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This article was published in the April 2007 issue of Issues and Reflections.


In 2007 the London meeting of the Association of Interchurch Families preceded the 5th John Coventry Memorial Lecture. As he had done a number of times since the death of John Coventry, SJ, Fr Robert Murray SJ celebrated mass for the Association. Several of his homilies have appeared in the Interchurch Families journal, and later in IFIR (no.3, April 2005). The following homily was preached at Heythrop College of the University of London, where the meeting and lecture took place, on 17th February 2007.


Once again I have the joy of leading your eucharistic worship today. The first time was in 1999, when I was invited to stand unworthily in the place of John Coventry. My last time was two years ago, to speak in loving memory of Martin Reardon. I am deeply grateful to be invited again.

We all realise that one reason for your Association to exist is the pain every couple among you feels, because your shared commitment to Christ is in tension with your commitment to separated Christian traditions. Between many denominations, thank God, there is mutual acceptance of eucharistic ministry. But you all know where the cause of pain mainly lies. This is why I find myself as a Catholic priest obliged in conscience to make a statement. Standing here as a representative, I cannot repudiate the discipline I am under by offering a general invitation. Indeed, I accept the Catholic principle that eucharistic mutuality ought to be in step with mutual recognition between churches. But I am equally convinced that interchurch marriages and families are in a special position and that this deserves to be recognised; and in conscience I cannot go against what I believe Jesus desires. Many of you have heard before how I solve this. I invite each of you to exercise your own spiritual discernment. I cannot turn away anyone who comes for love of Jesus, to receive his body and blood. If anyone would rather come simply for a blessing, please do so; or stay in your place and pray, if you prefer. I greet you all in Christ and welcome you all in him.

Hebrews 11: 1-7
Mark 9: 1-13

Are you wondering why I chose the readings you have just heard, to bring you a message for your meeting? What have the letter to the Hebrews and the Transfiguration of the Lord to do with your lives as partners in interchurch marriages? Well, I didn’t go straight for those two texts. I prefer to accept, if possible, the lectionary readings for the day. This may sometimes create challenges, but it can also open up vistas I hadn’t thought of before.

Regiments in the parade

The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to Jews who want to follow Jesus as Christ yet cannot believe he is divine as well as human, God’s eternal Son. The first thing the writer has to put right is a compromise idea, that Jesus was actually some kind of angel. Again and again the readers are warned that if they cannot develop their faith so as to believe in Christ’s full divinity, they will find they have ‘missed the bus’. Hebrews is a long letter, and our passage today is the beginning of the conclusion. After all the warnings, the writer wants to encourage his readers; he recognises that they do want to follow Jesus, and that they have some degree of faith in him. So he builds on that. As this long chapter develops, it becomes clear that by faith he means more than purely intellectual belief: that is only one part of a full response to God. It includes personal true-ness, commitment – what Jewish tradition calls ‘cleaving to God’. The opening statement is filled out by surveying the parade of saints who lived and died with this committed faith in all the centuries before Christ. I hope you’ll go home and remind yourselves of the whole chapter. Finally the writer comes to his climax, which begins the next chapter: we have seen a great ‘cloud of witnesses’; now we must look to Jesus as the one who was really leading the procession all the time, and who still calls us today. In fact that ‘Today’ has sounded repeatedly in an earlier chapter. But now it’s for us, here, now and from now on, to live by and witness to. We are members of that great parade. Our witness to our faith in Jesus puts us among the saints. There are various regiments in the parade; yours is the A.I.F.

On the holy mountain

Now let us look at the story of the Transfiguration as we have heard it in the Gospel of Mark. It is told also by Matthew and by Luke, who adds some precious details, and there is a vivid allusion in the second letter of Peter. This event in the short public life of Jesus is central to his efforts to get across to his disciples that he is indeed the expected Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, but that this does not mean a political figure who will restore the kingdom of David.

Jesus had chosen twelve men in whom he saw real promise. Among them he must have seen a deeper quality in Peter, James and John. He chose them to experience a revelation of his hidden divine glory, so that they might be able to take in what he was trying to tell them about his destined death and resurrection, and not lose faith.

