Communion – Understanding Pope Francis

EDIT: At the bottom of this post, I have added some thoughts about the story Pope Francis told about a bishop he knew, a story that initially caused some confusion.

During a question round in the Lutheran church community in Rome, yesterday, Pope Francis was asked about the sensitive topic of receiving Communion as a non-Catholic. The person asking the question was a Lutheran lady with a Catholic husband, and she wondered when it was possible for them to receive Communion together. As both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have this sacrament, it is unclear if she was referring to receiving in a Catholic Mass or a Lutheran service. Basically, she could have been asking how she, a Lutheran, could receive Communion in a Catholic Mass, or how her husband, a Catholic, could receive the bread in a Lutheran service. Both are different situations, but revolve around the same problem: receiving the sacraments while not fully accepting the belief that comes with it.

pope francis lutherans

Pope Francis’ answer, provided here by Rocco Palmo*, is quite difficult to follow. The Holy Father is sometimes a challenge to understand (that’s  what you get with a man who speak from the heart, and often spontaneously – and this is not a slight against him), but now he left me scratching my head. In short, he leaves the decision to receive Communion to the woman’s conscience, but also mentions that the choice should be made “only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has”. In other words, with a formed conscience. There is no mention of the importance of truly understanding what Communion in Catholic teaching is. This could possibly be off-putting in this context, but on the other hand, we can’t  go around pretending that Communion, the receiving of the very Body and Blood of the Lord, is a matter that can be decided by people individually… With that I mean that, while every person must make an examination of conscience and decide whether or not to receive, no one can decide that he or she can receive in circumstances that another can not.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Francis immediately stated that he is not competent to decide if a non-Catholic can receive Communion in a Catholic Church. Well, if the Pope can’t, who can?

This underlines how important an issue this is: we are talking about the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the honour and worship that this is due. Not allowing people to receive is neither a matter of denying a right to them, nor a punishment for sins committed. It is not rooted in human failings, but in the honour of glory of God, whom we should not receive without accepting Him fully. There are no ifs and buts in allowing the Lord to make us His own. To receive Him conditionally, which is what we do when we known that He can not fully inhabit us (because there are certain obstacles in our path towards Him), disgraces both Him and us. We are called to so much more than that.

This leaves open another question that Pope Francis asks: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together?” In other words, is it a prize at the end of the road, or a support to help us walk the path? Maybe Communion is just the start of a path, of a journey with God? We all know that no one who receives Communion is automatically perfect, not even when they have made an examination of their conscience and found there is nothing to prevent them come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. There are very few saints walking back to the pew afterwards. For us, in our imperfections and failings, Communion is a viaticum. But even a viaticum must be allowed to work. And, this is important, God’s mercy and support is not limited to Communion. In the debates about who should and should not receive, it often seems as if God’s mercy takes the exclusive form of consecrated bread and wine. It does not.

As a final aside, we also receive Communion as part of the community. Our coming forward and receiving, our saying “Amen” after the priest holds up the host with the words “The Body of Christ”, is an acknowledgement of our belief in that dogma and the entire faith that comes from that – the Eucharist, after all, is the source and summit of our faith. Someone who is a faithful Protestant with significant differences in belief, can’t pretend to acknowledge the Catholic faith. Neither can a Catholic acknowledge the faith of another church community with teachings that disagree fundamentally with those of the Catholic Church.

* The translation provided by Zenit offers more clarity than the one I linked to above, not least about what the Pope said about a bishop he knew: “I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian Bishop, 48, married, with two children, and he had this anxiety: his wife was Catholic, his children were Catholics, he was a Bishop. On Sundays he accompanied his wife and his children to Mass and then he went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went on, the Lord called him, a righteous man.” This would then be Episcopalian Bishop Tony Palmer, who had the desire to become Catholic. He was good friends with Pope Francis and died after a motorcycle accident in 2014. Previously, it was assumed that the Holy Father was referring to Argentine Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who married and was subsequently removed as bishop and barred from exercising his priestly ministry. On his deathbed in 2000, then-Archbishop Bergoglio reached out to him, the only Argentine prelate to do so. A friend refers to the following passages from magisterial documents that are relevant in this context: Ecclesia de Eucharistia 46 and 46, Ut Unum Sint 56 and Sacramentum Caritatis 56. These texts discuss the existing possibility for members of other church communities to receive the Eucharist, when they “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (Ut Unum Sint, 46).

