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This article was published in the January 1996 issue of The Journal.

A Source of Joy

Many interchurch families will give a heartfelt welcome to the Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint on Commitment to Ecumenism, in which Pope John Paul II re-echoes the "impassioned commitment" made by the Second Vatican Council to the call for Christian unity. They will be grateful for the urgency with which he calls [or continued progress along the path of unity and communion, "a path which is difficult but so full of joy". This sense of urgency is shared by those interchurch couples who find that church divisions hinder them in their mission as partner:> and as parents, and who live in their marriage this difficult but joyful path to unity.

There is one passage in the encyclical which will cause them special joy. It reads:

  1. Certainly, due to disagreements in matters of faith, it is not yet possible to celebrate together the same Eucharistic Liturgy. And yet we do have a burning desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord, and this desire itself is already a common prayer of praise, a single supplication. Together we speak to the Father and increasingly we do so "with one heart". At times it seems that we are closer to being able finally to seal this " real although not yet full” communion. A century ago who could even have imagined such a thing?
  2. In this context, it is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid.

Even half a century ago, who could have imagined such a thing? The last papal encyclical on ecumenism, Mortalium Animos (1928), warned Catholics against having anything to do with the movement for reunion. It seems to me amazing, not that the Catholic Church has been so slow in moving towards sharing eucharistic communion, but that such a dramatic change has come about in such a relatively short time.

Exceptional sharing of communion on the way to full visible unity
It is in the context of "a burning desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord" that Pope John Paul expresses his joy that Catholic ministers are able to administer eucharistic communion to other Christians. In relating this joyful possibility to the desire to celebrate together the one Eucharist of the Lord and to the fact that Christians are coming "closer to being able finally to seal their real although not yet full communion" Pope John Paul is highlighting the passage in the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (n.8) which states that sharing communion is not to be used indiscriminately as a means for the restoration of Christian unity, explaining that since communion signifies the unity of the Church, sharing communion is usually ruled out; nevertheless, as it also provides a sharing in the means of grace, the gaining of a needed grace sometimes commends it.

Much has been written during the three decades which have passed since the Council promulgated its Decree on Ecumenism about the meaning of that short passage, and about how its provisions might be applied in practice. Theological reflection will no doubt continue for a long time. Meanwhile the canonists got to work, and the provisional legislation which appeared during the 'sixties and 'seventies was summed up in the new Code of Canon Law in 1983 (can.844). Circumstances of need for eucharistic sharing were identified, and Catholic ministers could admit other Christians to communion under certain conditions. More recently, the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism was issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993, and moved forward once more in specifically identifying mixed marriages between baptized Christians as a possible circumstance of need to which the provisions of the Code on admission to communion can be applied (nn.129-132 and nn. 159-60).

Joy and simplicity
Interchurch families have been grateful for all the progress which has been made over these thirty years. But there is a special note about the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, because it is a personal and pastoral letter from Pope John Paul II, who has often made it clear in his aetions and words that he cares very deeply both about families and about Christian unity. He has also made it clear that he understands the relationship between interchurch families who share both the sacraments of baptism and marriage (domestic churches), and the coming together on a wider scale of the churches and Christian communities to manifest to the world the visible unity of the Church. "You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity", he said at York in 1982.

Those words immediately struck a chord with couples who care deeply both about building up the unity of their married and family life and also about their loyalty to the two churches (denominations, local communities) represented in their marriage. They were grateful for the recognition that this dual loyalty affects profoundly their whole lives. There will be an inevitable tension so long as the two churches to which they are committed individually - and therefore also as a couple remain divided. Wise pastoral care will help them to deal with the tension as positively as possible (Catechism, 1 636).

One of the most painful signs of tension comes when they are separated at the eucharist; they deeply feel the need to receive communion together as their spiritual food. They are saddened and frustrated when this is not possible. They will therefore warm to the expression of emotion in the encyclical: Pope John Paul II declares his own joy that admission to Catholic communion is possible for other Christians in certain particular cases. There is also a directness here, a simplicity about his presentation of the circumstances and conditions for this admission to eucharistic communion which is refreshing, and which will in turn bring joy to others who share his burning desire.

Let us examine his words in greater detail.