None of the gospels names the high mountain ‘where they could be alone’. This is unusual, for all four almost regularly tell us where each event they narrate took place. Tradition has come to identify the place as Mount Tabor, but is Tabor really high enough to fit the description? – and remote enough to offer privacy when all in Galilee were looking for Jesus? Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke simply says that Jesus went up a mountain to pray. Later on Luke alone records how Jesus prayed where he had withdrawn from Galilee with his disciples, to test how far they had got in understanding, but only Matthew and Mark name Caesarea Philippi as the place.

Biblical scholars in recent centuries have been too much obsessed with trying to establish facts and dates, and to identify locations. The fathers of the Church believed, no doubt, that everything narrated in the Bible actually happened, but they were more interested in spiritual meanings. For the listeners to the first preachers of the Gospel, what mountain could evoke, together, the names of Moses and Elijah? Wherever this event actually took place, symbolically and ‘spiritually’ it irresistibly points us to Mount Horeb (the other name of Sinai). This was where God delivered the Torah to Moses. It was where centuries later Elijah, a fugitive from Jezebel’s rage, heard the ‘still small voice’ revealing to him that he was by no means the last surviving true believer in God, and that the time was due for him to hand over his prophetic status to Elisha. And if the mountain to which Jesus had led his chosen three could become for them the spiritual, symbolic Horeb, may not each of us treasure some place, some time, in which we experienced a sense of God’s reality that could turn that place into our own spiritual Horeb?

What was it that the three disciples experienced? Again, Luke tells more than Matthew and Mark. All three say that Jesus was ‘transfigured’, changed in appearance. Matthew says his face shone like the sun; all try to describe this amazing light of Jesus which made even his clothes shine brilliantly – in fact Mark has more to say about this than about Jesus himself! Then all three mention the appearance of the two figures, talking with Jesus; the disciples seem able to recognise them at once as Moses and Elijah. Luke alone tells us what they were talking about: the ‘exodus’ (clearly meaning death) that Jesus was to fulfil in Jerusalem. But what were the disciples experiencing? Again, it is only Luke, and only now, who gives us hints to help us to picture this. Luke says they were heavy with sleep, yet he adds at once that they kept awake all the time. The mention of sleepiness could suggest that the experience was a shared dream; but the firm statement that they kept awake challenges us to choose between physical sight and hearing, or a shared visionary experience. I don’t believe that to choose the latter is necessarily a surrender to disbelief that anything really happened. Faith bids us believe that the whole event was planned by God. Jesus was to prove his divine nature for these special disciples in a way answering to their idea of God’s glory. Thus he would create a vision of the biblical representatives of Torah and prophecy to attest that Jesus was fulfilling God’s promises of the supreme ‘Lord’s Anointed’ to come, and of how his death was to lead to the triumph of God’s plan. Finally a cloud (Matthew says luminous) obscured the whole vision, but from it the disciples heard God’s voice confirming Jesus’ divine sonship, as previously at his baptism. Peter was beside himself, and started babbling; ‘He did not know what he was saying’. If only this precious moment could last! His self-image demanded practical action, of course with Peter in charge. But the vision was already fading, and for the disciples there was just their beloved friend and teacher alone, reaching out his sturdy hand to raise them up.

An eternal meaning

The event of the Transfiguration was over, but its meaning is eternal. I have already suggested that Christians, including you and me, may remember experiences which, in prayerful meditation, we can see as moments on our own Horeb or Tabor, moments when we knew Jesus was reassuring us. It is my prayer for you, precisely in your lives as interchurch couples and parents, that you may be strengthened by such moments and memories. I pray that your very witness to what you are may be for others a sign

Robert Murray, SJ

Return to April 2007 IFIR


An Apostolic Exhortation issued by Pope Benedict XVI on 22 February 2007

reflecting the conclusions of the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist


We are looking here at the paragraphs in Sacramentum Caritatis that are particularly relevant to interchurch families.


