion
2020 For Basic Course lesson 12; for Advanced Course lesson 20.
Is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, necessary for salvation? Is that what Jesus meant when He said, “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you?” (John 6:53) In a word, yes; it is necessary but not in the same way as Baptism. God wills that Baptism is an absolute necessity for salvation but that reception of Holy Communion is not, instead it is a moral necessity for salvation.
It will be helpful to begin this study by learning the Church’s definition of “necessary.” The Modern Catholic Dictionary definition of necessary, as given by Father John A. Hardon, S.J., is as follows:
“Necessary. Whatever must be or cannot not be and should be. Various kinds of necessity are the basis for all others.
- Something may be necessary because it cannot not exist; its essence is to exist. It is in this sense that God is necessary Being. This is a necessity of being.
- Or something may be necessary in order to verify something else, as a rational soul is necessary to human nature, or four equal sides are necessary to have a square. This is a necessity of essence.
- Or something may be necessary in order to attain a given purpose or achieve a given end, as it is necessary to eat in order to live. This is a necessity of means.
- Or something may be necessary because God wills it so and wants humanity to do it, as it is necessary to pray in order to be saved. This is a necessity of obligation or moral necessity” (p. 372).
The Sacrament of Baptism falls under the category of a necessity of means. As Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, Baptism “is the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (1213). Moreover, the Catechism further explains:
“The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized ‘are reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257).
Hence, the Church teaches us that, though not Sacraments in themselves, one may also be saved by Baptism of Desire or Baptism of Blood.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion falls under the category of a necessity of obligation or moral necessity. Due to the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism, the baptized incur a moral obligation to receive the Holy Eucharist. Those baptized who are below the age of reason are temporarily excused from this implicit obligation but they are not permanently excused and once they reach the age of reason they must receive Holy Communion. God wills that we receive Him in this Sacrament and therefore, He has ordained that Holy Communion is necessary to sustain the life of grace in a baptized person who has reached the age of reason. Holy Communion is the spiritual food of souls and man cannot long sustain his supernatural life without this food of eternal life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains God’s plan of the importance of the Holy Eucharist: “The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and work of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch” (1324). The Eucharist IS Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is the incarnate God, living in our midst. The Eucharist is “the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ’” (CCC 1405).
However, there are those who, through no fault of their own, cannot receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion; for example, the well-meaning Protestant who is truly ignorant of the fullness of truth, the baptized Catholic who does not have access to Holy Mass or the baptized infant who dies before reaching the age of reason. Is a participation in the life of God’s grace attainable for such souls? Yes. For those who, through no fault of their own, do not realize the necessity of receiving Holy Communion, they can receive the necessary grace to remain in God’s friendship through other means. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council explains this situation:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience–those too may achieve eternal salvation” (n. 16).
For those baptized Catholics who have no access to Holy Mass and for those infants who are baptized but die before reaching the age of reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas provides an explanation in his Summa Theologica, in the section titled, “Whether the Eucharist is Necessary for Salvation.” Simply stated, he says that it is possible for those who cannot receive Holy Communion sacramentally to receive it by desire. Those who receive the Sacrament of Baptism incur an obligation to receive the Holy Eucharist; however, if for valid reasons, they are not able to physically receive the Holy Eucharist before death, through the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body, they are still partakers of this Sacrament.
Saint Thomas Aquinas goes on to explain that young children who have not yet reached the age of reason cannot receive Baptism by desire; they must receive the Sacrament of Baptism itself. Therefore, there is a grave duty incumbent upon parents to baptize their children as soon as possible. “Just as Baptism is the source of responsibilities and duties, the baptized person also enjoys rights within the Church” (CCC 1269). Thus, to ensure that they are not deprived of Holy Communion to which they have an obligation and a right in Church law, the Code of Canon Law prescribes the following for children who have been baptized:
“It is primarily the duty of parents and of those who take their place, as it is the duty of the parish priest, to ensure that children who have reached the use of reason are properly prepared and, having made their sacramental confession, are nourished by this divine food as soon as possible” (canon 914).
We have a great necessity and privilege in receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. Saint Peter Julian Eymard understood this well and urges us daily to receive Our Lord:
“Yes, we were present at the Last Supper, and Jesus stored up for us not one Host but a hundred, a thousand, one for every day of our life. Do we realize that? Jesus wanted to love us superabundantly. Our Hosts are ready; let us not lose a single one of them” (Eymard Library, The Real Presence, (Cleveland, OH: Emmanuel Publishing, 1938), Vol. l, pp. 35-36).
 “Whether the Eucharist is Necessary for Salvation? . . . On the contrary, Augustine writes (Ad Bonifac. Contra Pelag. I): Nor are you to suppose that children cannot possess life, who are deprived of the body and blood of Christ. I answer that, Two things have to be considered in this sacrament, namely, the sacrament itself, and what is contained in it. Now it was stated above (q. 73, a.1, obj. 2) that the reality of the sacrament is the unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation; for there is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the Ark, which denotes the Church, according to 1 Peter 3:20-21. And it has been said above (q. 68, a. 2), that before receiving a sacrament, the reality of the sacrament can be had through the very desire of receiving the sacrament. Accordingly, before actual reception of this sacrament [of the Holy Eucharist], a man can obtain salvation through the desire of receiving it, just as he can before Baptism through the desire of Baptism, as stated above (q. 68, a. 2). Yet there is a difference in two respects. First of all, because Baptism is the beginning of the spiritual life, and the door of the sacraments; whereas the Eucharist is, as it were, the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments, as was observed above (q. 63, a. 6): for by the hallowings of all the sacraments preparation is made for receiving or consecrating the Eucharist. Consequently, the reception of Baptism is necessary for starting the spiritual life, while the receiving of the Eucharist is requisite for its consummation; by partaking not indeed actually, but in desire, an end is possessed in desire and intention. Another difference is because by Baptism a man is ordained to the Eucharist, and therefore from the fact of children being baptized, they are destined by the Church to the Eucharist; and just as they believe through the Church’s faith, so they desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality. But they are not disposed for Baptism by any previous sacrament, and consequently before receiving Baptism, in no way have they Baptism in desire; but adults alone have: consequently, they cannot have the reality of the sacrament [of Baptism] without receiving the sacrament [of Baptism] itself. Therefore, this sacrament [of the Holy Eucharist] is not necessary for salvation in the same way as Baptism is.” (ST III, q.73, ad 3).
Saint Thomas also referred to Saint Augustine’s Epistle to Saint Boniface concerning those who depart this life before receiving Holy Communion:
“Reply Obj. 1. As Augustine says, explaining John 6:54, This food and this drink, namely, of His flesh and blood: He would have us understand the fellowship of His body and members, which is the Church in His predestinated, and called, and justified, and glorified, His holy and believing ones. Hence, as he says in his Epistle to Boniface (Pseudo-Beda, in 1 Cor. 10:17): No one should entertain the slightest doubt, that then every one of the faithful becomes a partaker of the body and blood of Christ, when in Baptism he is made a member of Christ’s body; nor is he deprived of his share in that body and chalice even though he depart from this world in the unity of Christ’s body, before he eats that bread and drinks of that chalice” (ST III, q.73, ad 3).