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This article was published in the Summer 1997 issue of the Journal.

Cardinal Basil Hume talks to Interchurch Families

"We insisted and we insisted and we insisted, and we won in the end. " 

Cardinal Hume was asked what experience of an ecumenical nature had moved him most profoundly. One of his examples was the tremendous applause which greeted Pope John Paul II in the Anglican cathedral at Liverpool in 1982. "I have never heard such a prayer for Christian unity as was revealed in that clapping when the Pope walked up the cathedral with David Sheppard" (Anglican Bishop of Liverpool). It was Anglican and Free Church applause, he noted; the Catholics were at the other cathedral ... 

He explained that it had not been easy to persuade those in Rome responsible for organising the papal visit that the Pope should go the Anglican cathedral as well as to the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. But he will have been to the Anglican cathedral at Canterbury, they argued - that will be enough to show his ecumenical commitment. Clearly they didn't understand England, said the Cardinal; Canterbury is not Liverpool. But, "We insisted and we insisted and we insisted, and we won in the end." 

Eucharist and Church 

The Cardinal was addressing the Association of Interchurch Families at its annual Heythrop (London) meeting on 15th February 1997. He chose to tackle head on the subject of what he called "intercommunion". "I know this question touches you at a level which is very important for all of you", he said. He spoke with particular reference to the section on "Sharing Sacramental Life with Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities" in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued from Rome in 1993. This Directory instructs Bishops' Conferences to apply the norms which it gives for sacramental sharing. The Bishops of England and Wales have decided not just to repeat the norms, but to give the theological context so that the norms are seen to flow out of this context. The Cardinal said that when he distributes Holy Communion his words are: "The Body of Christ". The response "Amen" is an affirmation of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament, and also in the ecclesial body in which the celebration is taking place. "The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church." 

The Cardinal stressed almost exclusively the first basic principle which governs sacramental sharing: the eucharist is the sign of unity in faith, worship and community life, and source of the unity of the Christian community so that eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full ecclesial communion and its visible expression. "I cannot separate the eucharist from the Church", said the Cardinal. Catholic faith in the eucharist therefore implies faith in the Church which celebrates the eucharist. There is pain, when we cannot share the eucharist, of course - but we need to remember that spiritual communion is very important: we can receive all the grace the sacraments give without actually receiving them. ("Is this an argument for co-habitation rather than marriage?" asked someone - and the Cardinal joined in the laughter.) 

When asked what support interchurch families might expect, the Cardinal spoke of the value of receiving a blessing at the time of communion. "I'm very moved, he said, "when people come for a blessing; it speaks volumes about the desire for unity and is a sign that we don't want separation. It is a sacramental - not a sacrament - but it is not without significance." 

After listening to members of interchurch families briefly laying before him their own situations in a very personal way, the Cardinal also spoke very personally about his own deep feelings that intercommunion is negative - "a counter-sign to unity" he called it. "I have to be true to my own integrity. The most agonising thing for me is disunity in faith." How can we come together and share in the eucharist and yet go away disagreeing on all the things underlying it? 

We do not ask for "intercommunion"

The Cardinal was reminded that interchurch families are not asking for "intercommunion", but for admission to communion in certain cases. He was reminded of the second basic principle which according to the 1993 Directory governs sacramental sharing: that by baptism members of other churches and ecclesial communities are brought into an imperfect but real communion with the Catholic Church. This communion is deepened where couples not only share baptism but the sacrament of marriage. What is happening is that some couples are asking for admission to communion for the other baptised partner on the basis of their deep and pressing need to share the eucharist to build up and strengthen their marriage and family life in Christ. 

"I do see this point," said the Cardinal, "you are in a unique situation through the sacrament of matrimony - but then there are all the practicalities ... You here are all committed people, but if we say it's possible for you ..." 

We were very grateful to the Cardinal for coming to talk with us and for sharing his own deeply-held convictions. We were grateful for the way he led us in prayer into the Lenten experience of the Cross, helping us to feel that he, too, shared our pain - perhaps also that we shared something of his. 

Personal reflections 

It seems to me that the session left us with two specific challenges. 

1 Catholic faith in the eucharist 

The spiritual need recognised by the Directory is the need of the married couple to share communion. The main focus of the Cardinal's interest was one of the conditions which must be met by an individual who seeks admission to communion in the Roman Catholic Church, once such need is recognised as genuine. The Cardinal particularly drew our attention to the question of eucharistic belief, and to the Catholic understanding that eucharistic faith implies faith in the church which celebrates the eucharist - and the Roman Catholic Church is the "Petrine Church" as he expressed it. Those baptised Christians who belong to other churches and ecclesial communities in particular need of admission to the eucharist are asked to "manifest Catholic faith in the eucharist". This is usually taken to mean belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist. But in the Catholic perspective it means more than this. It is also an affirmation of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the church which celebrates the eucharist - in this case the Roman Catholic Church. 