  1. Sacramental sharing

The background

Interchurch families paid close attention to the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, held in Rome 2-29 October 2005.  The subject of eucharistic sharing in interchurch families has been a constant concern to such families ever since they began to meet in groups and associations in the 1960s.  They were disappointed that the lineamenta in preparation for the Synod, published in February 2004, had spoken in a general derogatory way of ‘intercommunion’, and made no mention of exceptional possibilities of eucharistic sharing in particular cases and under certain conditions according to pastoral judgement.  Such exceptional sacramental sharing in the Eucharist has been of transforming spiritual significance as an experience of grace in some interchurch families.  They hoped therefore that the Synod would re-affirm the norms that allowed it, and explain the reasons for these exceptions; they hoped also that there would be a specific reference to the needs of some interchurch families.

An international network of interchurch families, which had begun to find a common voice following the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families near Rome in 2003, therefore submitted a response to the lineamenta in November 2004 (for the text of this response see Issues-Reflections-News, April 2005). This was sent directly to the Synod office.  French and Italian interchurch families also sent in separate responses through their Bishops’ Conferences. 

The Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church

When the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod was published in July 2005, there was a section in this working paper headed ‘The Eucharist and Intercommunion’ (86). This included a statement on the need for the Catholic Church ‘to state clearly what stands in the way of full communion and what conditions exist for the reception of communion in sacris’.  This reference to the possibility of exceptional admission to communion was very welcome.  The preceding section, on ‘The Eucharist and Ecumenism’ (85), said: ‘A favourable rapport has also developed between the Church and communities from the Reformation. The relation of these communities to the Sacrament of the Eucharist is proving, in good part, to be a delicate yet promising experience, as indicated in canon law (c.844) and The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (129-131). There was no specific reference to those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage (Directory 159-60), but the working document was certainly an advance on the lineamenta.

When the Synod of Bishops opened in October 2005, the report of the General Relator, Cardinal Angelo Scola, said that ‘intercommunion’ must be distinguished from the admission of individuals to communion, which it would be more exact to call eucharistic hospitality.  (Roman documents have traditionally not used the term ‘eucharistic hospitality’, but spoken of ‘eucharistic sharing’.  The term ‘eucharistic hospitality’ was not taken up by the Synod).  Further reflection was needed on the relationship between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion.

Very early in the Synod (5 October 2005) Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, spoke of Catholics married to other baptised Christians.  ‘We acknowledge them to be baptised in Christ in the sacrament of marriage, but not in the reception of the Eucharist’, he said.  Apart from this reference specifically to interchurch families, there were a number of interventions by Bishops on the subject of eucharistic sharing, some wanting this to be allowed more freely, and others fearful of anything that might weaken the Catholic position on the close relationship between ecclesial and eucharistic communion.

Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian unity, made a particularly important speech. We give it in full.

Cardinal Kasper’s intervention, 8 October 2005

‘I am referring to chapters 86 and 87 of the Instrumentum Laboris and to the theme: The Eucharist and Ecumenism. I am thankful for what has been said in these chapters, and in the General Report, about the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity.  I would like, first of all, to underline what has already been said in the Synod Hall about eucharistic ecclesiology, which is of great importance for the ecumenical movement.

‘The theme ‘Eucharist and Unity’ goes back to what St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘And as there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf’ (I Cor.10:17).  This assertion ‘one loaf – one body’ and ‘participation in the single chalice’, which means ‘communion in the single body’, modelled the entire tradition of the Church in the Orient and in the West. We find this first of all in St Augustine and once again in St Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, the ‘res’, that is, the species and the goal of the Eucharist is not the real presence of Christ, which Thomas no doubt teaches, but for him the real presence is only ‘res et sacramentum’ that is, an intermediate reality.  The ‘res’ the goal of the Eucharist is the unity of the Church.

‘This view was renewed in Vatican Council II, which rediscovered the church as communion, through the common participation in the sole Baptism and the sole Eucharistic bread. On this point, we agree with the Oriental Churches; the Communities that belong to the Reformation had the same concept at their origins, they have only recently abandoned this. Therefore, the Catholic concept of the intimate link between Eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion is not – as some would tend to believe – a vague anti-ecumenical concept, but an ecumenical concept per se.

