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This article was published in the January 1994 issue of The Journal.


Taken from an article in Church (Fall '92j, updated in the light of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory. Church is published by the Roman Catholic National Pastoral Life Center in the USA. The author, Fr George Kilcourse, is Chair of the Department of Theology, Bellarmine College, Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Double Belonging. He suggests five concrete opportunities for pastoral care of interchurch families.

  • Ministry to parents of engaged interchurch couples

 When any couple announces their engagement to their parents, the moment contains an element of suspense. In the case of interchurch couples who conscientiously intend to maintain their distinctive church identities, parents can easily hoist red flags.

One woman recently described her father's immediate reaction, voiced in the hearing of her fiance: "We'd hoped you would marry a nice Catholic man!" The wounds from such a thoughtless remark can colour the couple's future relationship with this father-in-law. Imagine how this son-in-law will feel when confronted with the decision to accept Christmas dinner invitations with his own family or his wife's.

The engagement of a couple proves a "teachable moment". When surprised by an interchurch marriage, parents tum to pastoral ministers for orientation and answers. The tone and content of these conversations can teach and retool parents who carry pre-ecumenical attitudes and concepts. We can remind them that since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics fully recognise the baptism of other Christians. Because marriage is a covenant of faith between two baptised persons, Catholics call an interchurch marriage a complete sacrament. There is nothing lacking or inferior about an interchurch family It is indeed a valid, sacramental marriage.

2) Joint marriage preparation
More and more, Catholic marriage preparation affords an alternative to the classical series of instructions offered to hundreds of assembled couples. Parishes are training people to minister in couple-to-couple programmes. Engaged Encounter programmes provide another intimate alternative. It is time for Catholics to examine their consciences. Have they structured both the programme and the personnel for these teams with an interchurch sensitivity? What experience (and credibility) would veteran interchurch couples as leaders bring to the growing numbers of engaged interchurch couples who attend these programmes? Could married ministers from other churches also prove to be a resource? (Some of them are also interchurch spouses.)

One of my students, a college senior who is a Roman Catholic, reflected about her Baptist fiance's experience. They approached the marriage preparation programme sponsored by the archdiocese, only for her to discover his anxiety about this Catholic requirement. "I had to give him a sedative each night before we went," she told me.

The thresholds are not easy to cross. Other churches may not require formal marriage preparation, so Catholics need to take some initiative in dispelling denominational stereotypes, and to be inclusive and nonthreatening to other Christians who are about to enter a marriage covenant with a Roman Catholic.

Therefore, 1 propose the ecumenical axiom: we do not need to invent new ecumenical structures but to make more ecumenical our existing structures. Perhaps the ideal would be to offer joint marriage preparation with other churches. Although we have only begun to consider this possibility, the logistics seem staggering. On the local level there are successful instances of two pastors or two pastoral ministers jointly meeting with engaged interchurch couples. I qualify this model as "perhaps" ideal because it depends on how ecumenically informed and pastorally sensitive the ministers are.

Let me illustrate. Often the interchurch couple is prepared for marriage with this opening question: "How are you going to resolve the question of the religious identity of your children?" The first intellectual or retlective move of too many pastors and pastoral ministers (even in joint sessions) is not that these two persons share a common faith as Christians, but that they belong to two different "denominations". Is it not more the concern of the pastoral minister to ask: "Are you in love?" "Do you see Christ's presence and your faith in this covenantal relationship?" To our peril, Catholic practice is sometimes guided more by considerations of discipline, authority, and jurisdiction, than by a mystagogical, sacramental sensibility. We need to remind ourselves to begin with the symbol of unity, for that and nothing extrinsic is the starting point and sure source in marriage preparation.

3) The registration process and empowerment
When couples first present themselves at the rectory or church office to register their membership, the registration forms rarely accommodate their identity as an interchurch family. They remain hidden, even unknown in parishes and congregations.

One woman voiced the frustration of trying to live as an interchurch family when the Episcopal priest greeted her and her two daughters one morning after the liturgy. She and her Catholic husband went to their separate churches on Sundays and then met for family brunch. She took the preschool girls to the Episcopal church because they offered excellent religious education classes, while the Catholic parish had only a makeshift nursery.

"Why don't you join us for our widows and widowers dinner?" the Episcopal priest asked her. "My husband's not dead," she exclaimed, "he's just a Roman Catholic."

One of the most concrete initial steps a parish staff member can take to welcome an interchurch couple or family is to acknowledge the fact on the parish records. I recently had the good luck to find a parish whose database could identify interchurch couples. Imagine how easy this made inviting them to a workshop addressing their needs and gifts.

