These days, on and off, I’m reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. I picked it up again as a Kindle book some months back. Despite other’s criticism of the book’s botany and biology errors, there can be no question that it is a treasure trove of insights into the Christian life.
Looking beyond the Saint’s oftentimes odd descriptions of how bees work or of why the lioness does what she does out of deference to the king of beasts… the spiritual classic not only does not disappoint, but it enlightens me and challenges me again and again to revisit some of the a priori conclusions which I reached as a young man and have somewhat thoughtlessly continued to hold up to the present, youthful conclusions which are the under-developed fruit perhaps of some sort of osmosis as opposed to teaching learned, thoughtful analysis or research.
I’ll give you just one example regarding the reception of Holy Communion. St. Francis de Sales makes daily Communion dependent on the instructions the communicant receives from his or her spiritual guide. Even at age 60, I have known nothing in my life other than the general acceptability of daily Holy Communion for all those who are in the state of grace, that is, who are not guilty of mortal sin. Granted, as a child I was aware that most adults, especially men, probably only went to Communion once a month on a Sunday morning, after Saturday evening confession. I have fond memories of going along with Dad for Holy Name Society devotions, which included a nice breakfast in the church basement after early Mass and Communion for the men on Sunday morning. For me the issue is not why and how that all changed so rapidly after the Council, but rather one of coming to an accurate appreciation of the former usage such that, birds and bees aside, I can come to an appreciation of where St. Francis de Sales is coming from and of what a wealth of counsel he continues to provide for the average lay person, when it comes to living life in union with Christ in His Church.
The world of St. Francis de Sales is one which took into account the scruples of Catholic people who would be scandalized if they saw you going to Communion too often. It is indeed another world. The difference came home to me yesterday as I was distributing Holy Communion. After giving Communion to an older sister, herself maybe only having made her First Holy Communion this year, I was confronted by a little girl, all alone, who was not interested in a blessing and would not move on after I blessed her, she stood her ground, determined, extending both hands partially and sort of cupped. When I asked if she had made her First Communion, she answered truthfully “no” while still standing her ground. I gently turned her aside with a hand to the shoulder and continued distributing to those who followed. I am sure no one even noticed. Indeed, ours is a very different world from that of St. Francis de Sales: nobody seems to notice or to care who presents himself or herself for Holy Communion.
There is no nostalgia whatever in my approach to this question. I do not and will not pine after days gone by. Somebody might wish to hold the position that only those among his contemporaries who read his book had the advantage of the advice of St. Francis de Sales on how to receive Holy Communion worthily and on how to make progress in the devout life. My guess is that this great saint did not limit himself to writing books for privileged correspondents, that he didn’t miss any opportunity to teach; he was popular not only because he was friendly and kind, but also because he was a wise and effective teacher. He directed his people from the pulpit and no doubt in less formal encounters as well.
When was the last time you heard a homily on how to worthily prepare to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion? Could it be that priests think that once prepared for First Confession and First Holy Communion, then always prepared? I surely hope that seminarians today learn these simple lessons from St. Francis de Sales about Confession and Communion; I know that nobody on the faculties of the seminaries I frequented in the 1960’s and 1970’s ever spoke to me about such or gave wise pointers like his on how to confess venial sins and faults. The shyness or reticence to speak about these most important things is indeed one of the tragedies of our day and time.
Today’s saint, St. Eusebius of Vercelli, is one of those great bishops who never shirked in professing the fullness of Catholic Faith. His fight was with Arianism, which had the political world on its side and sought to bend the Church to accept a creed of convenience depriving Jesus of His Divinity. I sometimes wonder today if every priest and bishop, if every parent, is cognizant of the implications not only of our silence concerning how to worthily prepare and receive Holy Communion, but also concerning the informal approach to Sunday worship and church space, which has lots of men, in particular, dressed down with shorts and flip-flops. How is a child supposed to know that the Son of God, made Man, is really and truly present without our good example, without our showing the next generation in lots of different and small ways a much greater measure of attentiveness before His Throne?