‘However, because of this reason, the terminology, which unfortunately is found also in the Instrumentum Laboris, that speaks about ‘intercommunion’, is ambigious and in itself contradictory. It should be avoided, since there is not an ‘inter’ communion, that is a ‘between’ two communions (two Communities), but rather a communion in the communion of the one body of Christ, which is the Church.

‘There is another weak point in the Instrumentum Laboris.  It mentions ‘communicatio in sacris’ only with reference to one principle, whereas Vatican Council II talks about two principles: the unity of the Church and participation in the means of grace. It asserts that the unity of the Church, for the most part, forbids the access of a non-Catholic to the Eucharist, but participation in the means of grace sometimes recommends the admission of a non-Catholic to the Eucharist (Unitatio redintegratio 8: cf Ecumenical Directory, 129). For that reason Pope John wrote that it was to him a ‘reason for joy’ that Catholic ministers in certain particular cases could administer the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Extreme Unction to the sick to other Christians (encyclical Ut Unum Sint, 46: encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 46).

‘These formulations – ‘recommend’, ‘reason for joy’ – mean that this is not merely a concession or exception, but a possibility founded on the Christian concept of every human person, that is on the uniqueness of every person and the uniqueness of every situation of salvation. The human person is never a case of general principle. Canon Law respects this uniqueness of every person.  On the basis of and within the limitations of universal law, in certain determinate and particular cases – where the possibility of scandal is remote – it gives way, not to private conscience, but to a canonical act of admission by the competent Bishop.  To express this in a better way, it gives room for spiritual discernment, for prudential judgement and the pastoral wisdom of the Bishop (cf CIC can.844).

‘As for the criteria for such decisions, we have a development since the publication of the two Codes of Canon Law. The criteria as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.1394-1401) and in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.293) concerning the ecclesial communities, are four: a grave necessity, spontaneous request (of their own will), required dispositions and manifestation of the Catholic faith regarding the Sacrament. Personally, I am convinced that with these criteria the truly pastoral problems may be resolved in a positive way.

‘Because these questions in many countries are of great pastoral importance, I wish to recommend that they be included in the final text or in the propositions.’

The Propositions of the Synod

From the middle of October the Synod considered successive drafts of the set of Propositions it was to pass to Pope Benedict XVI as representing the work of the Synod.  The Bishops got together in language groups to work on the texts.  One of these groups, English Group C, reported that: ‘The question of ecumenical relations in the matter of eucharistic hospitality was also discussed. Our group is proposing that a thorough study be made in regard to the Catholic practice of eucharistic hospitality in order to help local churches overcome the confusion that currently exists among clergy and faithful’ (National Catholic Reporter, 15 October 2005).

The Propositions received their final vote on 22nd October, and were published by Pope Benedict XVI on the following day, the final day of the Synod.  (This had never happened before, and it was done in an unofficial Italian translation of the Latin original.)

Proposition 41 is headed: Admission of Non-Catholic Faithful to Communion. It reads:

‘Based on the communion of all Christians, which the one Baptism already keeps active, though not yet in a complete manner, separation before the Lord’s banquet is justly experienced as something painful. Both within the Catholic Church as well as by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, there often arises as a consequence the urgent request for the possibility of Eucharistic Communion between Catholic Christians and others.  It must be clarified that the Eucharist does not only signify our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but above all the full communion of the Church.

‘Therefore, we ask non-Catholic Christians to understand and respect the fact that for us, according to biblically based tradition, Eucharistic Communion and ecclesial communion are closely linked; therefore, Eucharistic Communion with non-Catholic Christians is not generally possible. Even more does an ecumenical concelebration have to be excluded. It should also be clarified that, in view of personal salvation, the admission of non-Catholic Christians to the Eucharist, to the sacrament of penance and to the anointing of the sick, in special individual situations, under precise conditions, is possible and even recommended (Unitatis Redintegratio 8, 15; Ecumenical Directory 129-31; Code of
Canon Law 844, 3-4; Code of the Eastern Churches 671, 4; encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, 46; encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 46).

‘The Synod insists that the conditions expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1398-1401) and its Compendium (293) be observed.’