"Certain particular cases"
Who are these "certain particular cases"? Danger of death, persecution, imprisonment, have been recognised as situations of urgent need since 1967, situations in which Catholic ministers can administer the eucharist to other Christians in particular cases which fulfil certain conditions. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that episcopal conferences or diocesan bishops are able to identify additional situations of grave and pressing need in which Catholic ministers can admit other Christians to communion, and some have done so. The French Episcopal Conference did so in 1983, identifying "certain foyers mixtes and some long-lasting ecumenical groups". Where a need is identified, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer communion to other Christians who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously request it, provided they demonstrate the Catholic faith in the eucharist and are properly disposed. The theological basis for such canonically approved action in exceptional cases is the Catholic teaching that baptism brings members of other churches and Christian communities into a real, even if imperfect communion with the Catholic Church; it is a sacramental bond of unity wholly directed towards acquiring the fullness of life in Christ, while the eucharist is a spiritual food for the baptized, enabling them to live the life of Christ, to be incorporated more fully into him and to share more intensely in the Mystery of Christ (Ecumenical Directory, 1993, n.129).

In 1993 the Ecumenical Directory specifically recognised mixed marriages between baptised Christians as a situation of need; this recognition has been given at the level of the Catholic Church worldwide, and does not now depend on the judgement of the local episcopal conference or diocesan bishop. The theological rationale for identifying theirs as a situation of need where it may be possible to admit the other Christian partner to communion is the fact that such couples are not only united sacramentally in baptism but are also united by the sacrament of marriage. However, "although they (the partners in a mixed marriage between baptised Christians) share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional, and in each case" the conditions for admission must be observed (n.160).

When the Directory first came out, most commentators read the "exceptional" as meaning "occasional". Further reflection has led to a questioning of this reading. Rome has consistently refused to accept lists of occasions which would have a general application (e.g. the reaction to the list issued by the Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, in 1973 following the Instruction of June 1972; the SPCU Interpretative Note of October 1973 read: 'The Instruction speaks of particular cases, which are to be examined individually. Hence a general regulation cannot be issued which makes a category out of an individual case, nor is it possible to legitimate on the basis of epikeia by turning this latter into a general rule"). The exceptions to the general rule, then, must be dealt with case by case.

So how are we to distinguish between one case and another? One of the most important texts which can help our understanding of the Catholic position in this matter is the intervention made by Cardinal Willebrands, then President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to the Synod of Bishops which met in Rome in 1980. In raising the qucstion of admission to communion for the other Christian partner in a mixed marriage between baptized Christians, he said: "I am speaking ... in particular of those mixed marriages in which each partner is professing and living the Christian faith in such a way that both are striving to foster 'the unity of their conjugal and family life, a unity which ... is based on their baptism too.' (Here he was quoting Matrimonia Mixta, 1970.) We know that not every mixed marriage attains to this 'ideal' - and we must admit with sorrow that this has to be said of many marriages between Catholics too."

So the Cardinal was raising the question of admission to communion for those particular cases in which couples are trying to build up the unity of their married and family life in the light of their Christian faith. Not all cases of mixed marriages between baptized Christians are striving for this "ideal". That is presumably why the French Episcopal Conference spoke of "certain"foyers mixtes. In a country such as England, where the proportion of mixed marriages is much higher than it is in France, the number of exceptional cases in which admission to communion can be envisaged may be very small in relation to the total number of marriages between baptized Christians. It is for "certain particular cases" that Pope John Paul II expresses his joy. His words in the encyclical, with its reference to certain particular cases, seem to confirm the view that the "exceptional" of the Directory refers to exceptional cases, that is, to particular couples who fulfil the necessary conditions for admission to communion, rather than to occasions - particular occasions applicable to mixed marriages in general. Then, after speaking of "certain particular cases", Pope John Paul goes on to list the conditions for admission.

"Christians who greatly desire to receive"
There must be a "great desire" to receive communion. This is more straightforward language than the "grave and pressing need" of the Directory and the Code. You can know you have a great desire to share the Eucharist as a married couple. To assess your "grave and pressing need" is more difficult. Does it mean your marriage is threatened with breakdown'? Certainly some couples have stated that the inability to share communion threatens their marriage, but this is not common.

