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This article was published in the January 2004 issue of The Journal.

Learning to forgive

As a Protestant, it was not easy for me to decide to marry a Catholic. I did a great deal of research on Catholicism before marrying the man I love, because there were several aspects of Denny’s faith tradition that troubled me. But after nearly ten years of happy marriage, I’ve made my peace with most of them.

Being barred from communion is one of those troubling aspects.

When we were first engaged, Denny’s priest explained the meaning of sacramental marriage, and how the sacrament of marriage is administered by the couple to each other. I was (and still am) awed by this concept, which was entirely new to me. I envisioned our future together with Christ as the Head of our household, granting each of us the grace we needed to fulfil our vows to love, honor and cherish the other.

I wanted to support my husband in his faith Then the priest kindly informed us of some of the technical difficulties of a Catholic-Protestant wedding. The Catholic Church accepted our baptism, our faith in Jesus, and our sacramental marriage as signs of unity, albeit incomplete. However, there were a number of extra things we needed to do. An uneasy feeling began to grow in the pit of my stomach, but I wanted to do all I could to support Denny in his faith. Out of deep love for him, I submitted to his church’s canon law, but my fiercely independent spirit was irritated. As I saw it, these ‘extra things’ were just hoops we had to jump through on our way to becoming one in the eyes of the Church.

First, as the custom in the States is to be married in the bride’s church, Denny had to obtain a dispensation from form, even though we planned the ecumenical ceremony to be administered by both my pastor and his priest. Then we attended excellent marriage preparation classes at both churches, which took about six months. Finally, Denny signed the promise that expected him to do all he could to raise any children in the Catholic faith, which I felt completely disregarded the value of my own faith tradition. Even though there was some discussion about ‘exposing’ the children to experiences in both churches, I could feel anger rising as I placed my signature under his, as a witness. It was as if I were signing away my own identity and taking on his.

To my further dismay, I had to go through the wringer washer of an annulment because of a previous (and disastrous) marriage. I had already had Christian counseling years ago at the time of my divorce, but now I had to go back into my past and dredge up all those abusive memories again! I felt like the Catholic Church was ripping out all my stitches and making me do things ‘their’ way! Furious at having to submit, yet again, to the canon law of the Catholic Church, I completed the gut-wrenching process out of love for Denny so he would be free to participate fully in his Church.

A positive outcome
After the emotional roller coaster of the annulment, God used our experience to produce a book, Catholic Annulment, Spiritual Healing (US Liguori, 2002, UK Redemptorist Publications, 2003). As promised to those who love him, (Romans 8:28) God brought tremendous good out of an extremely painful passage of life.

Through the writing of this book, I came to understand the true meaning of forgiveness. It doesn’t mean ignoring the offense and ‘sweeping it under the rug,’ so to speak. It doesn’t mean that everything is all right, that something hurtful didn’t really happen.

It simply means giving up my right to get even and leaving that up to God to complete in his time and in his way. It carries the thought of ‘setting free’ or ‘releasing’. Forgiving my former spouse released my own anger and changed my attitude toward the past. If I had stubbornly held on to my anger, letting it deteriorate into bitterness, I would not have been a good testimony to the world of God’s life-changing power. In a very real sense, learning to forgive set me free, emotionally and spiritually, to grow in Christ.

Forgiveness is not an emotion; it is an act of the will. After facing my past realistically and calling out to God for help in letting it go, I wrote down everything my former spouse had ever done to hurt, belittle, or humiliate me. Then I took a red marker to symbolize the blood of Jesus, poured out in love to pay the price of forgiveness for my sins and the sins of my former husband. I drew a red line through each of the abuses, saying aloud, ‘It’s under the blood. I choose to forgive it, to release it, and let it go.’

After making the choice to forgive, I turned to the scriptures for further guidance. Philippians 4:8 instructed me to let my mind dwell on what is good. To do that, I learned to use my God-given will to replace bad memories with good ones. Now, when painful thoughts come unbidden to my mind, I can remember the hurt without being devastated because forgiveness has defused the potency of the memories of my past. I can forgive others, including myself, as God forgives me for Christ’s sake – not because we deserve it, but because the price for that freedom has already been paid.

