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Sharing Communion

(One partner Roman Catholic, the other not)

What are possibilities from the Roman Catholic point of view?

But don't Catholics refuse to share communion until full unity is achieve?

There are a lot of misunderstandings about this. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church said that two principles are involved in sharing communion while Christians are not yet fully united in one Church.

  1. It should be a sign of the unity of the church.
  2. It should provide a sharing in the means of grace.

Do both these principles have to be observed at one and the same time?

Ideally, yes. But while Christians are divided we are not in an ideal situation. So the Council said that:

  • the first principle generally rules out sharing communion;
  • but the second principle sometimes commends it; and
  • what is to be done in concrete cases depends on the local bishop or the bishops' Conference. (Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, n.8)

Since the Council this development in the Roman Catholic position has made possible the admission of other Christians to Catholic communion in certain circumstances. This has been seen as a pastoral provision in view of their special needs, and this pastoral provision is related to the way in which the Churches as such are growing closer to one another and seeing themselves as in some sense in communion with one another, although this communion is as yet partial and imperfect.

So how de know when sharing communion is to be commended?

Various guidelines have been put out. From the Catholic side quite a lot of eucharistic sharing has been allowed with Eastern Orthodox Christians, because of the closeness in belief and the special recognition given to the Eastern Churches, even though they are not in communion with Rome. One of the aims of this is 'to promote closer union with the Easter Churches separated from us'. (Vatican II Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, n.27) (It has to be said that there is much more caution about sacramental sharing from the Orthodox side.)

What about Christians in the West?

There are various conditions under which a Catholic bishop may admit western Christians to communion:

  • there must be a serious need;
  • there must be a spontaneous request (i.e. communion is not to be offered except in response to a request);
  • the Christian who asks has not minister of his or her own community available;
  • he/she must share the Catholic eucharistic faith. (Code of Canon Law, can.844)

So how are these conditions applied?

The sort of occasions on which some Catholic bishops in England have given permission to other Christians to receive communion with Catholics have given permission to other Christians to receive communion with Catholics are when they are linked with a Catholic group - e.g at a school celebration, or on a pilgrimage, when an individual's need to be part of a community is recognized.

As an interchurch couple we are linked together by the sacrament of Christian marriage. We feel a very real and deep spiritual need to share communion. What can we do?

And we as an interchurch family are doing all we can to build up our unity and to share our faith with our children We feel it is not only painful but wrong to be torn apart when we go to Mass together. What can we do?

More and more Catholics (including bishops and priests) are in sympathy with your feelings.

They would like you to be able to share communion together, but yours is an ongoing need and they are hesitant to change inherited patterns too drastically.

What we do at the Eucharist expresses what we believe about the Church, so a change in discipline can only reflect a deepening understanding of the 'churchly' reality of other Christian communities and the growing commitment to unity in Do\\God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which binds us together. We are coming to recognise that 'we are no longer strangers, but pilgrims together on the way to God's Kingdom'.

In a growing number of Catholic churches you are now strongly encouraged to go together to the communion rail, where the Catholic will receive communion and the other partner will receive a blessing. This is a sign of the real (though imperfect) communion that already exists between the churches.

Yes, this is a help. But isn't it understood that we are a 'little church' at home? And what we really need is to share communion?

Of course you do. Christian families feel this as a deep and ongoing need. However, for the present the Ecumenical Directory (1993) from Rome states: 'Although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional'. (160)

For some time it has been recognised that on special family occasions - e.g. the First Communion or confirmation of your child, a wedding or a funeral - for the other partner to receive communion in his or her own church on the same day is an inadequate substitute for receiving communion side by side with the Catholic partner and/or the rest of the family.

So for this sort of occasion some bishops have given permission for the other partner to receive communion in the Catholic Church with his or her partner or family. Others conscientiously feel unable to do so. Until the various Catholic Bishops' Conferences have issued guidelines, a decision is up to the local bishop - or perhaps priest.

Shall we ask, then?

You may not get permission if you do, but you certainly won't if you don't! But don't be unduly discouraged if the answer is 'No'! Try again on a later occasion. You may have to keep on asking to show that you are serious and that your need is great (like the widow in the story Jesus told who kept on asking and finally was heard (Luke 18:2-5).

Please note: This pamphlet looks at the possibilities of sharing communion from the official Roman Catholic point of view. It does not deal with the rules of other Churches, nor with the decision of some Roman Catholic priests who, with no authority to give permission, have nevertheless been unwilling to refuse communion to the Catholic's partner who presents him or herself at the altar. (The 1993 Ecumenical Directory now seems to give new guidance and authority to priests: 'Catholic ministers will judge individual cases...in accord with [episcopal] norms where they exist. Otherwise, they will judge according to the norms of this Directory'. [130])

Produced by

The Association of Interchurch Families
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