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A conference in Germany, held last week, in which the Catholic bishops of that country participated alongside some 300 experts to discuss reform in the Church, led to some worrying developments. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the bishops’ conference, presented some of this at the conference’s closing.
The first suggestion is to allow women to be ordained as deacons. According to Archbishop Zollitsch, this would be one of the reforms that would allow the Church to regain credibility and strength. But, as Regensburg’s Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer (the last German bishop to have been appointed by Benedict XVI) rightly commented, the diaconate is inextricably bound to the priesthood, which is only open to men. Allowing women to be deacons would make them different deacons than men: unable to progress on to priestly ordination, it remains to be seen what their duties in liturgy and parish would and could be. Whatever the case, they will not be deacons like men are deacons.
A second suggestion regards the position of divorced and remarried people in the Church. Their rights to sit on parish councils and the like is certainly open to debate, but their partaking of Communion and the other sacraments is another topic altogether. Archbishop Zollitsch said that he doesn’t intend to undermine the sanctity of marriage, but also wants to take these faithful seriously and make them feel welcome and respected.
Personally, I think that much greater progress may be made by the Church, as far as her credibility is concerned, in presenting her faith seriously and acting on it. But in the end, the Church is not in the business of being credible and liked. She is in the business of saving souls, and that purpose is not served by pandering to majority opinion, especially when that opinion does not gel with the faith of the centuries. In that respect, divorced and remarried faithful will be better served by good teaching and compassionate guidance, and not by pretending that there is no problem. Problems are not solved by ignoring them.
Throwing the diaconate open to women, even if this were possible, also will not solve any problem, assuming there even is a problem. Instead, it will only confuse people as to what is true and real; it will be a pretense.
Conferences on reform in the Church are actually bound to fail if they limit themselves to one country. The German bishops, for example, are not able to change the faith and teachings of the world Church. At most, they can create a rift between themselves and the rest of the Church. So what if a conference finds that there is a widespread desire for one thing or another? The standard response of the Church to that should not automatically be to agree and go along. Rather, she should consider it in the light of the faith and then decide of that desire is something she can work towards making reality. If she finds she can’t, her task is to teach, always motivated by love, and present the faith that Christ has given her to protect and communicate.
In a series of Tweets yesterday, the former secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (the de facto head of that church community), announced that he was “done with the pretense of the Catholic Church. I see her as a church among churches and freely take part in the Eucharist”.
Dr. Bas Plaisier, who today works as a teacher at a Lutheran seminary in Hong Kong, was the scriba of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands until 2008.
In his statement on Twitter, which was met with both praise and criticism, Dr. Plaisier presumably means to say that he attends Holy Mass (which he is of course very welcome to do) and also receives Communion. He supports this action by saying that many Catholics agree with him and that what matters is who you invite. “And in that respect teachings or church do not matter”.
The Catholic Church invites, to use Dr. Plaisier’s words, those to Communion who are not only in a state of grace, but who also live according to and agree with the faith of the Church. Part of that faith is the consecration: the bread and wine truly becoming the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Protestant churches generally do not share that faith and can therefore not receive Communion. For, in addition to building community in Christ, Communion is also a confession of our faith. By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ we basically express our faith in God, and our intention of following all His teachings that come to us via His Church.
In the Protestant Church of Dr. Plaisier, the Last Supper does share similarities with the Eucharist in that is a communal meal. But in the Protestant service, bread and wine remain bread and wine. That is something that Protestant agree with. Leftover bread can be fed to the ducks and leftover wine may be poured down the sink. That is unheard of in the Catholic Church, as any leftover bread and wine are the physical Lord and must therefore be treated with due reverence.
With his statements, Dr. Plaisier does a great disservice to ecumenism. He basically tells the Protestant Churches’ main partner in ecumenism, at least in the Netherlands, that her teachings and faith don’t matter to him. His own opinion and feeling becomes decisive. Dr. Plaisier is a Protestant, and very obviously does not believe in the transsubstation. But is that reason to take the most precious treasure of the Church, Our Lord Himself, and receive Him without agreeing with what He teaches us? That is tantamount to saying, “Lord, that’s all nice what you are saying, but I know better than you, and will simply do what I think is best.”