Sacramentum Caritatis

The post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, dated 22 February 2007, was issued by Pope Benedict XVI in March.  We give here the text of section 56.

‘56. The subject of participation in the Eucharist inevitably raises the question of Christians belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this regard, it must be said that the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the Church's unity inspires us to long for the day when we will be able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together with all believers in Christ, and in this way to express visibly the fullness of unity that Christ willed for his disciples (cf. Jn 17:21). On the other hand, the respect we owe to the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood prevents us from making it a mere "means" to be used indiscriminately in order to attain that unity. (172) The Eucharist in fact not only manifests our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also implies full communio with the Church. This is the reason why, sadly albeit not without hope, we ask Christians who are not Catholic to understand and respect our conviction, which is grounded in the Bible and Tradition. We hold that eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are so linked as to make it generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter. There would be even less sense in actually concelebrating with ministers of Churches or ecclesial communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Yet it remains true that, for the sake of their eternal salvation, individual non-Catholic Christians can be admitted to the Eucharist, the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. But this is possible only in specific, exceptional situations and requires that certain precisely defined conditions be met (173). These are clearly indicated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
(174) and in its Compendium (175). Everyone is obliged to observe these norms faithfully.’

The relevant notes for this section read as follows:

(172) Cf.John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), 8: AAS 87 (1995). 925-926.

(173) Cf.Propositio 41: Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, 8, 15: John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), 46: AAS 87 (1995), 948; Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17 April 2003), 45-46: AAS 95 (2003), 463-464, Code of Canon Law, can.844, 3-4:; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, can.671, 3-4; Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Directory for the Applivcation of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (25 March 1993), 125, 129-131: AAS 85 (1993), 1087, 1088-1089.

(174) Cf. Nos.1398-1401.

(175) Cf. No.293.

From an interchurch family perspective

The 1980 Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family did a very great deal for interchurch families.  Cardinal Willebrands, then President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, specifically called for attention to be given to the need of some mixed marriage couples for eucharistic sharing. He pointed out that one of the conditions then in force for admission did not have the theological weight of the others.  It was the condition that the non-Catholic Christian who asked for admission did not have access to his own minister ‘for a prolonged period’.  This was the condition that could seem effectively to exclude interchurch spouses from eucharistic sharing (none of the other conditions automatically did so).  When the Code of Canon Law appeared in 1983 it was a cause of great rejoicing to interchurch families that the phrase ‘for a prolonged period’ had been dropped.  It was simply a matter of those ‘who cannot approach a minister of their own community’.  It looked like a direct answer to Cardinal Willebrand’s intervention.  Before the Code interchurch families had to point out that since their need for eucharistic sharing is the need of the couple, the ‘access for a prolonged period’ condition was not relevant to them.  After the Code, they could for the same reason explain that the ‘access’ condition was always fulfilled in a request from an interchurch couple. 

There seems to have been little specific mention of interchurch families in the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist.  But there is a very important point relevant to their needs to be noted.  In Cardinal Kasper’s intervention (see the text above) he spoke of ‘development’ since the Code, and referred to the criteria for admission to communion as those listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium to the Catechism.  Here the condition about not being able to approach his/her own minister has been dropped altogether.


This is very relevant to interchurch families.  The 1993 Ecumenical Directory identified those who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’ as in possible need of eucharistic sharing.  No longer could it be said that it is impossible to admit interchurch spouses.  But even without the ‘prolonged period’ phrase, the condition has still been used by some authorities to deny the possibility of eucharistic sharing except on the occasion of specific celebrations that take place in the Catholic Church – such as weddings, baptisms, First Communions, funerals.  At other times, it is argued, the non-Catholic Christian in the marriage is able to have recourse to his own minister.  But since Sacramentum Caritatis clearly cites the Catechism as the source for ‘the precisely defined ‘conditions’ for admission, it is now more difficult to say that it is impossible to admit interchurch spouses except on such occasions.  (The British Association of Interchurch Families immediately noticed the significance of the omission of the ‘access to own minister’ clause when the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint came out in 1995 [see ‘A Source of Joy’ in Interchurch Families vol. 4, no.1, Jan.1996, pp.4-6].  Somehow it was never noticed that the Catechism had omitted it a year or so before!)

