Friday, March 12, 2010

On Misguided Eucharistic Hospitality

O Sacramentum pietatis! O Signum Unitatis!
O Vinculum Caritatis!

On account of our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and since the Eucharist represents full unity with the Church, those who are not in full communion with the Church and who do not profess the same Faith in the Eucharist as we do, should not receive Holy Communion at Mass. This seems like a very straight forward position, but unfortunately in the name of Eucharistic ‘hospitality’, justified by appeals to the Jesus who ate with sinners, this teaching seems to be disregarded by many priests today. On a similar foundation of hospitality Catholics are invited, and duly oblige, to communicate in various reformed Churches. All this is due, I think, to a lack of a clear understanding of what the Eucharist is and what its relationship to the Church is.

Unfortunately, many today see the Eucharist as that which creates communion, that which brings about unity with God and with one another. There is nothing wrong with this picture in itself, but it needs to be qualified by an assertion that there needs to be something concrete to unite; a believing community, sharing a common faith.

The act of receiving Holy Communion is a visible expression of unity of faith and life with the Community that is celebrating that Eucharist. It follows then that to communicate in any other Christian eucharist is a public statement of how one views that denomination or ecclesial communion. To receive the Catholic Eucharist means that one is making a statement of faith to the effect that one is in communion of faith with the Catholic Church. Of course the Church does allow non-Catholic Christians to receive Holy Communion, but with certain criteria (differing for Orthodox Christians) and only in exceptional cases. If it were to become a frequent, even weekly event, then one would have to ask why such a person does not live the communion he professes each time he communicates in the Catholic Eucharist and so become a Catholic.

When a non-catholic is brought into the Catholic Church the rite has as its high point the reception of the Holy Eucharist, thereby underlining the fact that the Eucharist is one of the Sacraments of Initiation. To receive Communion in this case means that this person is in full communion with the Church; they hold the faith of the Church and believe as she does, thereby opening the way for the reception of the Eucharist as the summit of communion; as a point arrived at, not as a point of departure. As Pope John Paul II put it: “The celebration of the Eucharist, however, cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia)

It seems obvious that the root of many misguided practices among some Catholics with regard to the Eucharist is a concept of the Mass which is at least reductive, if not entirely erroneous and alien to Catholic Eucharistic theology. This concept treats the Mass as merely a fraternal banquet; a coming together of the community to do what the Lord Jesus did. If this were the reality then one could scarcely object to Eucharistic sharing with other Christians not in full communion with us. But the Eucharist is much more than that. As the Catechism puts it: “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood.” (CCC #1382)

To counteract this tendency the encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” forcefully reasserted the sacrificial aspect of the Mass and lamented the under-evaluation of this aspect in favour of the more secondary aspect:

“At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet.” Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 10

To invite someone who is not in communion with the Church, for whatever reason, to partake of the Eucharist, is to invite them to publicly lie; to come forth physically to receive the Sacred Body of the Lord, while rejecting his mystical body - the Church and what she believes. This exterior manifestation of unity with Christ contradicts an inner disposition or reality that recognises no unity. Similarly, a Catholic who receives communion from a Protestant Ecclesial Community, is outwardly expressing approval for all that this community believes. In either of these cases the Catholic Eucharist – the Body and Blood of the Lord - is dragged down to a level that we cannot accept as Catholics or the Protestant eucharistic bread is exalted to a level that neither community can accept. For we Catholics recognise (and consequently by necessity must worship) in our Eucharist the Real Presence of Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity; while Protestants hold this to be idolatrous. So a Catholic who receives communion at a Protestant service risks equating these two very different realities as though they were the same thing. As Pope John Paul put it:

“The Catholic faithful, therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 30)

A Protestant who receives the Catholic Eucharist, on the other hand, would be receiving what his faith would believe to be an idol created by what he believes to be “blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits” - as per article 31 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Communion.

The Eucharist is the greatest treasure the Church has. All else is secondary to what is found in the Blessed Eucharist, as here, in his Sacramental Presence, is found the Author of the other sacraments, the Author of redemption, and the Author of all grace. “The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia #10) It is therefore not possible to reconcile a desire to share communion with those of other denominations and the lack of unity in faith on the very thing we wish to share.

“Of its very nature, celebration of the Eucharist signifies the fullness of profession of faith and the fullness of ecclesial communion. This principle must not be obscured and must remain our guide in this field.” (From the Document: “On Admitting other Christians to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church,” Part IV)

So the question that needs to be clearly posed to those who would overlook the real differences which exist with regard to the Eucharist is: How can that which divides us possibly unite us?

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