The Catholic Church is very emphatically not a church among churches. The Protestant church communities are not a church in the way that the Catholic Church is, and the faith the express and share differs in important ways from the faith that has been preserved through the ages in the Catholic Church. We can’t water that faith down by saying that important things, such as the Eucharist, do not really matter, that what matters is that people feel welcome. Of course people should feel welcome, and we should do our best to make them feel welcome. But does that mean that we should bend every which way to do so, to even ignore or change our very identity to make things easier?
People, Protestant or otherwise, are very welcome to come to a Catholic Church, to attend Mass, to pray with Catholics. They are not free to take Catholic teachings and faith and change them to suit their perceived needs. That is deeply insulting for the host (both human and divine) and makes the human person, not God, the decisive factor in such matters. And when it comes to God, we do not decide. He does.
Photo credit: Gerard van Rhoon
By word of the diocesan vicar, the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch has released an open letter, addressed to the “parishioners of Someren and Lierop and other interested parishioners elsewhere”, about ecumenism. The aforementioned parishes had earlier cancelled a planned ‘ecumenical Eucharist’, after the diocese said that something like that is not allowed. The explanation offered by Fr. Ron van den Hout (pictured below)should not come as a surprise to anyone with some understanding of what the Church teaches about ecumenism and the nature of the Eucharist.
Below I have translated the core passages of the letter, which can be read in full, and in Dutch, here.
“The Catholic Church encourages ecumenical contacts with Protestant communities. They should get to know each other; they can undertake social activities together; they can listen to the Word of the God and pray together. It is however not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist or Last Supper together. That prohibition has been repeated time and again by the Popes, but also by the Dutch bishops. Why is it not permitted? Because Last Supper and Eucharist, although they both refer back to the institution and assignment of the Lord, are not the same. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made sacramentally present, and that bread and wine truly and permanently become the Body and Blood of Christ. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, this Eucharist is source and summit of the Church’s life. According to Catholic understanding only a validly ordained priest can consecrate the Eucharist. Protestants don’t have validly ordained priests. They do not believe in the true transformation of bread and wine and have a more symbolic understanding of this sacrament. That is the reason why the Church does not allow a joint celebration. She also does not allow non-Catholics to receive Communion and Catholics to take part in the Protestant Last Supper. This in order to prevent confusion regarding this sacrament which for us is the heart of faith.
Misguided ecumenical actions, such as joint celebration of the Eucharist/Last Supper, hurt the unity and do not advance ecumenism, on the contrary. Unity is then no unity of faith, but a unity in feeling. What matters is that we as church communities, and so not so much as individual parishes and communities, learn to discover, through discussion, conversation and study, what the Lord truly intended with His Church and the sacrament of unity. In the meantime we pray in parishes and communities for the Holy Spirit’s help. Only He can bring true unity closer, step by step.”
The diocese’s letter comes in the wake of some discussion which mostly focussed on the perceived authoritative stance of the diocese. Several media have published this letter as a press release, much like it earlier published a critical letter on a local newspaper’s front page.
The parish councils of three parishes in the Diocese of Roermond have come up with a solution for the increasing demand of funeral services in a church, but without all the trappings of a Mass. Upon enquiries from the diocese, the parish priest, Father Ralf Schwillens has emphasised that the services will retain an “ecclesiastical character”, but the proposal remains that families can rent a church for a funeral service without a priest (and without Communion, it must be said), and have great liberty in the choice of rituals, music, poems and speeches.
The diocese is not in favour of this “new form” which aims to lure people, who otherwise would limit their funeral service to crematorium or cemetery, back to the Church.
While the goal of getting people back into the church is a lofty one, I have my doubts if this proposal is a good idea. Despite the aforementioned promises of the parish priest it gives the family of the deceased enormous freedom in choosing things that are not necessarily compatible with the location (although they may, admittedly, choose things that are compatible, of course).
