Sharing Communion - 17th January 2016

During a visit by Pope Francis to Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran church last November, a Lutheran woman who is married to a Catholic explained to him that not being able to participate together at the Lord’s Supper because of the current prohibition on Lutherans receiving communion in the Catholic Church causes her and her husband sadness.

The pontiff responded with a wide-ranging reflection on the nature of Christian faith and on Jesus’ words at the last Supper: Do this in memory of me. “I ask myself: Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a path or is it the viaticum for walking together?” said the pontiff. In other words, is sharing Eucharist a sign of full ecclesial communion or the means of achieving that full communion?

He concluded: “I will not ever dare to give permission to do this because it is not my competence,” he said. “One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare to say more.”

Reaction to this exchange covered the full spectrum. There was rejection from those Catholics who believe it impossible for other Christians to receive Catholic communion, including Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who responded: "A non-Catholic cannot receive. That is very, very clear".

On the other hand, those who believe there should be no barriers at all to Christians sharing communion in one another’s churches responded with delight because they feel that to share Holy Communion with other Christians is a natural expression of our common incorporation into Christ through baptism.

The Roman Catholic Church however understands that sharing in eucharistic communion expresses and perfects a communion which already exists. Ours is essentially a eucharistic church. It is when the parish is gathered for Eucharist that its identity and its unity in faith, life and worship are most clearly expressed. The words of the Eucharistic Prayer make it clear that through our bishop we are united to the pope who is the centre of Catholic unity and through the pope to every other Catholic eucharistic community.

In recent years the Catholic Church has reached agreement with other Churches in some significant areas of Christian faith through official dialogue. However, complete unity in all areas that we would consider the essentials of faith has not yet been achieved.

Whilst full eucharistic sharing between members of the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches is not possible at this stage, the “Directory for Ecumenism” issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993 allows for individual Christians to receive communion at a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist under special circumstances.

The intention of these exceptions is to meet a spiritual need, such as the case of people in institutions without access to their own minister, the non-Catholic parent of a child at the child’s first communion Mass, the partner at a marriage celebrated with a nuptial Mass, and the family of the deceased at a funeral Mass.

The directory calls on diocesan bishops to establish general norms on eucharistic sharing according to the needs and circumstances of their dioceses. In response, the Archdiocese of Brisbane issued the document “Blessed and Broken: Pastoral Guidelines for Eucharistic Hospitality” in 1995.  It can be found on the website of Liturgy Brisbane at http://liturgybrisbane.net.au/doctypes/eucharistic-hospitality/.

 

Elizabeth Harrington