Fasting and holy Communion/Funeral Mass in funeral home?

Q. I’ve heard several different takes on the rules with regard to fasting before receiving Communion. On the one hand, I’ve been told that we are not to ingest any food or drink within one half-hour of a service. But I’ve also heard that water or even coffee are not included in this prohibition.

Someone had mentioned to me also that this fasting doesn’t apply if there are health issues involved. It seems to me that older parishioners take a stricter view on this and younger parishioners, a more relaxed one. Can you clarify for me what the real rules are? (southern Indiana)

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle

A. The current rules on fasting before holy Communion are simple and clearly expressed in the Code of Canon Law. They provide that one must abstain for one hour from all food and drink, with the exception of water or medicine, prior to receiving the Eucharist (Canon 919).

But that same canon notes that “the elderly, the infirm and those who care for them can receive the most holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.” Perhaps the fact that these rules have changed several times within my own lifetime may explain why, in your words, there are “several different takes.”

For centuries, Catholics were required to abstain from all food and drink (including water) from midnight of the evening before. (Since my family usually went to one of the later Masses on Sunday morning, I can tell you that this rule was something of a challenge.)

In 1953, Pope Pius XII decided that water or medicine no longer broke the fast. Four years later, that same pontiff — anxious to make the Eucharist more easily available while still wanting to maintain proper reverence for this sacred gift — reduced the time period; no longer would you have to fast from midnight but, instead, for only three hours.

Then, in 1964, Pope Paul VI reduced it even further — to only one hour — and that is still the rule. Note that fasting is required for one hour before the actual reception of Communion, not one hour before the start of Mass. (And note, too, that coffee drinkers do not get a pass; coffee does break the fast!)

Q. In certain parts of our country, they are allowed to have the Mass of Christian Burial at funeral homes. I think this is a wonderful idea, especially for small funerals. Who makes that decision or gives permission for this? (upstate New York)

A. I am not aware of any place in the U.S. where funeral Masses are celebrated on a regular basis in the funeral home. The Archdiocese of Detroit notes, for example, on its website: “Funeral Masses are not allowed in funeral homes. The funeral liturgy outside of Mass, as provided in the ‘Order of Christian Funerals,’ is allowed in the funeral home.”

That ritual held in a funeral home, then, would consist only in the sprinkling of the casket, opening prayers, scriptural readings, a homily, intercessory petitions, the Our Father and the closing prayers of commendation. In short, this service would include all of the parts of a normal funeral Mass with the significant exception of the Eucharist itself.

It is much more fitting that a funeral be celebrated with the church’s central and most powerful prayer, the Eucharist — ordinarily in the parish church in which the deceased had traditionally worshipped.

At the same time, though, this guideline is not absolute, and a local bishop could grant permission for a Mass to be celebrated in the funeral home — particularly in rural areas, where the church might be a great distance away, or in a case where severe weather might imperil travel.

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