A Catholic church is not merely a building. While it may sometimes be used for other purposes than the celebration of Mass or the administering of the sacraments, its uses must always be in accordance with the Catholic identity of the building.
It is a sad fact that there will not always be a priest available to offer a funeral Mass, and neither will the deceased or his or her family be wanting a funeral Mass. That does not mean that everything is allowed or desirable. A funeral in a Catholic church should, by that fact, be Catholic, even if there is no priest available and therefore no funeral Mass possible. And since it must be Catholic, it must elevate and educate those present in their Catholic identity. Everything Catholic is, in a way, educational, after all. It all prepares us for the reality of the encounter with God.
I don’t think that giving prospective users of a church building complete freedom of choice will achieve that. It’s not a priest or Catholic community’s duty, either, to allow anything that merely feels good. But that is a risk that this proposal presents.
Blessings sometimes work to get great things done. And sometimes they are akin to a father’s comfort, and reason for profound gratitude.
My parish priest is on a role with a series of homilies on the Eucharist and Communion. Yesterday, he spent time on St. Thomas Aquinas and some of his hymns. One of these is the Pangue Lingua, as sung below y the Choeur Gregorien de Paris.
Down in adoration falling,
This great Sacrament we hail,
O’er ancient forms of worship
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith will tell us Christ is present,
When our human senses fail.
“At the moment of adoration, we are all on the same plane, kneeling before the Sacrament of Love. The common and ministerial priesthoods are united in Eucharistic worship. It is a very beautiful and significant experience, which we have experienced several times in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and also in the unforgettable vigils with young people – I recall, for example, those of Cologne, London, Zagreb, Madrid. It is evident to all that these moments of Eucharistic vigil prepare the celebration of the Holy Mass, prepare hearts for the encounter, so that it is more fruitful. To be all together in prolonged silence before the Lord present in his Sacrament, is one of the most genuine experiences of our being Church, which is accompanied in a complementary way with the celebration of the Eucharist, listening to the Word of God, singing, approaching together the table of the Bread of life. Communion and contemplation cannot be separated, they go together. To really communicate with another person I must know him, I must be able to be in silence close to him, to hear him and to look at him with love. True love and true friendship always live of the reciprocity of looks, of intense, eloquent silences full of respect and veneration, so that the encounter is lived profoundly, in a personal not a superficial way. And, unfortunately, if this dimension is lacking, even sacramental communion itself can become, on our part, a superficial gesture. Instead, in true communion, prepared by the colloquy of prayer and of life, we can say to the Lord words of confidence as those that resounded a short while ago in the Responsorial Psalm:
“O Lord, I am thy servant; I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid.
Thou hast loosed my bonds.
I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord”
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily for Corpus Christi, 7 June 2012
Photo credit: author’s own, Father Hans Pauw displays the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration during a meeting of young people of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, 10 June 2012.
It seems that the Dutch bishops are gearing up for the Year of Faith – set to start in October – by focussing squarely on the source and summit of our faith: the Eucharist. Following the brochure by Roermond’s bishops on Jesus Christ, the Eucharist and Communion, and a letter by Cardinal Eijk in which he emphasised the proper way of celebrating the Eucharist, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference now release a letter about Holy Communion (my translation here).
The letter, titled ‘Worthy Communion’ focusses on the conditions for receiving Communion. An important part of the text also focusses on the order of conduct if a person or group tries to use Holy Mass or the reception of Communion as a form of protest. The bishops firmly state that no Communion may be distributed under such circumstances and they expect the faithful to understand that a spiritual Communion is proper then.
Of course, we’ve seen such situations in recent years, when representatives of homosexual interest groups tried to receive Communion despite not being Catholic or, if they were, hardly in line with the teachings of the Church.
Let’s see what this letter may lead to, especially in the upcoming Year of Faith. One thing is clear, we won’t have a proper Catholic life and understanding if we don’t bother to invest in Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist; in the way we speak about it, think about it, consider it, reflect upon it, pray before it and, certainly, how we receive it.
For today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi for short, the Diocese of Roermond has published a brochure about Communion. After a description of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us, the brochure delves into the Eucharist, its celebration an, most notably, the proper disposition for receiving that sacrament, Jesus Himself, in the Communion.