It is essential to communicate to an interchurch spouse the level of participation and "belonging" desired by the parish. Couples who choose to alternate Sundays (Catholics have the option of going to mass on Saturday evening) at one another's churches will need to know to what extent a partner is encouraged to participate. Is it unthinkable or is it expected that the spouse would participate in retreats? Are spouses welcome to join committees or serve in various ministries? Do they have an open invitation to socialise whenever their husband or wife is invited to a parish event? What expectations of time, talent, and treasure do we have for interchurch couples and families who have a commitment to the spouse's ehurch as well? How positively we answer tells whether we recognise the empowerment of interchurch spouses that is grounded in a common baptism.

4) Catechesis and sacraments with interchurch children
One of the red flags grandparents often see for interchurch marriage is the question of the religious identity of their grandchildren. Without proper catechesis, the celebration of the baptism of an interchurch couple's child can become a literal tug of war. Sometimes parents postpone baptism to avoid the issue. But to fail to initiate and religiously educate a child borders on child neglect. Pastors and pastoral ministers need to help parents and grandparents realise that baptism is the starting point for Christian unity. Of its very nature, baptism is ecumenical because it implies a relationship with every other baptised person (past, present and future). While we celebrate baptisms in particular churches, with the ritual and presider of one tradition, this does not rob interchurch families of their hope for ongoing double belonging.

It is helpful to remind families that Catholics can admit a "godparent" chosen by the other spouse to serve as a Christian witness, since canon law requires only one Catholic godparent. Interchurch families often ask that both churches record the baptism, no matter in which church it is celebrated.

As for the "promises" made by the Catholic to raise the children as Catholics, we need to see this in context. First, its purpose is to reaffirm the faith and commitment of the Catholic partner. Second, since the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Religious Liberty we need to recognise the freedom of the other spouse to make an equivalent promise. "It should be recognised that the non-Catholic partner may feel a like obligation because of his/her own Christian commitment," states the 1993 Ecumenical Directory (n.150). Thus, the question of a child's religious identity cannot be decided outside the dynamics of the couple's relationship. Unilateral decisions threaten to undermine the marriage, itself a sacrament. Indeed, we can appropriate a familiar canonical term and speak of pastoral ministers as "defenders of the bond" of marriage by refusing to insist on rigoristic, categorical interpretations of the "promises" .

The test of our catechesis comes with the ongoing religious education of interchurch children. By the time of First Communion, the child has matured to religious responsibility. All Catholic catechesis tells a child that the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. The Second Vatican Council taught that it is both the sign and the means of unity (UR 8), A child is rightly vexed upon learning that a Methodist parent will not receive the Eucharist at her First Communion in the Catholic Church: "Doesn't Jesus call us to be one as a family? Doesn't Jesus make us one in the Eucharist? Then why does the church want to divide my family?" Pastors and parish ministers can prudently appeal to the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law (Canon 844), reinforced by the 1993 Ecumenical Directory (n.160), and raise the question with the local bishop (or the pastor, if there are no explicit diocesan guidelines): what about limited eucharistic sharing in interchurch families for this occasion?

The entire process of religious education deserves new consideration in the light of interchurch family experience. We now enjoy our second generation of ecumenical Vacation-Bible-School-educated youth. It is a natural next step to imagine joint religious education programmes for children in interchurch families: for example, Episcopal-Catholic, Baptist-Catholic, and Lutheran-Catholic education.

5) Recognising interchurch families as the "domestic church"
As the church has grown more knowledgeable about family systems, we have had to ask ourselves what it means for a truly interchurch family to be a "domestic church". Undoubtedly, when that term auditioned at the Second Vatican Council (Lumen gentium 11) few, if any, people imagined that twentyfive years later Catholics would be considering this phenomenal new interchurch reality as a growing sector of the domestic church.

Today we are faced with a contradiction. Catholic teaching has accelerated the emphasis on the family as the domestic church. But Catholic pastoral care has virtually ignored interchurch families, sometimes even placing obstacles in the way of their ecclesial life.

Alert ministers will help interchurch families to cultivate rhythms of prayer and spirituality in their daily life. They will encourage spouses and children to respect and to become the beneficiaries of both traditions practised in the family. Children can experience their parents' churches as different without those differences bringing divisiveness. The ecumenical movement's theme of "unity in diversity" will model for the family a new cohesiveness, the most necessary element identified by family ministry practitioners. As nowhere else, the foundations for their future ecclesial life will be found in their unique domestic church as truly interchurch families.

At the grassroots, interchurch couples and their families witness to the fact that denominational boundaries do not inhibit grace or the celebration of love as a commitment of faith. Pastors and parish staff members are in a unique position to respond to this manifestation of the Spirit.

George Kilcourse