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A paper written from a Roman Catholic perspective

Interchurch marriage: a circumstance of need for eucharistic sharing

The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (Rome 1993) has identified mixed marriages between baptised Christians as a circumstance of need for eucharistic sharing (DAPNE159,160). It is the only addition to the single example of a circumstance of need given in the Code of 1983: danger of death (can. 844, 4) - an indication of the importance given to it.

Partners who "share the sacraments of baptism and marriage" (160) are joined together in Christ in a very particular way. The two have become one. In the creation story God created man and woman to become "one flesh" (Gen 2:24). Quoting this text, Jesus adds: "So they are no longer two, but one. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mk 10:8-9; Mt 19:6). In Ephesians this "great mystery" is seen as analogous to the relationship of Christ and the church. The mutual self-giving love of the spouses is a reflection of, and a participation in, the love with which Christ loves his church (Eph 5:21-33). One of the pictures of the consummation of all things at the end of time is that of the marriage supper of the Lamb, when Christ receives the church as his Bride (Apoc 19:6-9).

Married partners thus participate in the mystery of salvation in a particular way as a couple. As separate persons they were baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. As a couple they live their baptismal lives together, reflecting the love of Christ for his church, the same love with which the Son loves the Father, the Father loves the Son, in the Spirit. They are called in their marriage to witness to the nature of that love. They are called to lay down their lives for one another, as Christ laid down his life for the church. They are called to share that same love with their children, with family, friends and strangers who come into their home, their "domestic church".

The church celebrates that self-giving, saving love of Christ in the eucharist. At every eucharist the church looks back with thanksgiving to the death and resurrection of Christ, celebrates the presence of the Risen Christ with his people in the present, and looks forward with joy to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Because this is the context in which married partners are called to live their lives as a couple, it is normal for a marriage to be celebrated in the context of eucharist. It is normal for married partners to want to be together at the eucharist, to share communion. They are not two any more, they are one - one in a unity not of identity but of communion. The sacrament of baptism has united them to Christ. The sacrament of marriage has made them one. They need the sacrament of communion to keep them one. This need is just as great for interchurch couples as it is for Catholic couples -perhaps even more so, because they have the special difficulty of church divisions to contend with.

A domestic church

The marriage of two baptised persons is itself an ecclesial reality. Marriage constitutes the "little church" of the home. The couple embodies the church in miniature. The church needs the eucharist to sustain its life. That is surely why, at world level, the second identification of a circumstance of need for eucharistic sharing is that of those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage.

Some interchurch couples and families have been expressing the need they experience to share communion for many years. This need was considered by Cardinal Willebrands, then President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, at the Synod of Bishops concerned with Marriage and the Family in 1980. He was making an invaluable contribution which the body concerned with promoting ecumenism in the Catholic Church could bring to a synod considering the pastoral care of marriage and family life. He pointed out that the requirement then in force that a non-Catholic Christian making a' request for admission to communion should be unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own church "is less closely connected [than the other three conditions] with eucharistic doctrine and faith". The 1983 Code removed the words "for a prolonged period"; thus the way was opened for a positive pastoral response to the spiritual need of interchurch couples.

The identification of those who "share the sacraments of baptism and marriage" (DAPNE 160) as in possible need of eucharistic sharing brings together two insights of Vatican 11. Firstly, because the eucharist involves "sharing in the means of grace" as well as "expressing the unity of the church", eucharistic sharing (although "usually excluded") is "sometimes recommended" (Decree on Ecumenism,8). This positive assessment was repeated in the Directory (129) and strongly reinforced in the encyclicalUt Unum Sint (1995). Here Pope John Paul 11 expresses his "joy" that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the eucharist to Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church who greatly desire it, freely request it, and manifest Catholic eucharistic faith (UUS 46). (He omitted any reference to the inaccessibility of another minister.)

Secondly, the Council moved away from seeing sacramental marriage mainly as a contract, towards viewing it as a covenant. It was described as an 'Intimate community of married life and love ... established by the Creator ... rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent" (GS 48). The Code repeated this description, declaring that "the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament" (can. 1055, 1).

A theology of communion

These two insights from Vatican 11 are linked by a theology of communion. In the Catholic perspective eucharistic sharing is possible on the grounds that "by baptism members of other churches and ecclesial communities are brought into a real, even if not fully realised, communion with the Catholic Church" (DAPNE 129). This real, although not fully realised, cornmunion of all the baptised with the Catholic Church is deepened by the sacrament of marriage. Marriage effects "the Christian conjugal bond, a typically Christian communion of two persons because it represents the mystery of Christ's incarnation and the mystery of his covenant" (Familiaris Consortio, 13). "The Holy Spirit who is poured out in the sacramental celebration [of marriage] offers Christian couples the gift of a new communion of love that is the living and real image of that unique unity which makes of the church the indivisible Mystical Body of the Lord Jesus" (FC 19). "The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realisation of ecclesial communion, and can and should be called 'the domestic church' " (FC 2 1).

Since Vatican II church teaching has continually drawn attention to "the intimate connection between' marriage and eucharist". In the eucharist "Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed". "In the eucharistic gift of love the Christian family finds the foundation and 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." (FC 57)

Reflection in this field has been summed up by Carlo Rochetta. He speaks of the sacrament of marriage as a baptismal con-vocation; through it "the spouses participate no longer as individuals, but as a couple, in the paschal event which realises the covenant of Christ with the church; and they accept - in consequence - to be placed, vocationally speaking, in the same dimension of mutual oblation ... In the mutual gift of one to the other, the spouses agree to put into practice a reciprocal donation modelled exactly after that of Christ in the eucharist, and thus they manifest and realise, for their own part, the mystery of the church as the Bride of Christ. The communion with the Kyrios of the eucharist is the constant actualisation of what marriage signifies and produces in the spouses. There is therefore a two-fold relationship: the eucharist is a sacramental manifestation of the essence of Christian marriage, while Christian marriage represents a form of 'realised eucharist' " (Intams Review, 1996, 2,1 p.9).

Pastoral perspectives

There are many different kinds of interchurch couples. Probably only a small minority will express the need to receive communion together. Some have been alienated from the church because they have not received pastoral help in coping with the effect of Christian divisions on their married lives. Some accept division as a fact of life, and live their spiritual lives in isolation from one another. Some choose to live as a couple more within the orbit of one church rather than the other, without denying the other specific Christian identity. Some couples try to relate as couples to both their church communities. Not all strive to "follow a community pattern: the spouses together as a couple, the parents and children as a family, living their service to the church and the world, 'of one heart and soul' in faith" (FC 50). It is those who do who suffer more than others if they cannot share the eucharist. It is good to see, therefore, that the Directory shows a pastoral perspective (following the Code), and that Catholic ministers are asked to respond to requests on a couple-by-couple basis, to see whether there is a real need and whether the conditions for admission are fulfilled in each particular case (DAPNE 160, 130). This needs to be publicly recognised and explained.

Ruth Reardon January 1998



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