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Receiving the Sacraments is not a ‘right’

As a mother whose Down’s syndrome daughter made her First Communion I object to the language of rights entering Christ’s Church

By on Monday, 13 February 2012

February 11 was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, reminding one of the healing properties of this great shrine and place of pilgrimage. My youngest daughter, aged 21, who has Down’s syndrome, has been going to Lourdes almost every year since the age of ten; at first with the HCPT pilgrimage at Easter, and since the age of 18 with a diocesan group who stay in Hosanna House.

I mention this because I have been pondering the recent news item about a mother in the Leeds diocese, Clare Ellarby, who alleges that her son, Denum, who also has Down’s syndrome, is being discriminated against because he has not been included in First Communion preparation classes with his year group.

Obviously there is more to this item than what has been made public: Mrs Ellarby agrees that she is not a regular Mass-goer and therefore neither is Denum; it is also not clear whether he is being held back because of his learning disability or because, as a diocesan spokesman put it, of his family’s non-participation in the regular life of the Church. Mrs Ellarby has declared that “it is [Denum’s] right to make his First Holy Communion”. This statement slightly worried me, coming as it seems to from the culture of “rights” with which we are over- familiar these days. I would have thought that receiving the Sacraments should be thought of as a privilege rather than a “right”.

I don’t know Denum’s age but I delayed letting Cecilia make her First Communion until she was ten – just before she was due to go to Lourdes. It gave her more time to become mature enough to appreciate the fundamental requisite: that she was receiving Jesus rather than a wafer of bread. I also wanted her to be able to join with the other members of the pilgrimage when they received Communion in the Basilica in Lourdes. We chose to celebrate the occasion at the Saturday evening Mass rather than the Sunday morning one, as the congregation would be much smaller and thus less intimidating for her.

I made a little basic booklet for her, with pictures and simple sentences in large print: the pictures included her patron, St Cecilia, a tabernacle, baby Jesus in the crib, Jesus on the Cross and other familiar images. When our parish priest, testing her, asked her to make the sign of the Cross she got it right (more or less) and when he asked her where Jesus lived in the church, she replied without hesitation, “In the tabernacle”. After she had made her First Communion she told me “Jesus is my best friend”. I don’t think her understanding has developed much beyond this point but it doesn’t need to; she knows what matters.

Every Sunday at Mass she looks at the booklet I made for her and also at the pictures in a large illustrated children’s New Testament. Once, I confess, I got tired of going through this latter book in the slow way she enjoys and tried to speed up the process by starting at random in the middle, with one of Jesus’ miracles. Cecilia wasn’t having any of it. She fixed me with a baleful look and asked, “Where’s Gabriel?” She knew better than I that the story has to start with Mary and the angel at the Annunciation.

Several years later she was confirmed and very appropriately took the Confirmation name of St Bernadette. Our bishop, His Grace Peter Doyle of Northampton, was understanding and allowed her to be confirmed standing up, rather than kneeling, with her older sister, who was her sponsor, making her response. Now she is a stalwart (if occasionally stroppy) soldier of Christ, keen to help put out the coffee cups for parishioners’ socialising after Mass, helping me to put fresh flowers in the church when it is our turn on the rota and playing a key part in the Offertory procession each Sunday. Yesterday we sang the Lourdes hymn – “Immaculate Mary our hearts are on fire” – in honour of the Feast; the person standing beside me beamed in recognition and sang the chorus – “Ave Ave Ave Maria” – with great gusto.

I hope very much that Clare Ellarby will be able to resolve her difficulties with her parish priest, that Denum will be able to proceed to make his First Communion in due course and that the whole family will come to play a full part in the life of their parish. This has nothing to do with “rights” and everything to do with the privilege of being members of Christ’s Church.

  • Catholic State3

    The Sacraments are not a right.  That is true of the Sacrament of Marriage too.  Only some people can avail of it.  Government take note! 

  • Anonymous

    The privilege of receiving the sacraments has been given to us by God. Because of this wonderful privilege we have the right to receive them from the Church.

    “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Code of Canon Law 843.1

    Who can say that this law does not give the faithful a right to receive the sacraments?

  • Diffal

    Thank you for sharing your heart warming story and your reflections on this issue Mrs. Phillips I agree whole heartedly with you. @Patrick_hadley: The language and modern understanding of rights does not enter into it, Privilige does not equal right. The sacraments are a gift from God, safeguarded and dispensed by the church. As your own quote shows conditions must be met before the sacraments can be recieved we must be properly disposed to recieve so great a gift.

  • Losiento


    Who can say that this law does not give the faithful a right to receive the sacraments?”
    Well surely the Church has to assess whether the faithful “are properly disposed”….