Some have said that Pope Francis only spoke about the Lutheran Last Supper, but the example of Bishop Palmer, who accompanied his wife and children to Mass (there is no mention of him receiving communion, so the Pope carefully steers clear of commenting on that). This is undoubtedly similar to the problem faced by the woman who asked the question. The Pope does not just speak about Catholics receiving sacraments in other Church communities, but just as much, if not more, about non-Catholics receiving Catholic sacraments.

After Paris – why pray?

In the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris last night, social media was flooded today with calls to pray for Paris. Together with that came the accusation that prayer was useless and that we had better actually ‘do something’ to help the people who were wounded or who lost loved ones. Apparently praying is not actually ‘doing something’, and there are other things which are ‘doing something’. But why do so many people ask for prayer, if they do not believe it will do some good?


There is a misunderstanding of what prayer is in the minds of those who suggest it is useless. They believe that prayer is a one-way street, from us to God, urging God to do something that He would not do otherwise. Well, if He is not inclined to comfort people, heal them, or even prevent terrible things from happening without us reminding Him that He should, what is the use of Him, people rightly ask.

But this is not what prayer is. Prayer is a two-way street, leading from us to God and from God to us. It is a conversation, if not always one with words. The effects of prayer are therefore present at both ends of the conversation. It is as useful for God as it us for us, not to mention for those we pray for.

In praying for Paris, we recognise and root ourselves in our relationship with God and we find comfort for ourselves. We articulate our care and concern for people that we likely don’t even know, and, once articulated, this care and concern can take root and grow in us and radiate outwards to those around us. God is love. When we show love, which care and concern are, we show and share God. God comes down to live among us in our love for our neighbours. He doesn’t force Himself upon us, but will answer every time we reach out to Him. No man is an island, and it is our care for each other that helps us reach our fullest potential, even after this life. We don’t know who the people were who died last night, we don’t know who they left behind, and we certainly don’t pretend to know what they are going through. But we support them, show our love and share God through that love, making Him present in this world and so reflecting our own relationship with Him in the relationship between Him and others.

Another question is if God couldn’t and shouldn’t have prevented the terrible events of last night from happening. Of course, He could. But He didn’t. This is very difficult for many, both in and outside the Church, but the essence of it is this: God created man with a free will that He will always respect. Unlike the gods from mythology, but also from modern religions such as Islam, God will never force Himself on anyone, making him or her do things he or she does not choose to do. It does not matter if that person is an innocent victim or a murderous terrorist. God respects human freedom, and is there to help guide them if they so choose, or help them live with the consequence of their choices.

In Paris last night, the victims made no choices, of course. They are the victims of a mindless evil that has denounced God. God does not, however, denounce the innocent, and is there for them and those they leave behind, leading them to His eternal light and their fullest being as His creatures. Always. And we can help them find Him through our prayer.

Bishop Hendriks looks back at the Synod and the question of Communion

In his blog, Bishop Jan Hendriks speaks about the headline topic of the Synod of Bishops that was concluded this weekend. Rather than limiting the question to whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion, Bishop Hendriks identifies the greater problem of receiving without due preparation or even awareness. Communion, he says, has become a social event:

hendriks-s“In the media and the discussions outside the Synod much emphasis was given to divorced people who had remarried and the conditions under which they could perhaps receive Holy Communion. Beforehand, the Pope had already repeatedly stated that this was not the most important issue and certainly not the panacea for all problems. There is, however, a problem to such an extent that, certainly in our western society, everyone goes to receive Communion, without the necessary preparation: without faith in the Eucharist, without remorse over sins, without Confession, without the desire to follow Christ and live as honest Christians. Communion has become a social event and that is actually quite terrible, as the most substantial what the Church is about – salvation, the faith and the imitation of Jesus Christ – is being forgotten. And then it seems that only those who can’t receive Communion stand out, while there are so many others… But isn’t the real problem that a new awareness has to develop about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus?”

