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There seems to be some confusion and misunderstanding about the Catholic Church’s stance on sharing communion with Christians of other traditions.
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 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, there is at present no intercommunion between the Catholic Church and other Churches. Also the validity of the eucharist in our understanding is tied to the validity of the priest’s ordination, so 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.
A Catholic priest may not issue a general invitation for Christians from other Churches to receive holy communion at a Catholic Mass. A limited form of sharing, often called “eucharistic hospitality”, is possible however. According to the Ecumenical Directory issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Rome) in 1993, a Catholic minister may give eucharist to a member of another Church if that person is unable to have recourse to a minister of his or her own church, asks for the sacrament of his or her own accord, manifests Catholic faith in the eucharist and is properly disposed (paragraph 131).
This means that a Catholic priest may respond positively to a freely made request for communion by a member of another Church because of his or her need for spiritual nourishment. People experiencing such spiritual need might include the partner at a marriage celebrated in a nuptial Mass, the parent of a child being baptised or confirmed or receiving first communion at a Catholic Mass, the family of the deceased at a funeral Mass, or people in a health care facility without easy access to their own minister. Each case is considered on its merits.
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.