  • Alban

     I wonder what Our Lord would have to say on the matter?

  • Anonymous

     You are correct that privilege does not equal right. In fact they are completely different and should not be confused.

    The difference between a privilege and a right:

    It is a privilege to read at Mass and the parish priest is free to choose whoever he wants for that privilege, and can refuse to allow someone to read for any reason or none, no matter how well disposed or well qualifed the person may be.

    Any Catholic who is properly disposed and not prohibited by law has a right to Holy Communion. He cannot be refused the sacrament by a priest for any reason.

    So to make it clear: a privilege is something that can be denied without any justification; but a right is something which cannot be denied for any reason.

    A Catholic who is in a state of mortal sin, or for some other reason is prohibited from the sacraments, has lost the right to receive them. This most certainly is not the same as saying that he never had a right to do so. If I have a ticket to a play when I arrive at theatre I have a right to be admitted . If on the way to the theatre I had lost the ticket then I would have no right to be let in. That is part of the nature of rights, sometimes you have them and sometimes you do not.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad we agree that privilege does not equal right. We are not afforded the Sacraments through legally or contractually granted rights(such as in the examples you have given, for the Church to be able to grant such a right by virtue of canon law she would have to be the origin of the sacraments, which of course she is not) they are a gift from God, and are dispensed by the Church. 

    That they should not be refused if the individual is correctly disposed to receive them is a matter of justice, not of our rights. i.e. the Church in her capacity as guardian and dispenser of the sacraments recognises that someone is prepared to receive the sacraments not that they suddenly have a right to them.

  • Anonymous

    While marriage is properly speaking a Sacrament, it can also be contracted(obviously between one man and one woman, how unfortunate that has to be added these days) by virtue of  natural law and so is wider than simply catholic jurisdiction, but that which applies to sacramental marriage(i.e. one man and one woman) also applies to natural law marriages as well.

  • Anonymous

     I am not sure why you object to the idea that we have the right to receive the sacraments. The teaching of the Church on this is very clear, and hardly controversial. 

    The Code of Canon Law tells us that we have a right to the sacraments “The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred
    pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God
    and the sacraments.”  Canon 231

    The 1992 Catechism puts it like this “Just as Baptism is the source of responsibilities and duties, the baptized person also enjoys rights within the Church: to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the Word of God and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church” CCC 1269.

  • AidanCoyle

    In other words, whoever is qualified to enter into marriage according to the law of the land is entitled to do so. The Catholic Church can deem marriage a sacrament and impose its own requirements upon its members. Quite why it wants to impose its understanding of marriage upon everyone else is beyond me.

  • Anonymous

    It is quite easy to understand. The bishops fear that when homosexual marriage becomes widely accepted by the general public it will also be accepted as normal by Catholics. That is what has happened with previously controversial issues such as contraception, masturbation, oral sex, and sex before marriage. Once a practice is generally regarded, by people whom you know to be of good character, as normal it is hard for the Catholic church to get the faithful to believe that it is intrinsically evil. 

  • theroadmaster

    Morality is not decided by the vox populi or the behavior of the majority.  Something that is morally objectionable is deemed to be so because it violates the Natural law and one’s relationship with the Creator.  The Catholic Church accordingly has not changed Her viewpoint on the topics that you have mentioned.

  • Lindi

    I agree that there is more to this than we know , Francis. I believe that Denum is about 8 years old – the same age as his class mates who will be making their First Communion.
    A few thoughts come to my mind. One is that from reading other accounts of the story Denum’s mother is upset because her son will be left out of what has become very much a social occasion.Yes , we are all members of Christ’s body and modern teaching on the Eucharist emphasises this . So there is a feeling that he is being excluded from an important occasion with his peers. I am not saying that the mother is wholly correct but that it is a logical emotional reaction to a current teaching. I have often thought that preparation for Holy Communion should be on an individual rather than a group basis anyhow.
      The second thought is that Denum , having been baptised , does have a right to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. He also has the right to be brought to Mass and his family should be helped to do this. Does the school have Masses during term time ? That would help him to become familiar with Mass.
    Lastly , we don’t know why Denum’s family do not ‘ play a full part in the life of their parish ‘, Francis.

  • Anonymous

    My point is that it was much easier for the Church to teach that those things were mortal sins when just about everyone else in society also believed that they were immoral. 

    If you look at the history of Catholic moral teaching you will see that in the past it followed the opinion of the majority. When slavery and torture were generally considered to be morally acceptable the Church taught that they were OK and indeed was an enthusiastic participant. When usury and speaking out against the ruler were thought to be wicked the Church excommunicated people for doing those things.