Dementia and Communion

Q. My father is 86 years old and was raised in the Catholic Church. He was considered an intellectual and earned his doctorate in philosophy. He became a nonpracticing Catholic and in fact rejected the church, although he had a thirst for justice and continued to treasure the church's teachings on human rights.

Now he has dementia and has begun to join me at Sunday Mass. Last week, he followed me up to Communion and received the Eucharist. I feel conflicted and am unsure as to whether I should encourage him to do this. Please advise. (Peachtree City, Ga.)

A. I would let your father take the lead; if he is inclined to take Communion, he is entitled to do so. Let me offer some background.

In the present-day Latin-rite Catholic Church, one must have the use of reason to receive holy Communion. (Eastern-rite Catholics are given Communion as infants, and this was also true in the early centuries in the Roman rite.)

In 1995, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a document entitled "Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities," which included the following statement: "The criterion for reception of holy Communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally."

Quickly that same document goes on to note that "cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament." Since it likely is difficult to ascertain exactly what your father comprehends, I would award him the benefit of the doubt and encourage him to take Communion, if that is what he wants.

(Nor would I "grill" him on just what he understands the Eucharist to be; after all, how does it hurt anyone for him to be receiving reverently?)

If, on the other hand — and I have seen this on a couple of occasions in nursing homes — someone were to take the host in and out of their mouth repeatedly and not consume it, I would not offer that person Communion again and would simply give a blessing instead.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, N.Y.12203.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017