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Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, made a comment recently about occasions when the Catholic Church allows the sharing of communion with Christians from other traditions. Some media sources reported this as being something new and radical. In fact, it reiterated what is set out in the Directory for Ecumenism issued in 1993.
While it seems that some Catholics are unaware of any possibilities for sharing communion with other Christians, others have the attitude that there should be no barriers to Eucharistic hospitality.
The Second Vatican Council clearly committed the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement. Catholics are encouraged to participate in ecumenical services, to attend worship in other churches from time to time and to welcome other Christians at Catholic Masses.
Many Catholics feel that to share holy communion with other Christians is a natural expression of our common incorporation into Christ through baptism, but the present situation is that there is no intercommunion, or ‘open table’ as it is sometimes known, between the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches. The Roman Catholic Church sees sharing eucharist as the sign of full ecclesial communion and not as the means of achieving that full communion.
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 eucharist unites members of the local community not only with one another but also to every other Catholic eucharistic community. 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. Because the eucharistic celebration is by its very nature a profession of faith by the Church, at present there can be no intercommunion between the Catholic Church and other Churches.
In addition, because the validity of the eucharist in our understanding is tied to the validity of the priest’s ordination, the Roman Catholic Church is not yet able to recognise formally the sacramental reality of the eucharist of other Churches.
The Catholic Church therefore does not permit its members to receive holy communion in Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant Churches. While it is lawful for a Catholic to receive communion in an Orthodox Church because of our very close relationship in matters of faith, some Orthodox Churches restrict holy communion to their own members.
The eucharist is of central importance in all Christian Churches but this is expressed differently according to the distinctive emphases of each tradition. Without sensitivity to these differences we may cause offence by receiving communion in another Church without respecting the other Church’s understanding of the eucharist.