Harsh words they may seem at first glance, but also definitely true. The awareness of Who it is we receive as a matter of habit is severely lacking in many places. The reasons for that are myriad, and can not be limited to insufficient catechesis alone (although that certainly plays its part), I believe. The solution is also not overly straightforward to come by, but at the heart would lie not only an awareness of what Communion is, but also a faith in the truth of the Holy Eucharist. Faith is not in the first place taught by catechesis alone. Visible examples come first. If we don’t show our own faith, we can’t expect others to become interested in it.

If we truly understand Communion, and have faith in Him who comes down to us in the humblest way, it becomes less of a habit or social event, and more an act of worship. The question of who has a right to receive the Lord is besides the point: no one can exercise the right to receive. We do, however, have a duty to make sure that the holiest we have been given can take root in us. And that requires an effort on our part.

The Synod – time for some personal thoughts

There is so much talk about the Synod that it’s hard to decide what to blog about it when available blogging hours per day are limited. Should I focus on what I thought about all the interventions, the rumours, the hopes and fears? Or would it be a good idea to make available the translated texts from some of the Synod fathers that have been making headlines in the runup to the Synod? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Obviously I decided to focus on the latter, and it has proven to be a good decision, judging from the interest it has been getting.

But of course I do have thoughts on the Synod, and as this is a blog, I will be sharing some of them.

First of all, we are looking at glimpses of the Synod from the outside, which limits the amount of reliable information we are getting. Of course, some reports and interpretations are more reliable than others, and personally I find myself gravitating towards the more level-headed reports. The Synod is not over yet, so I find myslef annoyed at the fear and panic in some quarters of the web. As if they already know what the result is going to be: a disaster for Church and faith. I somehow doubt that. We should be glad if this Synod even has a lasting effect.

I have been translating the interventions of the Belgian and German Synod fathers (it’s a shame that the sole Dutch Synod father, Cardinal Eijk, has chosen not to disclose his text). Does that mean I agree with them? No, not automatically. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that just because it’s written by a Belgian or a German it’s automatically heresy. They have good things to say. They also say some things which I find worrisome. An example. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see a reason for divorced and remarried Catholics to be allowed to receive Communion. If we take the indissolubility of marriage seriously, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, we can’t say that divorce and remarrying is no big deal. Certainly, this makes things difficult for the people involved, no doubt about that. But what is the basis of our faith? The person, words and actions of Jesus or the emotions and feelings of people? The latter, which does not mean we should not take the latter seriously. And that is what I believe this Synod is, or should be, about.

As the German bishops especially have emphasised, we must go to the people where they are. Jesus did. But He didn’t tell them to stay there. He told them to change their circumstances. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus does not condemn us, but does urge us to change our ways. That is what we as Church should always keep in mind and try to emulate. Not condemning people, but urging them to leave their wrongs behind them.

The fruitful path for the Synod is, in my opinion, not to be found in changing doctrine, but in pastoral practice. There is much to win there in term of efficiency.

How to deal with all the rumours about the Synod? Ignore them. There is one reliable source to learn about the atmosphere, the factions or lack thereof, on the Synod floor, and that is the Synod fathers themselves. They’re categorically denying the existence of factions, of fighting and anger. It’s a good and fruitful effort, they say, with room for debate, discussion, disagreement even. That’s the hallmark of any proper debate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming to know what certain cardinals, bishops or even the Pope wants or tries to do. If we learn about a letter to the Pope, that is no reason to scream “rebellion!”, but a perfectly normal way of communicating. The Pope is not above debate and can deal with questions and even different opinions.

