A priest who co-ordinates the spiritual and pastoral formation of student teachers traces the development of Catholic teaching on intercommunion, which reveals that it is more nuanced than is commonly perceived.
As a parish priest in Motherwell for ten years I had the good fortune of encountering in our local Church of Scotland parish a Christian community which could work hand in hand with our Catholic parish. Many friendships were formed, and perhaps we even caught some glimpses of the unity for which Christ prayed.
In our many discussions, we wondered whether the greatest obstacle to ecumenism wasn’t so much hostility or suspicion, rather the fact that we were living parallel lives. Separate offices, staff, social events, community projects and of course worship meant that we rarely overlapped and often duplicated. It was easy to drift on side by side yet apart, with neither malice nor warmth, barely registering the, ‘burning desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord’ of which Pope John Paul wrote in Ut Unum Sint. The issue of intercommunion as a community never arose, however a certain pain of exclusion would sometimes be voiced when we gathered for the funeral of a young person or a wedding. The invitation to ‘come and receive a blessing’ was appreciated, but seemed to fall short of the public unity yearned for in the moment.
It is heartening to see that the pain and longing which we (sporadically) felt is recognised in official Catholic Church teaching, and seen as a positive invitation to growth on the path to unity. An overview of Church teaching is instructive, not least since it can help us to understand that it is more nuanced that public perception might believe. At a recent Mass with a mixed congregation it was announced that ‘only Catholics in the state of grace may worthily receive Holy Communion’. Does modern Church teaching confirm this statement?
Before Vatican II, Catholics were not permitted to attend church services of other denominations. The words of the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, may seem timid: ‘In certain special circumstances, such as the prescribed prayers “for unity,” and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren’. But they were in fact quite revolutionary. They opened the possibility of a communicatio in sacris, a sharing of the holy.
The Directory (1983) and One Bread, One Body (1998)
The decades since Vatican II have seen Bishops’ Conferences publishing norms for Eucharistic sharing, based largely on the Holy See’s Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993).
The document which applies in our country is One Bread, One Body (1998), which established general norms on sacramental sharing in the context of a teaching document on the Eucharist in the life of the Church. In it, the bishops of England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland express a genuine desire for Christian unity and future Eucharistic sharing, but insist that the Eucharist is a sign of the unity of the Church, and that therefore normally only those in communion with the Catholic Church should receive the sacrament (4). Nonetheless, the document comments on the Directory’s openness to other Christians receiving the Eucharist at Mass: ‘if there is some other grave or pressing need. This may at times include those who ask to receive them on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or an individual’ (5). So Jeffrey VanderWilt notes, ‘The bishops determine that these norms permit eucharistic sharing in situations of pressing need (grave illness, danger of death, and so forth). They also apply to occasional, special events in the lives of interchurch couples such as weddings, funerals, and first communions’ (6).
One Bread, One Body lists several ‘unique’ and ‘one-off’ moments in the life of a family or individual, which may constitute a pressing need, and may thus potentially open Holy Communion to those who are not Catholic. People listed are: the parent of a child receiving First Holy Communion, the wife of someone being ordained, the intimate family of the deceased at a Funeral Mass, or indeed a person in danger of death themselves. These cases are not considered as broad general categories in which a person would always be admitted to Communion, and each situation should be, ‘judged individually according to the norms’.
In accord with the Directory, the conditions for reception of communion are named and commented upon: ‘that the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed’. With commendable brevity and good sense, the equivalent document from the Archdiocese of Brisbane describes how a priest could discern whether an aspiring communicant fulfils the above conditions: ‘In the Archdiocese of Brisbane it is sufficient for the presiding priest to establish, by means of a few simple questions, whether or not these conditions are met’.
Pastoral Notes for Sacramental Sharing with other Christians (2008)
The guidelines from many countries around the world, published in the wake of the Directory in the mid-late 1990s are broadly similar to One Bread, One Body. A more recent document on sacramental sharing, from the Diocese of Saskatoon in Canada (2008), list further occasions which may constitute particular cases of grave spiritual need, within interchurch families and communities:
- a) their marriage and subsequent anniversaries celebrated with a Mass
b) the Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, graduation Mass and wedding or ordination of a child, grandchild or close family member
c) major Feast days: Easter, Pentecost and Christmas
d) times of serious illness and/or approaching death
e) funerals of their partner, child, or grandchild
f) at retreats, Marriage Encounters, Parish Missions and religious workshops attended with their partner
g) other special circumstances in consultation with the pastor.Once again the document stresses that Eucharistic sharing is not meant to become routine practice, but the list of exceptions has broadened. Needless to say, the notes from Saskatoon do not apply in Scotland, but it may indicate a direction of travel within an authoritative Church document.
It would seem that an announced blanket ‘ban’ on intercommunion as described above, is somewhat rash. Indeed Gerard Austin argues in forthright manner, ‘whenever Catholic ministers announce, “Only Roman Catholics may come to communion,” their words are blunt, unnuanced, and false’ (13).
It is also interesting to note the insistence in Church documents that the prospective communicant ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative. How can they if they are not aware that this is a possibility? Indeed they may presume that such a request may cause offence or embarrassment. Is the (albeit limited) possibility of Eucharistic sharing known and voiced in the wider Catholic community? Are priests sufficiently aware of the range of possible serious pastoral exceptions to able to raise it in, for example, sacramental preparation, or pastoral support of the bereaved?
Despite the greater openness to potential Eucharistic sharing expressed in Church documents, normal practice excludes other Christians from the Eucharist in the Catholic Church, and vice versa. The official response of the Church of England to One Bread, One Body expresses how Anglicans, are ‘baffled by the rule that an individual who is allowed to receive on a special occasion may not do so thereafter’. It also ruefully notes that the practice of blessings at Mass ‘is normally appropriate for catechumens and penitents, rather than for those who are regarded by their own churches as spiritually prepared to receive Holy Communion’.
Much remains to be done, then, to overcome the pain caused by our Eucharistic separation. One fruitful way forward might revolve around the eschatological nature of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and so it points beyond itself to the full unity which the Church will only achieve in heaven. Do we require full visible unity to receive it now? And could the yearning for that unity be expressed, even if only occasionally, in an irruption of the Kingdom into our midst in a powerful sign of unity, an ‘exceptional, ‘one-off’ celebration of the whole interchurch family in a time of deeply-felt spiritual need, a Jubilee moment of Eucharistic sharing which attests to the limitless hospitality of God?
Fr Stephen Reilly is Co-ordinator of Spiritual and Pastoral Formation at the St Andrew’s Foundation, School of Education, University of Glasgow.
VanderWilt, J. (2005). Eucharistic Sharing and The Catholic Church, Liturgy, 20:4, 47-55. DOI: 10.1080/04580630591003187.
Archdiocese of Brisbane (1995) Blessed and Broken, A Teaching Document on the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, and the Establishing of General Norms on Sacrament Sharing, available https://www.liturgybrisbane.net.au/media/1183/blessed-and-broken-pastoral-guidelines-for-eucharistic-hospitality.pdf .
Diocese of Saskatoon (2008). Pastoral Notes for Sacramental Sharing with other Christians in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. https://rcdos.ca/sites/default/files/groupfiles/Media%20browser/sacramental_sharing_notes.pdf ,
Austin, G (1988). Identity of a Eucharistic Church in an Ecumenical Age, Worship 72, 26–35.
House of Bishops of the Church of England (2001). The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity. London: Church House Publishing.