The Bonds of Communion

The Bonds of Communion

The most solid chapter of Ecclesia de Eucharistia is Chapter IV, entitled “The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion”.

Understanding the theological reasoning here requires readers to be aware that that the word “communion” has other meanings apart from that of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Eucharist.

The word communion derives from the Latin communio meaning “general participation”, and from the Greek koinonia, the closest English translation for which is “fellowship” or “spiritual bond”.

The basic tenet of this part of the document is that sharing eucharistic communion can only take place if full communion, both visible and invisible, already exists among those who participate.

“Visible communion” refers to full unity of faith in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church’s hierarchical order.

Although the Roman Catholic Church shares with many other Christian Churches a common belief in matters such as the Trinity, scripture and Baptism, we are said to be in “real but imperfect communion” with them, because divisions still exist on some central matters of faith.

Catholics cannot share eucharistic communion with those Christians with whom we are not in full communion:
“The Catholic faithful therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of other Ecclesial Communities, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist.” (# 30)

In ecumenical circles, the argument is often that advanced sharing in sacramental communion between Christians of different traditions will help bring about the goal of full Christian unity. In other words, some people see eucharistic sharing as a means to the end rather than as the ultimate goal of all our ecumenical endeavours.

John Paul II claims that the reverse is the case, that receiving one another’s communion “would result in slowing the progress being made towards full visible unity”.

The term “invisible” communion, another condition required for sharing sacramental communion, refers to an individual’s relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Church teaches that our spiritual bonds with God and with the Church need to be intact, that is, we must be in a “state of grace” when we come to the table for Holy Communion.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as participation in the Eucharist which is itself a sacrament of forgiveness, restore bonds damaged by our sinfulness. However, if we have severed our relationship with God through deliberate, informed and conscious action, that is, through grave sin, then we must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before participating in communion at Mass.

Where visible and invisible bonds are intact, sharing in eucharistic communion expresses and perfects a communion which already exists.

Whilst full eucharistic sharing between members of the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches is not possible at this stage, John Paul II reminds us that it is permissible 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, or the non-Catholic parent of a child at the child’s first communion Mass. The ‘Directory for Ecumenism’ issued in 1993 by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity sets out the circumstances under which eucharistic hospitality may be offered.


Elizabeth Harrington