"Are you Catholic?" "Yes, but I have not been to confession in 30 years, so I can't take communion; is it OK if I stay though?"Can you say "Wow!", I knew you could. Clearly, this individual gets it: Holy Communion is not a reward for showing up at Mass. Here is the situation: I was getting ready to say Mass at a local care facility and someone came in and sat down in the back of the room. I always go and greet people I do not recognize, so I headed over there to introduce myself. Occasionally, we have someone come in who thinks that it is a protestant service. Occasionally, when someone hears that I am about to celebrate Catholic Mass, they politely excuse themselves (with the look on their face like they just walked into the wrong bathroom!).
When, however, someone decides to stay, I ask if they are Catholic. If they are not, I have to explain to them (as politely as I can) that I cannot give them communion, but if they wish to become Catholic, then I can certainly help them to accomplish it (!). The vast majority of the time, the visitors understand about communion. This was the situation that I am describing above. Her response to me focused on the fact that she was "out of communion" with the Church. No, that was not her wording, but that was exactly what she meant. "I haven't been to confession" says, "I am not currently doing what the Church says I am supposed to do".
Think about the assumptions being made by this person. I am reminded of that well known statement of the prodigal son: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21). In other words, "I am your son, but I've not been behaving like it." The assumption that one's personal behavior has no bearing on receiving the Eucharist, stems mostly from a mistaken notion of what the Eucharist is. The places where it is referred to as a "supper" or that the altar is a "table" could (mistakenly) give the notion that the Eucharist is a "family meal", but that is not the case. There is a significant difference between a communal meal where the people gather to have dinner, and a ceremony where a sacrifice happens and people partake of the sacrifice.
The New Testament does give us pictures of the "fellowship meals" that the early Church partook of, and they are never confused with the Eucharist. Interestingly, even those fellowship meals had strict boundaries (something that would shock many modern Catholics). Take for example the passage where the Apostle Paul says that the Church is not "even to eat with" a Catholic who is unrepentant and continues in grave sin (1 Cor 5:11). If that boundary exists at a "fellowship meal" for the community (which is a non-liturgical time of community interaction), how much more should we expect that the Church would have a boundary on a liturgical ceremony where the Sacrifice of Christ is re-presented before God?
The Apostle Paul points out the clear need for each person who partakes of communion to "examine himself" beforehand (1 Cor 11:28). The presumption is not that he examine himself, ignore any sins that he discovers, and then go ahead and partake anyways. With the clear warning that those who partake "unworthily" are "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord", it is evident that he is speaking about clear boundaries given to a sacred ritual (and, once again, not a fellowship meal). The very word "profane" comes from the Latin root that means "outside the temple". Profane things are "unholy" and sacred things are "holy" by definition. Thus, to profane something is to abuse a sacred thing by treating it as if it were common. To profane the Blessed Sacrament is to treat it like common food and assume that it is equal to the food Jesus had when He ate dinner "with tax collectors and sinners" (or to assume that is like a Church's fellowship meal!).
Just as it would be wrong for me to show up at a friend's house unannounced and assume that I was going to be given a place at the table, so also it is wrong for anyone to assume that the reception of communion is open to anyone (even any Catholic) who shows up in the pew. We are not having a common meal. The Eucharist is not breakfast, lunch or dinner; it is the sacrifice of the sacred body and blood of Christ brought from Calvary to the present and must be treated as such. This was the underlying statement of the visitor to Mass that I mentioned above. "I have to be in a state of grace in order to receive communion" (even if I myself do not believe in the Church's definition of what that state is). Quite remarkable, is it not? Someone who has not been to Mass for 30 years knows that confession is necessary before receiving communion, while large numbers of those who attend Mass weekly ignore it; something is seriously wrong here.
Does the Lord love us? Of course He does. That is why He will not ignore our sins, and provides us with the sacraments to help us overcome them (when used in proper order). Yet, every sacrament is sacred, and is (usually) connected to a liturgical celebration. This is why the sacraments have boundaries; precisely because they are not casual or common, they are holy and reverent events that transcend the normal activities of day to day existence. They are the means by which God lifts us up from the things of this Earth and allows us to touch the things of Heaven. How could we possibly imagine that they are anything less than an experience of the divine in our lives?