Below are the relevant texts from both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) and from the Compendium (2005).


Catechism and Compendium

The Catechism states:

‘1401. When, in the Ordinary's judgement, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding
the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions.’

The Compendium gives us this question and answer:

  1. When is it possible to give Holy Communion to other Christians?
    Catholic ministers may give Holy Communion licitly to members of the Oriental Churches which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church whenever they ask for it of their own will and possess the required dispositions. Catholic ministers may licitly give Holy Communion to members of other ecclesial communities only if, in grave necessity, they ask for it of their own will, possess the required dispositions, and give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding the sacrament.

‘Personally I am convinced’, said Cardinal Kasper to the Synod, ‘that with these criteria the truly pastoral problems may be resolved in a positive way.’  Interchurch family experience, shared on an international level, bears this out.  In some places these criteria have been applied in a positive way for the good of interchurch families (and in so doing have helped to contribute to Christian unity). In other places there is still much educational work to be done before this happens.  Hearts and minds have to be convinced before all the possibilities opened up by the developing norms are appreciated and put into practice.

Especially in view of their disappointment in reading the lineamenta preparing the Synod, interchurch families will be grateful to Cardinal Kasper for his recommendation to the Synod that these criteria should be included in its final text. They are grateful to the Synod for accepting this recommendation, and to Pope Benedict XVI for incorporating it into Sacramentum Caritatis.


2. Marriage and Eucharist

So far as the need of some interchurch families for eucharistic sharing is concerned, a great deal hinges on a deepening understanding of the nature of marriage between Christians, and its relation to the eucharist.  We conclude, therefore, with the quotation of a passage from Sacramentum Caritatis relating to marriage.

’27.  The Eucharist, as the sacrament of charity, has a particular relationship with the love of man and woman united in marriage (Familiaris Consortio, 57).  Pope John Paul II frequently spoke of the nuptial character of the Eucharist and its special relationship with the sacrament of Matrimony: “The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption.  It is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 26). Moreover, “the entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1617).  The Eucharist inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage.  By the power of the sacrament, the marriage bond is intrinsically linked to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church (cf Eph.5:31-32).  The mutual consent that husband and wife exchange in Christ, which establishes them as a community of life and love, also has a eucharistic dimension.  Indeed, in the theology of Saint Paul, conjugal love is a sacramental sign of Christ’s love for his Church, a love culminating in the Cross, the expression of his “marriage” with humanity and at the same time the origin and heart of the Eucharist.  For this reason the Church manifests her particular spiritual closeness to all those who have built their family on the sacrament of Matrimony (Proposito 8).  The family – the domestic Church (Lumen Gentium, 11) – is a primary sphere of the Church’s life, especially because of its decisive role in the Christian education of children (Proposito 8).’

Ruth Reardon

This article was published in the April 2007 issue of Issues & Reflections.

The following text is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism written by Cardinal Walter Kasper, with extensive contributions by Mgr Johan Bonny and Mgr Donald Bolen (New City Press, NY 2007, 96 pp.).

Mixed Marriage Families

‘Marriages between Catholics and other baptized persons have their own particular nature, but they contain numerous elements that could well be made good use of and developed, both for their intrinsic value and for the contribution that they can make to the ecumenical movement. This is particularly true when both parties are faithful to their religious duties. Their common Baptism and the dynamism of grace provide the spouses in these marriages with the basis and motivation for expressing their unity in the sphere of moral and spiritual values’.39

39. Mixed marriage families are an ever present reality in many parts of the world. While not turning a blind eye to the challenges faced by mixed marriage couples, the Catholic Church looks to them also in terms of their intrinsic value and invites reflection on the contributions they can make to their respective communities, as they live out their Christian discipleship faithfully and creatively.40 Mixed marriage families have indeed something to offer in terms of an ecumenical exchange of gifts.