Clearly the baptised person who asks for admission cannot affirm his or her faith in the Roman Catholic Church in any exclusive way, since he/she is and remains an Anglican or Free Church Christian. But there must be a real desire for communion with the Roman Catholic Church, as it exists concretely at the present time, as well as in its potential for future development. This is asking for something more than a desire for unity with a spouse - though the motivation may well start there. It means also embracing the ecelesial communion of the spouse. I do not think that this is to make acceptance of the Pope's position in the Roman Catholic Church, as it may be represented at this or that specific time in history, a criterion for admission to communion (although some who listened to the Cardinal may have taken what he said in this way and therefore have been very disturbed by it). Indeed it cannot mean this, since members of the Eastern Churches, with whom "there is still a very close communion in matters of faith" (but not agreement about the papacy!) are not asked for any affirmation of eucharistic faith if they are in need of admission to the eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church; the conditions are simply that they ask "of their own free will and are properly disposed" (122, 125). Nor can it mean that more is asked of the individual who seeks admission than is required of a Catholic. 

However, it seems to me that it does mean an acceptance of the significance of the role of the Bishop of Rome as servant and symbol of the unity of the church on the world level and a willingness to explore this significance further, as indeed all Christians have been invited to do in Ut Unum Sint. This is to accept a duty, as well as to ask a privilege. 

It is not easy to formulate what this means. But there is an underlying requirement here which interchurch families can perhaps understand out of their own experience of married life.

In our commitment to one another we accept and love our partners as they are, with all their faults and failings as well as all the good things about them which we appreciate, with all their potential for growth. I think there is a clue here to the sort of commitment to the Roman Catholic Church which is required of those other Christians who, in their need, ask for admission to communion. If we are asked to love our spouse (our nearest neighbour) as we love ourselves, maybe we are called to love our partner's church in the way we love our own. I think too that this is the sort of love and commitment which many interchurch partners belonging to other churches and ecclesial communities do actually demonstrate in the way in which they participate in the concrete life of the Catholic community of their spouse. In marriage the two partners are mutually committed to one another in a total way. Each embraces everything fundamental to the other. This goes for church-belonging too. Some interchurch partners experience and practice a mutual commitment not only to their partners but also to the churches which have nurtured and continue to nurture them in the one faith in Christ. It is surely this reality which has made it possible for the Roman Catholic Church to identify mixed marriages between baptised Christians as a possible situation of need for eucharistic sharing (the only specific identification of need, besides that of danger of death, which has yet been made at world level in application of the 1983 Code of Canon Law). 

It is not easy to spell out what "to demonstrate Catholic faith in the eucharist" actually means. The French bishops, with specific reference to members of the Reformed Churches seeking admission to communion, asked for "an unambiguous faith in the sacrificial dimension of the memorial, in the Real Presence and in the relationship between Eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion" (as well as "an active commitment in the service of the unity which God wills"). There is thus a clear reminder in the conditions they laid down of the eucharist/church relationship, without a specific reference to any particular element in the life of the church (Note sur l'hospitalite'eucharistique, 1983). Certainly if the issue of the authority of the papacy as centrally exercised in the limits of the present moment of history were to be used as a test of Catholic faith in the eucharist, this would raise as many questions as another which (alas) is sometimes put to Christians seeking admission to the eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church as a test: "Do you believe in transsubstantiation?". The Council of Trent never insisted that transsubstantiation was the only way to describe Christ's presence in the eucharist. 

2 Practicalities

The second challenge is a difficult one in practical terms: how can the deeply felt needs of certain particular couples be met without obscuring the witness of the Roman Catholic Church to the inseparable link between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion? This is a real problem in a country like England where there are so many "mixed marriages" and a great fear of "opening the floodgates". We should not minimisethe difficulty. But, if a genuine spiritual need is identified, once we move to the level of "practicalities" (and this is the word the Cardinal used) a way must surely be found. 

We insist and we insist and we insist 

Couples have to go on laying the deep needs they experience before our pastors. If we feel a real spiritual need, this is our duty to our marriages and to our families, and we can never give up (however hard it is to keep going, and however much we may be tempted to do so). Certainly unity in the Spirit is the fundamental unity which binds us together. But because we are creatures of flesh and blood we need the signs which assure us of that unity and at the same time help us to grow in unity. 

Certainly interchurch families can, and many do, value very highly the receiving of a blessing, as a sign of our desire for fuller unity. But after many years this can sometimes be experienced as a rejection - a rejection of us as a couple -rather than as a welcome. So interchurch families have to go on saying to their Catholic bishops and communities: "Please understand that in some cases a sacramental is not enough. We need more. It is a sacrament which binds us in our marriage, and we continually need the sacrament of the eucharist to sustain, build up and deepen the unity of our marriage and family life." 

That is why we too have to go on insisting and insisting and insisting . 

Ruth Reardon



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