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Letter to "Columbia",

a publication of the 

Knights of Columbus

10th June 1998

Dear Mr McMunn;

The June 1998 issue of the "Columbia" magazine arrived today. As has happened regularly over the six years of our married life, I usually scan the magazine for articles relevant to us, as a family. As an Anglican / Catholic interchurch family, worshipping together alternately in the two churches that nurtured us on our faith journey, and respecting both traditions, we have discovered a richness in each other’s churches and, by seeing our own churches through the other’s eyes, consequently in our own.

I come from the Anglican tradition in England, where I was richly nurtured through the proclamation of the Word, by the sacraments, teaching and fellowship, and experiencing all are welcome to share in God’s love and presence.

I came to Canada through marriage, and have found here within the Catholic Church a new form of richness, in the vibrancy of liturgy, of song, of the call to social justice.

As I scan your magazine each month, I have at times desperately looked for some hope, some teaching which may be encouraging to us as an interchurch family. I have not found it. The assumption I have come across from the Knights of Columbus is that Catholics will always marry Catholics, when the reality is that here in Manitoba an estimated 40% marry non-Catholics. In Britain (the land of my birth) 75% of Catholics marry non-Catholics. Maybe I have missed it, but your magazine has never addressed this reality, lived out daily by millions of families like us – you estimate up to 16 to 20 million in the U.S.

It is in this context that I read your article "When loved ones leave the Church". I read in it that "Most experts agree that interfaith marriages are the number one cause of someone leaving the Catholic faith".

I am curious to know who are these unnamed "experts".

However, I am more interested to see the use of the word "interfaith". I was not aware that so many marriages took place between a Catholic and someone of a non-Christian faith, that it should become the number one cause of Catholics leaving the church.

Or did you in fact mean to include, within that sweeping phrase "interfaith", marriages of Catholics to Christians of other traditions? I sincerely hope not. "Interchurch" and "interfaith" are words often interchanged freely and wrongly. Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church do not believe we are of a different "faith", anymore than Catholics are of a different faith, but that we are each of a different Church tradition within that one faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

In any event, it is interesting to note that WE are considered to be the problem.

Is it really a sin that we love each other? Have you ever thought that the division of the churches, and the attitude of the churches to each other and to us, may actually be the problem?

I read recently in your "Messages" a strong call and encouragement to us as family to receive the Eucharist together, and so strengthen our faith and the gift of grace from God. I agree wholeheartedly, yet I wanted to cry out to you, and say, yes, I too long that we can receive. Unfortunately, we had a change in priests in our local Catholic Church, and this priest will not let me receive. We take seriously the words of Christ that "the two shall become one". My husband saw that what was refused me was thereby refused him. As a result, we continue to worship each Sunday (alternating between the Catholic and Anglican churches) but have not received the Eucharist in the Catholic Church for the last 7 months.

I urge you to imagine what it is like Sunday after Sunday for an interchurch couple to go to Mass as a family and to be refused the Eucharist, or for one to receive the sacrament of unity while the other remains seated, denied that same sacrament. Last Sunday the pain was too much as everyone around us sang "Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry", then "One bread, one body". The words will be familiar to you – "Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more" and "we are one body in this one Lord". Wonderful words, words of truth. But to those of us married to Catholics, the truth of rejection speaks louder than words of welcome. The words become a mockery when we cannot receive the gift freely given by Christ.

Looking at each other, we once again knew the other was deeply weeping and experiencing the pain that is put on us week by week. Our reality is "How much longer will we endure this?" How much longer must that "one" made so in Christ be put asunder, Sunday after Sunday, in the name of a lack of unity which we already live day by day in our marriage? We have lived this for six years (other families have lived it much longer), and it’s been very hard. Will we, through the pain, ultimately be driven more and more to the outside, to find a church where we will be truly welcome together, as the "one" made so by Christ in the sacrament of marriage? Yet we know that if we leave this difficult relationship we have with the Catholic Church, "experts" and others will criticize us, and my husband will become another "lapsed Catholic".

I now read in your magazine that this situation of Catholics leaving the church is a matter of grave concern and that we are the primary problem.

The truth is that this is not necessary. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in their 1993 "Directory on Ecumenism" (Secs. 129-131, 159-160), followed by the pastoral guidelines of the Diocese of Brisbane and later by other bishops’ conferences, including the most recent statement (1998) by the Southern African Bishops' Conference (Secs 6 & 7), have provided to a great extent the means of discerning whether eucharistic sharing with a person of another tradition may occur "by way of exception". The various guidelines have gone so far as to say that interchurch marriages are, in fact, explicitly recognized as likely to fall within the guidelines for exception, and to state that in many cases eucharistic sharing for interchurch couples may not only be allowed, it may even be "commended".

The canonical prohibitions have largely been cleared away. Unfortunately the pastoral reality remains, with decisions on eucharistic sharing left largely in the hands of local priests who may or may not be aware of the teachings of the Church, and who interpret those teachings on a thoroughly personal and subjective level. And so, we come to a situation where our possibility to worship together, to take and eat Christ’s Body, to take and drink Christ’s Blood, is subject to the whim of whatever priest we happen to have at any given time. Each time there is a change, (for us, 4 priests in the last 6 years), we interchurch families face uncertainty as to whether we will be deemed "acceptable’ to the new parish priest. If we are, we will be allowed to continue to follow the dictates of the Gospel and, as the ‘one’ created by God in marriage, celebrate and receive Eucharist together. If, on the other hand, we are seen as those horrible people who are the primary cause of Catholics leaving the church, we will likely find ourselves once again cut off from the Body of Christ, once again facing questions as to where we will be able to worship as a family.

The author speaks of 16 to 20 million fallen away Catholics and states that the number one cause is interfaith marriages. Perhaps instead the real cause is Catholic ignorance of Church teachings, and the destructive and ostracizing tendencies that follow from such ignorance.

Perhaps only when others have experienced being refused the Eucharist week by week, will they really know what it is like, and not blame us. Please, could "most experts" reconsider their accusation that "interfaith marriage is the number one cause of Catholics leaving the church", and look at the deeper reasons. Perhaps they could seek to enter into our lives, to develop some compassion and understanding, and know what it is like to live that pain in trying to continue to worship in the Catholic Church.

This compassion was expressed by Pope John Paul II when he spoke these words to interchurch families (York, 1982): "You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian Unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes". If "most experts" were to follow the Pope’s lead, they may come to know that we are not the problem, nor the cause of Catholics leaving the church, but rather could be a gift to the churches for the healing of disunity.

Perhaps it is asking too much to suggest that you discover interchurch marriages as a gift on the path to Christian unity, and for the churches to support those marriages, with their very specific pastoral needs, gifts and opportunities. Perhaps. But, we are a faith-filled people who, in the midst of our pain, live in constant trust that the Spirit of the living God will one day be able to break down the walls of prejudice and division, bringing to the Body of Christ the unity for which Christ prayed. It is a unity we live every day in our marriages, and which our marriages prefigure.


Fenella Temmerman

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