Main Menu  

   

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

Eucharist and Family: Essential to Communion

Catholic pastors need help in understanding the theological justification for the way in which the provisions of the Code of Canon Law on admission to communion (can.844) as explained and spelled out in the Directory (129-31) have been applied to the pastoral needs of interchurch families in certain cases (Directory 159-60). We print below a large part of an article published by the National Pastoral Life Centre of the United States Bishops' Conference, in Church (Winter 1995), where Father Ernest Falardeau, Director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers just such help.

The concept of the family as the domestic church is not - new. It is found in a variety of statements, including Lumen gentium and Apostolicam actuositatem, two documents from Vatican II. Pope John Paul II has used the concept effectively in his encyclical on the family, Familiaris consortia. Following the papal lead, the US Bishops' Conference stresses the family as the domestic church in its recent pastoral letter for the International Year of the Family, Follow the Way of Love. In this article I integrate the concept of the family as domestic church with that of church as communion. Then I turn the notion around to entertain the following question: If the family is the domestic church and the church is a communion, then couldn't the family be considered a domestic communion? 

The Church as Communion 
"What we have seen and heard we proclaim in turn to you so that you may share life with us. This fellowship (koinonia) of ours is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ," writes St John (I In 1: 13). The theology of communion is developed in St Paul's writings about the church as the body of Christ (I Cor. 12 and Rom. 12) and in other related writings. That theology is also at the heart of Vatican II (especially of Lumen gentium and the Decree on Ecumenism). Not only does the church describe itself as a communion, the documents explain the existence and purpose of other churches also in terms of communion. The Orthodox churches, for example, are said to be in "almost full communion" with the Catholic church. Protestant churches and ecclesial communities are said to be church. And within the Catholic church itself are many particular churches or dioceses, including many Eastern Catholic churches with their own form of pastoral oversight, liturgical language and tradition (Byzantine, Coptic, Malabar, etc.). All of these are in full communion with Rome and each other. From an ecumenical point of view, communion is at the heart of modern understanding of the church as church (ecclesiology). 

The Family as Domestic Church 
Familiaris consortia calls the family "the domestic church". While the encyclical does not give a full development of the idea of the domestic church, the church of the home, it does begin to explain this insight. Pope John Paul puts it this way: 

The Holy Spirit, who is poured forth in the celebration of the sacraments, is the living source and inexhaustible sustenance of the supernatural communion that gathers believers and links them with Christ and with each other in the unity of the church of God. The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, andfor this reason too it can and should be called the "domestic church". (21)

Two points in the quotation need to be underscored: (l) that the Holy Spirit is the source, through the sacraments, of the communion that gathers together husband, wife and children, and (2) that the Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, which is why we call it the domestic church. 

Communion in the Trinity 
In the Scriptures cited above from St John and St Paul, it is communion in the Trinity that makes the church the fellowship of Christians. It is our communion in Christ that really makes us who we are. This is "eternal life", i.e. the beginning of our life with God forever. The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is the person binding the Father and Son together in the love of the Trinity. That same person binds us together in Christ and with one another. This is why Pope John Paul can say that the family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion. The family makes real and visible the church here and now. It is the smallest link in the chain that constitutes the church. There is a deeper meaning to this expression "revelation and realization" of ecclesial communion. We will not be able to see and experience ecclesial communion fully unless it is mirrored in the family. 

If society cannot exist without the family, neither can the church. We are all part of a family. We are all part of the domestic church, the church of the home. 

The Eucharist and the Domestic Church 
Another part of John Paul II's letter on the family concerns the Eucharist and the place of the Eucharist in the family: 

The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. The eucharistic sacrifice in fact represents Christ's covenant of love with the church, sealed with his blood on the cross. In this sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed. As a representation of Christ's sacrifice of love for the church, the Eucharist is a fountain of charity. In the eucharistic gift of charity the Christian family finds the foundation and the soul of its "communion" and its "mission". By partaking in the eucharistic bread, the different members of the Christian family become one body, which reveals and shares in the wider unity of the church. Their sharing in the body of Christ that is "given up" and in his blood that is "shed" becomes a never-ending source of missionary and apostolic dynamism for the Christian family. (57)

This is a marvellous passage filled with allusions to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (especially chapter 10:16ff.), where Paul describes the Eucharist as the source of the unity in the body of Christ. It sets the context for his discussion, in chapter 12, of the church as the body of Christ. 

What John Paul II is stressing is that Christian couples are not left to themselves to develop and nurture their mutual love and their love for their children. The Eucharist nurtures them. It is also the model and source of the marriage covenant. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which teaches all of us to develop self-sacrificing love. Jesus comes to pour out this love in the gift of his Spirit. 

Marriage and Church 
In the self-offering of Jesus, made present to us in the Eucharist, both the church at large and the church of the home find the source of their own self-offering and of their strength for sharing the mission of Christ to the world. For Christians the Eucharist is a primary source of domestic love and its nurture, giving love "continual renewal and structure". No wonder that St Paul said of Christian marriage that it is a great mystery (mysterion), a great symbol (sacramentum) of the love of Christ for his church: In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:28-32) 

Ecumenical Families as Domestic Church 
Father John Hotchkin has written an article (Familiaris Consortio - New Light on Mixed Marriages, One in Christ, 1986) applying what the pope wrote about Catholic marriages to interchurch marriages. He singled out the need for eucharistic sharing by couples in ecumenical marriages. Obviously at this time such sharing can only be exceptional and must respect the established guidelines.... 

Hotchkin raises a number of possibilities arising from the papal encyclical, emphasising in particular its view of the family as a communion of persons patterned after the Holy Trinity: 

Clearly one of the most important insights affecting the life of the Church in these times is the perception of the Christian reality as a communion of persons enlivened by the Spirit, both reflecting and participating in the communion of the Persons of the Trinity. Lumen Gentium unfolded this teaching tellingly in its application to the Church at large, and it has since then been a major contribution to advance in ecumenical dialogue with other Christians. Familiaris Consortio brings the same insight to bear on Christian marriage and the family. There is good reason to hope that this too may prove to be a similarly important contribution to ecumenical dialogue with other Christians on this sacred reality which is a part of all our lives.

The encyclical addresses itself to all Christian marriages. In the discussion about the education of children, it states that the basis for the rights of parents is the close connection between procreation and education. The right to educate arises from the very responsibility for giving life and nurture. In ecumenical or inter-Christian mixed marriages, both parents have an obligation to give religious instruction and to communicate religious values. It does not fall only on the shoulders of one of the spouses. 

The Eucharist in Ecumenical Families 
One of the great needs of interchurch couples is eucharistic sharing. This need arises from the church's conviction that baptism and Eucharist are intimately and inseparately united. Communion in Christ is deepened by the sacrament of marriage, which interchurch couples have also received....The Association of Interchurch Families in England and the foyers mixtes of France have long advocated special consideration for couples who seek to be faithful to their individual traditions. yet desire to celebrate their love together as a family. Cardinal Willebrands, too, asks if the pain has not been borne long enough. Is it not time? 

Ernest R Falardeau, SSS

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