In their foreword, Bishops Frans Wiertz and Everard de Jong write:
“The attention for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of faith, the most precious gift that the Lord has left His Church, could use an extra impulse in our days. Not only because of the Year of Faith that the pope has announced, but most of all because of the graces that participation in this beneficial Sacrament can give the faithful. Does our time not have a great need for spiritual food which can lessen the soul’s thirst?”
I won’t be analysing the entire brochure, which offers a handy introduction to the source and summit of our faith, but I will share what in my opinion is the most significant chapter in it: an explanation of the proper disposition for receiving Communion. This is especially necessary in the Netherlands, where Communion is often considered a right or “just something that everybody does, so why shouldnt I?”.
- Certain texts seem to imply restraint when receiving Communion is concerned: We hear Jesus Himself say, “‘Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6). Saint Paul also writes in his letter to Timothy:
“You may be quite sure that in the last days there will be some difficult times. People will be self-centred and avaricious, boastful, arrogant and rude; disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious; heartless and intractable; they will be slanderers, profligates, savages and enemies of everything that is good; they will be treacherous and reckless and demented by pride, preferring their own pleasure to God. They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it. Keep away from people like that” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
And the same Apostle claims:
“What does this mean? That the dedication of food to false gods amounts to anything? Or that false gods themselves amount to anything? No, it does not; simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord’s table and the demons’ table as well. Do we really want to arouse the Lord’s jealousy; are we stronger than he is?” (1 Corinthians 10:19-22).
He then opines:
“Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned, but when we are judged by the Lord, we are corrected by the Lord to save us from being condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:26-32).
It is then clear that Communion is not for just everyone.
- Yet this question about the reasons to not receive Communion can, on second thought, seem like a strange question. After all, we are sinners and we need Him. Yes, exactly because we are sinners, we need Him. The more we sin, the more we need Him. Not without reason do we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed” (vg. Luke 7:6).
- This unsuitability to receive Communion tells us, on further examination, what we have just said [in previous chapters] about the will to be converted, the openness to healing and the unity in love. There are actions which, as it were, lock us so tightly within ourselves, which block us from experiencing Jesus’ love and active healing power in the Communion in such a way that we can’t experience this meeting with Him in a fruitful manner without some preparation. There are actions or omissions which have shut the door to Jesus in such a way that it won’t open without a special help. They cause such hardness in our hearts that a ‘softener’ and a strong purification are needed to receive Him properly. Jesus offers those too, but not in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For that reason He, as we saw, instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: Confession. We must therefore distinguish between the need to being saved by Christ, and the way in which this can occur. The encounter with Him in the Communion is so sensitive and tender that Communion can’t work without a prior big cleaning, ie. a verbal confession of our sins. It is like a communal meal, or even a marital physical union, which also can’t happen if there are major issues between man and wife. General apologies do not suffice here, as in the penitential rite , but specific and honest regret must be shown. In other words, the road to unity with the Lord only goes via the road of purification. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is in this way complementary. Saint Thomas Aquinas summarised these arguments in this way: because of mortal sin we no longer have spiritual life within us, while the Eucharist is food for the living; and because of our attachment to mortal sin we have removed ourselves so far from Christ that we can’t become one with Him through Communion .
- Do not be afraid of this sacrament of penance and reconciliation… As the Apostle Saint John writes in his first letter, “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and truth has no place in us; if we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil. If we say, ‘We have never sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word has no place in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
- What are mortal sins? According to the Church you can only sin mortally if you go against God’s commandments in a serious matter (materia gravis) with full knowledge and in free will. What is exactly a serious matte is not always clear, but they often have to do with life and death, the beginning and end of physical and spiritual life. They may be things against God, your neighbour, or yourself.
- In judging the sin, there are a number of aspects which involved. Three aspects of an action count. 1: That what you do, the action itself. 2: The motivation, by which you act. 3: The circumstances of the act. All three aspects must be good to speak of a good act. So only one of these three has to be bad, for the entire act to be bad. All three aspects can also independently lead to a mortal sin. 