Forgiveness did not change the offender or the offense. It changed me.

Forgiving the Roman Catholic Church
This is how I have been able to forgive the Roman Catholic Church for making me go through the annulment process and how I am able to forgive it when Denny and I are separated at every communion. But it took a long time for this change to take place. Let me give you an example.

Denny and I believe we have a Christian ministry together and we serve in both our churches. In our Catholic Church, we are in Couples’ Ministry, which is marriage preparation for engaged couples. Occasionally we work in our diocese’s Cana II days, which is marriage preparation for couples who have been widowed or divorced. We speak on sacramental marriage, interchurch issues, annulment and forgiveness, and sometimes lead small discussion groups. Other couples on the team speak about finances, prayer, or blended families. This is an all-day seminar, requiring much preparation.

I distinctly remember one particular Cana II day. We had spoken twice, helped clean up after lunch, and led two discussion groups. We had been able to help several interchurch couples iron out some difficulties. I was feeling so much a part of the Catholic team, elated to be serving God and his people. Afterwards, as part of the Cana II day, we all went to mass together. We sang and worshiped and rejoiced in the love of our Lord. Then the team members, including my husband, left me to go forward for communion.

It hit me full force, like a slap in the face. The feeling of rejection was overwhelming. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I cried all the way home in the car.

It didn’t matter that I still felt such a strong connection with the other team members. It didn’t matter that I had counseled Catholics to continue living their faith in the difficulty of an interchurch marriage. It didn’t matter that I had submitted to an annulment for the benefit of my husband at great emotional expense to myself. It didn’t matter that I had spent the entire day serving the Catholic Church. I felt belittled and ignored— and very, very hurt.

No one but Denny knew how this affected me. I never told anyone else because I didn’t think it would make any difference. As a Protestant, I was simply not accepted at communion. That was that, as it had been for centuries.

Why we need to receive communion together Receiving communion as a couple is important to us for a number of reasons. For one, it shows our unity as believers. We receive communion together at our Protestant church, but there all believers are invited to share and Denny is always welcomed. His faith in Jesus and a good conscience before God are the only prerequisites. In my opinion, this is what Jesus intended when he instituted the eucharist—a unity of faith and heart that takes precedence over a unity of doctrine.

Another reason is that it brings us closer to our Redeemer. Together we worship and praise him in humble thanksgiving for all he has done for us. The focus is on Jesus, on his sacrificial death for us and on his triumphant resurrection that gives us new life and the promise of heaven. When we are separated, the focus tends to shift just a bit, and I find my thoughts straying. I lovingly watch my husband go forward to participate fully in his faith tradition while I sit alone, being comforted by my Lord.

The last reason has to do with our sacramental marriage. I feel closer to Denny when we receive together. At our wedding, the Catholic Church had pronounced us ‘one’, but it continues to separate us at our Lord’s table. To me, this seems like a contradiction. In every aspect of our marriage, Denny and I have upheld our vows, administering the sacrament of holy matrimony to each other daily as we rely on God for wisdom. If the Church teaches that receiving communion gives strength and grace for living the Christian life, why deny one Christian partner access to this resource?

Receiving communion together
There have been a few times Denny and I have been able to receive Catholic communion together and they have been touching and memorable. One Easter, the deacon gave my husband two pieces of the sacrament and Denny brought back one piece and placed it quietly in my hand. At first I stared at it, stunned and thrilled. Choking back sobs, I pretended to cough and placed it in my mouth. Later, Denny told me he felt God was saying it was all right this time because it was Easter and he had never before been given two pieces of the host. How wonderful if it could always be all right.

As a couple, we received the eucharist openly for the first time at the interchurch families conference in Virginia, USA, in 1996. The entire atmosphere was one of welcoming all to receive at the Lord’s table because we were all believers bound together by faith and baptism along with the sacrament of marriage. Feeling suddenly welcomed by the Catholic Church to the Lord’s table was an experience I will never forget. My heart was overjoyed and tears stung my eyes as I walked up the aisle in front of my husband. His hands on my shoulders felt warm and loving as he led me to the sacrament that means so much to him.