Cardinal Willebrands spoke for a number of couples when he applied to them, at the Synod of Bishops in 1980, the criterion which had been worked out in the Instruction of 1972: "a need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement in the mystery of the Church and of its unity". The Cardinal stressed these final words, in the light of what he had been saying about the nature of mixed marriages in which both partners are striving to foster the unity of their conjugal and family life, and the fact that their union is a true sacrament, a "domestic church, ... " somehow called, in a similar way to the Church itself, to become a sign of unity for the world". It is trying to live that reality, he explained, which "prompts the partners to ask permission to approach the Holy Eucharist together. For this is a moment at which they keenly feel their division, and also feel keenly their need for the spiritual nourishment that is the Eucharist."

"Feel keenly", "greatly desire" - this is language with which couples can identify.

Episcopal conferences or diocesan bishops have been asked (in consultation with the authorities of other churches in their areas) to set out norms verifying the conditions for admission to communion (Can.844, 5 and Ecumenical Directory, n.130). There must be real The French Episcopal Conference required "a proven spiritual desire". In the way the French bishops test this desire, they seem, like Cardinal Willebrands, to be asking for a link between the unity of the family, eucharistic communion and the unity and mission of the Church. There must be "deep and continuous bonds of fraternal communion with Catholics"; th£ other partner must not simply want unity with his or her spouse, but also with the Catholic community. He or she must prove this by his or her behaviour in relation to the community. There must also be "active commitment in the service of the unity which God wills" a proven desire to pray and work for the unity of the Church. ecumenical commitment. Couples' "great desire" to receive communion together is to be verified by their behaviour; there is nothing casual or ill-considered here, but a real desire to match possibilities for admission to couples with a genuine need.

"Freely request"
The desire must come from, and be expressed by, the couple, not the Catholic minister. Communion is not to be offered; it is to be requested. There is no hidden proselytism here; it is a case of respecting a spiritual need expressed by a baptized Christian who intends to remain in communion with another church or community, while yet seeking, by way of exception, communion also with the Catholic Church. It is also a matter of recognising the very great variety of interchurch couples and families and rcspecting their particular needs. Some will request more frequent admission than others. There is no attempt to make a general rule, which by definition could not meet the needs of couples in all their variety. Wide discretion is left to the prudent pastoral judgement of the Catholic minister who is in contact with a particular couple.

Manifest the faith the Catholic Church professes with regard to the Encharist
This does not imply a theological examination, still less a query on whether the other partner "believes in transubstantiation". Here is an area where help and guidance can be offered to the pastoral minister. The French Episcopal Conference, with reference to Reformed Christians, asked for "an unambiguous faith in the sacrificial dimension of the memorial, the real presence and the relationship between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion". With reference to Anglicans, this condition could perhaps be spelled out by asking whether a couple could identify with the "substantial agreement" expressed in the section on Eucharistic Doctrine of the ARCIC Final Report, a section which after clarification has been judged as needing "no further study".

An omission
It is interesting to note that the other condition for admission to communion given in the Code and the Directory - the inaccessibility of the other Christian minister - is simply omitted from the encyclical. It is the condition which is always fulfilled in the case of interchurch families (or indeed in the case of any group which is recognised as being in a situation of need as a group, as interchurch couples are recognised as being in need as couples). Their need is to share communion at this eucharistic celebration, now, together.

We have to recognise that the possibility of admitting to Catholic communion is not a "source of joy" to all Catholic ministers, as it is to Pope John Paul; it is also a source of anxiety, and even fear. "What will it all lead to?" But it should not now be the couple who have to defend their right to ask. The onus to defend their position is now on those who refuse admission without carefully considering each case of pastoral need which is brought to them. There are understandable hesitations, and we should not underestimate them. But we hope that admission to communion in certain particular cases can come to be seen not as threatening, but as the necessary and jOyful next step along the road to that common celebration of the one Eucharist of the Lord when Christians will be visibly one.

Ruth Reardon

This is a slightly edited version olan article which originally appeared in One in Christ, 1995 no.3, pp.280-6. The full text of Cardinal Wille brands' intervention at the Synod of Bishops in 1980 is printed in One in Christ 1981 no 1, pp.78-81 and is included in the Sharing Communion Pack obtainable from AIF, price £5 ( + pip £1). The French text quoted is the Note sur ]'hospitalite eucharistique par la commission episcopal pour l'unite des chretiens (1983), given in full in Foyers Mixtes, 1986, no. 71, pp.36-8. In their presentation of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory from Rome the French bishops state that their Note sur l'hospitalite eucharistique had anticipated the pastoral application of the Code of Canon Lmv in the Ecumenical Directory and no changes are needed.