- Some acts, regardless of their result, intention or circumstance, are always bad, because the act is intrinsically, in itself, bad. These human actions or omission have to do with what seriously affects and damages our deepest personality or that of another. The killing of an innocent person, for example, in whatever phase of life, regardless of motivation or circumstance, is never justified. But all other forms of damage to human dignity and human integrity, such as torture, psychological terror, slavery, human trafficking and so on  are always reprehensible. For the Church, sexuality is a sacred event, and man is very vulnerable in that area: it affects the heart of his person and God’s creative power. If it does not take place within a marriage between a man and a women, or when the openness to new life of consciously blocked, it is, in principle, always a mortal sin. Not without reason does Jesus tell us, “But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28).
- Who decides how serious a sin is? And so if you need to confess it before receive Communion? As long as they are acts which happened in secret, it is primarily the sinner’s, conscience, formed by the Church, which indicates what should be done. Of course, a priest may always be asked for advice. With acts that are presented to the priest in confession, or which are public, the Church will always judge the nature and the consequences. We already see this in the early Church:
“If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector. ‘In truth I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18).
- When in doubt about receiving Communion, you may always entrust your own judgements to a good spiritual counselor.
- Of course, Communion also has a social aspect. Saint Paul says that he will eat certain kinds of meat, but does not does so to avoid giving scandal to the weaker (Romans 14:20, 2 Corinthians 6:3). It could happen that one has permission from the Church to receive Communion, but would cause public scandal with it. It is then wise to avoid receiving Communion in a church where one is known. One can receive Communion in a place where one is unknown.
- But priests have their own responsibility. About this, the Second Vatican Council says, in a positive way, “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”
- The public aspect of sin and the scandal it may possibly cause can also mean that the priest, or the person distributing Communion, and who is therefore “entrusted with the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), may have to prudently take his own responsibility. “I ask everyone, especially ordained ministers and those who, after adequate preparation and in cases of genuine need, are authorized to exercise the ministry of distributing the Eucharist, to make every effort to ensure that this simple act preserves its importance as a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus in the sacrament” . A minister of Holy Communion therefore has his own responsibility and will not randomly refuse someone Communion, without any prior knowledge. If a person’s way of life is clearly contrary to Catholic faith and morals he can’t allow that person’s to receive Communion. In certain public cases of serious scandal, in which the meaning of the sacrament is seriously undermined, he will then have to warn a person, prior to the celebration, to not come forward for Communion, and in special cases will even have to refuse Communion .
- And what if there is no minister of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, and the serious sin is not publicly known? Then you can receive Communion, provided you have prayed a personal act of contrition and have the intention to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation at the earliest occasion.
- It is important to realise, even if you know that you can’t receive Communion, that there are ways to unite yourself to Christ. There is the option to come forward with the other people as the Communion is handed out and then, with arms crossed over your chest, receive a blessing. One can also unite oneself spiritually with Christ and so receive spiritual Communion. It is not shameful to not come forward… on the contrary, it shows your appreciation and respect for the Holy One among us.
 Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum (2005), n. 80: “As for the Penitential Act placed at the beginning of Mass, it has the purpose of preparing all to be ready to celebrate the sacred mysteries; even so, “it lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance”, and cannot be regarded as a substitute for the Sacrament of Penance in remission of graver sins.”
 Cf. Summa Theologica, III, 89,3
 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr. 1755
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1756, identifies blasphemy, perjury, murder and adultery as intrinsically evil. The Second Vatican Council says the following: “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed” (Gaudium et spes, n. 27; cf. Evangelium Vitae, n 80).
 Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 11.
 Cf. Sacramentum caritatis, n. 50.
 Cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 84: “Furthermore when Holy Mass is celebrated for a large crowd – for example, in large cities – care should be taken lest out of ignorance non-Catholics or even non-Christians come forward for Holy Communion, without taking into account the Church’s Magisterium in matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline. It is the duty of Pastors at an opportune moment to inform those present of the authenticity and the discipline that are strictly to be observed.”