After receiving, I returned to my seat to contemplate the sacrifice Christ accomplished on my behalf, as I always do after receiving communion in our Protestant church. The gratitude and love I felt toward my Savior were no different than any other time I had received communion. I had seen both Protestants and Catholics receive communion with grateful hearts and genuine thanksgiving for the incredible love God shows them. To my mind, the Catholic and Protestant experiences are the same because the God we worship is the same. Faith is what makes communion life-changing.

At that same interchurch families conference, Father Ladislas Orsy, a canon lawyer and keynote speaker, noted that God’s grace is never banned from those who seek it, even if they are banned from receiving the actual sacrament. This statement has helped me greatly in coming to terms with the stance of the Catholic Church on eucharistic sharing.

I know how traditions get started. I’ve made a few of my own. When the recitation starts ‘I am not worthy to receive you’. I join in on ‘only say the word’. Even though I cannot receive the sacrament, God is still ready and willing to bless me as I wait on him in worship. When the priest holds up the elements, intoning, ‘This is Jesus’, I place my hand over my heart, signifying that Jesus is here, within me, loving me, accepting me, and welcoming me as his child. I can sit in contentment, praising my God for all he has done for me, grateful for the sacrifice of his Son that has brought me salvation, opening my heart to his Holy Spirit—and receiving God’s grace needed for my daily life. Because of this comfort and this closeness, I haven’t felt the need to go forward with my husband for a blessing. I have made my peace with not receiving communion and have dealt with my feelings of anger, disappointment and sorrow by learning to forgive as God forgives for Jesus’ sake. I am happy that Denny is able to participate fully in Catholicism because of my support.

Shocked by joy
Ecumenism has taken giant strides forward in recent years. Interchurch couples and families have been an integral part of this progress as the ‘domestic church’ continues to shine forth true unity. This was brought home clearly to us when a priest from Denny’s parish came over for dinner one evening. As we chatted afterwards, the conversation turned to ecumenical issues and the priest suddenly grew serious. Turning to me, he said that, from what he had seen, I had a vibrant relationship with Jesus and I participated in the life of the parish far more than many members. As long as I held some kind of belief in the ‘real Presence’ of Christ in the eucharist, he said he would not refuse me if I came forward to receive!

Denny and I were both shocked by joy at his words! The possibility of receiving communion openly was held out by this perceptive priest of good will, who saw the benefit of eucharistic sharing for us as an interchurch couple and as fellow believers.

Presently, we have not pursued eucharistic sharing in our local parish for two reasons. One, we feel it would cause division. Our parish is made up of five mission churches which are served by three priests. Although we are in close friendship with all three priests, they are not in agreement on eucharistic sharing and we don’t wish to create unnecessary difficulties for the one priest or invite whispers among the congregation.

The other reason is that I am not sure that I have a belief in the ‘real Presence’ of Christ that would qualify me to receive. I wasn’t raised that way. I would interpret the ‘real Presence’ spiritually rather than literally.

To me, the communion elements are symbols and yet vastly much more. Let me explain. My engagement and wedding rings contain settings that hold gems inherited from both sides of our families. The smaller diamonds were in a ring given to Denny by his Aunt Dorothy, who told him to give it to the girl he loved. The larger diamond was in the engagement ring my father gave my mother over fifty years ago. If I lose a stone, the insurance company will replace it - but it won’t be the same. There are emotional ties, memories, and relationships bound up in each diamond that can never be replaced.

This is how I view communion. The bread and wine are definitely more than mere symbols. My Savior’s very life is represented there and as such, it must be held in deep reverence. Whenever I receive communion, I spend time in prayer and grateful contemplation of his amazing love. It makes me want to serve him with my whole heart.
This is why eucharistic sharing is so important. When we receive together, we are attuned to the same faith, the same Lord, and the same life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.

Kay Flowers