40. Pastoral guidelines and norms have been laid down by the Church regarding the preparation and celebration of mixed marriages, the sharing in sacramental life, the responsibilities of parents for the upbringing of the children, and the responsibilities of the local Ordinary and ministers, responding to the pastoral needs of mixed marriage families.41 Faithfulness to these guidelines and norms will at times mean that mixed marriage families will feel more intensely the pain of division between the communities to which they belong. That same faithfulness, however, will also help them to take part more fully and personally in the quest for restored communion between these communities. The particular experiences of mixed marriage families should be given due pastoral consideration both in terms of the gifts and challenges they bring to their communities.

In the local Church, mixed marriage families can

  • be encouraged, as a couple or family, to pray and to ponder the Scriptures, as a way of nourishing their spiritual life;42
  • be ministered to by dioceses or local communities, particularly in the period of marriage preparation, through programmes which help these couples to better understand their partner’s religious convictions and deepen their shared Christian inheritance; 43
  • be called upon to play a role in organising or leading ecumenical groups who gather for prayer and the study of Scriptures, or for the support of other mixed marriage families;
  • be given a particular responsibility in the preparation of ecumenical prayer services, both during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year;
  • be invited to study and make known the Church’s teaching concerning the promotion of Christian unity and developments resulting from ecumenical dialogue.

The background to this passage

The 2003 Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity focused on the theme of ‘spiritual ecumenism’. The bishops requested that a brief Vademecum or Handbook be produced, inviting those who have special responsibility in promoting Christian unity to deepen the spiritual roots of ecumenism and offering suggestions to this end. After considerable work in Rome and consultation with ecumenical bodies around the world this has now been done, and the Handbook from which the passage above has been taken was published early in 2007.

Besides a Preface, a Conclusion and a Bibliography, there are three main sections in the book:

1. Deepening Christian Faith
This contains sections on ‘The Word of God in Sacred Scripture’ and ‘Witnesses to the Word of God’.
2. Prayer and Worship
There are five sections here: ‘The Lord’s Prayer’; Personal Prayer’; Prayer in Common’; ‘Sacramental Celebrations’, and ‘The Liturgical year’.
3. ‘Diakonia’ and Witness
The six sections here are entitled ‘Parishes and Local Communities’, ‘Communities of Religious Life’; ‘Monastic Communities’; ‘Ecclesial Communities or Movements’; ’Young People’ and ‘Pastoral Ministers’.

It is interesting that, unlike the Pontifical Council’s 1993 Directory, which has a quite separate section on ‘Mixed Marriages’ following sections on ‘The Sacrament of Baptism’ and ‘Sharing Spiritual Activities and Resources’, this Handbook puts its paragraphs on ‘Mixed Marriage Families’ firmly in the section on ‘Sacramental Celebrations’. Since the sacraments, besides being ‘an expression of the Church’s unity in faith, in worship and in apostolic ministry’ are ‘also a source of the Church’s unity and a means for building it up’, they ‘have their place in spiritual ecumenism’. After this introduction, the section starts with ‘Baptism’, continues with ‘Eucharist’, and follows with ‘Mixed Marriage Families’ before ending with ‘Sacraments of Healing’.

It is important for interchurch families that the sacramental reality of their marriages and family life is affirmed and underlined in this way. The 1993 Directory states that interchurch partners ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’ (160). This phrase is not repeated in the Handbook, but the positioning of the section reaffirms this reality. A future task will be to draw out more fully the relationship between marital spirituality and spiritual ecumenism. This should allow us to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of ‘living in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity’ (John Paul II, 1982) and the interchurch family as a ‘practical laboratory of unity’ (Benedict XVI, 2006).

For the time being, however, there are a number of things to welcome that are new in this text, so far as official documents are concerned.

a. ‘faithfully and creatively’
Where this phrase is used, a reference is given to Familiaris Consortio n.78 (1981). ‘Faith’ and ‘faithful’ appear several times in this section of the encyclical, which notes that interchurch couples can make a contribution to the ecumenical movement, ‘particularly when both parties are faithful to their religious duties’. The Handbook, however, speaks of mixed marriage couples living out their Christian discipleship faithfully and creatively. This phrase goes beyond anything that is said in Familiaris Consortio or the 1993 Directory, but appeared in the Message addressed by Cardinal Kasper to the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families held near Rome in 2003. Its repetition here encourages interchurch families in their conviction that for them faithfulness does not mean a slavish conformity to the past, but building on the heritage of the past to seek new ways of expressing their unity in Christ in their ‘domestic churches’. Such new ways must always be tested by the wider church community, but because they are new they cannot of their nature always be approved in advance – this is surely the significance of Pope Benedict’s ‘laboratories of unity’.

