Hi, Karen —
Thanks for the good question.
As you stated in your question, Canon 916 reads:
A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental Confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.
This canon is aimed at both the priests and the parishioners. Yes, the priest celebrates the Mass, but through our universal priesthood we join in and assist him in offering all our prayers, works, joys and suffering from the previous week and week to come, so we celebrate with him in Christ. Attending Sunday Mass is an obligation that the Church always requires from us for our own good. The question we have to ask ourselves is:
- Are we properly disposed to receive the Eucharist?
- Have we committed any mortal sins that have not been confessed in the Sacrament of Confession?
- If we have, we should still go to Mass but because we are not properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, we should refrain from receiving the Eucharist and take the period during which the Eucharist is distributed as a time of prayer, which can include a perfect contrition.
If someone asks us why we didn't receive, we should just tell them we were not properly disposed. Beyond that, it is none of their business!
- If we have not, we cannot only attend Mass but receive Holy Communion as well. The Act of Contrition we say at the beginning of Mass removes all venial sins from our souls.
The confusion, as you stated, and we discussed among ourselves, deals with the exception mentioned in this canon.
Although this canon does not explicitly say this, the implication is if a "grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing" one may receive the Eucharist, even if one is mindful of mortal sin, if:
- they make a act of perfect contrition, which can be very hard to make, and
- has the intention of confessing as soon as possible.
The problem in understanding this canon, is it does not tell us what a "grave reason" is. Because receiving the Eucharist is the source and submit of our salvation as Vatican II states, I believe my team would agree with me that a "grave reason" would be something like being "in danger of death" or in a battle field situation for a soldier.
Hope this helps,