New call-to-action
alt text needed

Ask a Franciscan | Sharing Communion Is Rarely Permitted

A priest prepares to distribute Communion during a Divine Liturgy June 26 at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y. Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, was the main celebrant of the liturgy. He arrived in the U.S. June 22 to begin a pastoral visit that concludes July 10. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See LEBANON-RAI June 28, 2016.
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) 

Q: May a Catholic give or invite a non-Catholic to receive holy Communion? Wouldn’t that promote our efforts toward ecumenism?

A: Although your intentions may be excellent, ecumenism would be more hurt than helped by what you suggest.

Does the Eucharist already have a meaning or does it have only the meaning which I assign to it? How a person answers that question heavily influences his or her stance on intercommunion.

In the Catholic Church, the communicant responds, “Amen,” to the announcement, “Body of Christ.” Can that Amen mean everything from, “Yes, I believe Christ is present here,” to, “Christ is present here in the same way that my deceased grandmother is present when I look at her photo”?

With a few exceptions, the practice and law of the Roman Catholic Church are not to give the Eucharist to non-Catholics. In receiving the Eucharist we not only need to believe that Jesus is truly present under the appearances of bread and wine, but must also be in communion with the Catholic Church.

For all practical purposes, when a person receives Communion, he or she is saying: “I accept all Catholics as my brothers and sisters. I hold the same truths as they do. I accept the Holy Father and the bishops as successors of Peter and the other apostles.”

In some circumstances Orthodox Christians may receive Communion. Even non-Catholics could, under special circumstances, receive Communion with the permission of the bishop—for example, if the person is dying and expresses faith in the Real Presence.

Many missalettes printed in the United States carry this 1996 guideline from our bishops:

“Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those Churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provision of canon law” (Canon #844,4).

In 1940 Brother Roger Schutz brought Protestants and Catholics together to establish a monastic community in Taize, France. That monastery has contributed a great deal to the ecumenical movement, but its monks do not practice intercommunion.

Admitting and seeking to understand the painful differences that keep Catholics and non-Catholics apart in this matter may be today’s best contribution to ecumenism.

Historic Catholic-Lutheran Accord

Q: I heard that in October the pope will sign a document that is intended to unite all Christians under one umbrella regardless of denomination. Could you please explain what this means to our Catholic faith? Is there a compromise here regarding the Catholic traditions and beliefs? Where can I find more information on this subject?

A: I think you have been hearing about a historic agreement between Roman Catholics and Lutherans—not a document to unite all Christians. A Joint Declaration on Justification was scheduled to be signed in Augsburg, Germany, on October 31, 1999, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

This document reflects 30 years of ecumenical dialogue between these two Churches and ends a 400-year-old doctrinal dispute. The Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity helped develop this joint declaration, which has been approved by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by Pope John Paul II. I do not know if the pope himself intends to sign it.

Justification is the teaching about how people are saved. This teaching was probably the most basic difference between Roman Catholics and Martin Luther in the 16th century.

The joint declaration says: “The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths exists between Lutherans and Catholics [#40]….The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this declaration [#41].”

The Lutheran World Federation represents 58 million of the world’s 61 million Lutherans; this document was approved according to official procedures of that federation and the Holy See.

When the joint declaration was approved in June 1998, both sides identified issues needing resolution before the declaration could be accepted as an official statement for these Christians. A further “Common Statement” and “Annex” were released by both sides on June 11, 1999; they are part of the document to be signed in Augsburg, Germany, where the foundational Lutheran Augsburg Confession on justification was drawn up in 1530.

The following are two key passages: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works”(#15); and “Grace, as fellowship of the justified with God in faith, hope and love, is always received from the salvific and creative work of God. But it is nevertheless the responsibility of the justified not to waste this grace but to live in it. The exhortation to do good works is the exhortation to practice the faith” (“Annex,” #2D).

You can be sure that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has very carefully carried out its responsibilities and would not have approved this new document if it compromised the Catholic faith.

Your best source of information will be your diocesan newspaper, Catholic magazines and official Catholic and Lutheran publications. You can find the text for this joint declaration on the Internet or at a public library.

Since many Protestants other than Lutherans consider the Augsburg Confession a foundational document, they will surely take notice of this joint declaration.

Tabernacles—One Last Time

Q: I was very disappointed with your answer about this in the July issue. Article #1183 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The tabernacle is to be situated ‘in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honor.’ The dignity, placing and security of the eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.” Off to the side or at the back of the church does not fit the Catechism’s call for a “most worthy place with greatest honor.”

A: You could argue that the first sentence in this Catechism quote favors a central place in the sanctuary. Others could argue that, while respecting the reverence called for in the first sentence, the second sentence favors a place where individuals can get closer to the tabernacle for private prayer and adoration. The Church’s current liturgical directives favor this second interpretation.

In May 1967 the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued Eucharisticum Mysterium, which says in Chapter III, Section II.D.: “In the celebration of the Mass the principal modes of worship by which Christ is present to his Church are gradually revealed. First of all, Christ is seen to be present among the faithful gathered in his name; then in his Word, as the Scriptures are read and explained; in the person of the minister; finally and in a unique way under the species of the Eucharist. Consequently, by reason of the symbolism, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that the eucharistic presence of Christ, which is the fruit of the consecration and should be seen as such, should not be on the altar from the very beginning of Mass through the reservation of the sacred species in the tabernacle.”

You can find this text in Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Costello Publishing, 1975). The same principle is reflected in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal (March 27, 1975): “Every encouragement should be given to the practice of eucharistic reservation in a chapel suited to the faithful’s private adoration and prayer” (#276).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law says, “The tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved should be sited in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer” (#938,2).

Individuals can have honest differences of opinion about whether a particular site is “conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer.” Most dioceses require that plans for new churches or major renovations of existing ones be approved by a diocesan commission appointed for this task.

No one today can argue truthfully that official Church directives require that the tabernacle be in the sanctuary.

This column appeared in the November 1999 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.