b. ‘an ecumenical exchange of gifts’
This phrase also comes from Cardinal Kasper’s 2003 Message: ‘You place in common what you have received from your respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ. You are uniquely situated to help the churches better see the authentic gifts which are to be found in and received from each other.’ Looking more deeply, and remembering that the gifts given by the Risen Lord to his Church were people, (Ephesians 4:7-13) we might see interchurch families themselves as the ecumenical ‘gifts’ – couples and families living as one so far as they can within the two communities which have nurtured their faith. This, above all, is how they ‘bring both gifts and challenges to their communities’.

c. ‘mixed marriage family support groups’
Interchurch family associations and groups have existed since the 1960s, but this is the first time that they have received this kind of encouragement in a document put out by the President of the PCPCU. The Rome paper ‘Interchurch Families and Christian Unity’ adopted by the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families in 2003, noted that ‘some mixed marriages have been discouraged from becoming more fully interchurch – or even from practising altogether – by the difficulties they have encountered from relatives, congregations and ministers without ecumenical understanding and commitment’. ‘Such mixed marriages’, it said, ‘can be regarded as potential interchurch families’. It stated that ‘one of the aims of associations and groups of interchurch families around the world is to encourage other mixed Christian marriages, who would like to become more fully and intentionally interchurch marriages, that this is possible and can be deeply enriching.’ An international group of interchurch families visited the Pontifical Council in 2005 as a follow-up to the Rome Gathering. One of the questions they asked was whether the Council recognised a value in associations of interchurch families, and if so, whether they could be encouraged in regions where they do not yet exist. This section of the Handbook gives a clear answer.

d. ‘be encouraged to … play a role … be given responsibility … be invited to make known’
Everything mentioned in this section has already taken place in some parts of the world, but it has usually been done on the initiative of interchurch families themselves. In many places they have been in the forefront of local ecumenical activities. There is a development here, however, in the sense that bishops and those responsible for promoting Christian unity are now being asked to invite this kind of cooperation in ecumenical work from interchurch families. Such families are to receive active encouragement to carry out these tasks. It is particularly noteworthy that they are to be invited ‘to study and make known the Church’s teaching concerning the promotion of Christian unity and developments resulting from ecumenical dialogue’. They certainly have an incentive to do this, since they feel that they often suffer in their family lives from ignorance of ecumenical developments by pastors who may be very well-meaning but simply do not know what is ecumenically possible. This document gives them a certain recognised responsibility here that is welcome, although it is not always easy to see how to carry it out.

e. ‘the pain of division’
Previously the word ‘need’ has always been used by Roman documents to refer to eucharistic sharing in interchurch families. ‘Pain’ was used in the British and Irish Bishops’ document One Bread One Body, and it is repeated in this text from Cardinal Kasper’s 2003 Address (where it referred especially to eucharistic sharing). It is linked here, however, in a more general way to ‘faithfulness to the guidelines and norms laid down by the Church regarding mixed marriages’. It is not entirely clear what is meant. In any case it is important to bear in mind the point made by Cardinal Kasper in 2003: ‘The pain arises not from the current norms, but from the fact that the separation of Christians has not yet been overcome’. It is faithfulness to the will of Christ and to his prayer for unity that will impel interchurch families ‘to take part more fully and personally in the quest for restored communion between the communities to which they belong’, bringing their particular ‘gifts and challenges’.

Ruth Reardon

39  Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Familiaris Consortio, n.78.

40 Cf. CCC, n.1633‐1637.

41 CIC, can.1124‐1129; CCEO, can.813‐816; Directory, n.143‐160.

42 Cf. Directory, n.149. 43 Cf. Directory, n.149; cf. Bibliography: Ecumenical documents on the sacraments.