We are Catholics, which means we have a living faith of hope and beauty. We are not unfamiliar with some optimism and trust in the Holy Spirit. Let Him do His work. Do not presume to always know better .

francis synod

^Even the Pope has reason to smile going into the Synod, so let us not be too grumpy

Closing the book on the Cardinals’ Letter

The letter of a number of cardinals to Pope Francis, which I wrote about yesterday, was a private piece of correspondence that was never meant to be made public, and the version that was made public is clearly not accurate. I have already added notes to treat all reporting about the letter with extreme care, but today’s statement from Fr. Lombardi should be enough to end speculation.

federico-lombardi“As we are aware, at least four of the Synod Fathers who were included in the list of signatories have denied their involvement (Cardinals Angelo Scola, Andre Vingt-Trois, Mauro Piacenza and Peter Erdo). [Add Wilfrid Napier and Norberto Rivera Carrera to that list]

Cardinal Pell has declared that a letter sent to the Pope was confidential and should have remained as such, and that neither the text published nor the signatories correspond to what was sent to the Pope.

I would add that, in terms of content, the difficulties included in the letter were mentioned on Monday evening in the Synod Hall, as I have previously said, although not covered extensively or in detail.

As we know, the General Secretary and the Pope responded clearly the following morning. Therefore, to provide this text and this list of signatories some days later constitutes a disruption that was not intended by the signatories (at least by the most authoritative). Therefore it would be inappropriate to allow it to have any influence.

That observations can be made regarding the methodology of the Synod is neither new nor surprising. However, once agreed upon, a commitment is made to put it into practice in the best way possible.

This is what is taking place. There is very extensive collaboration in the task of allowing the Synod to make good progress on its path. It may be observed that some of the “signatories” are elected Moderators of the Circuli Minori, and have been working intensively. The overall climate of the Assembly is without doubt positive.

Cardinal Napier has expressly asked me to clarify the comments published in an interview with “Crux”, which do not correspond to his opinion. With regard to the composition of the “Commission of the 10” for the final text, it was incorrectly written that “… Napier said, adding that he would actually challenge ‘Pope Francis’ right to choose that’”. Cardinal Napier has requested that this be corrected, affirming the exact opposite: “… no-one challenges Pope Francis’ right to choose that”.

I have no further observations to make.”

Many have been spouting conspiracy theories left and right, but it is my opinion (and policy on this blog) not to participate in that sort of thing. Discussion is necessary, both in the Synod and outside it, but it must be factual and about the topic at hand, not coloured by our own ideas of what does or does not happen behind the scenes, and certainly not about the people. We may disagree with ideas and thoughts, but is it really constructive or useful to then denounce those who came up with them as reactionaries, schismatics or even heretics? I hope that I don’t need to explain that the answer is no

In many reactions yesterday and today, it is clear that more than a few commentators still operate under an idea of Pope Francis. Under that idea, anyone seeming to disagree with the Pope, anyone emphasising the importance and unchangeability of doctrine for example, is attacking the Holy Father. That is nonsense, of course. The letter, if it exists in the form that was published yesterday, is not an attack or sign of opposition: it is the sharing of concerns and the asking of questions, which is and entirely valid and necessary part of any deliberation, meeting or, yes, Synod. It is not a rebellion or attack.

Clear communication – Cardinal Eijk on the indissolubility of marriage

eijkKerknet, the website of the Catholic Church in Flanders, features a piece on Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to the 11 Cardinals Book, and reveal some more context to his arguments, which until now have only been shared in short quotes (at least for those who have not read the book, like your blogger). Such quotes out of context do little to accurately reflect the thoughts of the cardinal, and have generally been maligned in Catholic and secular media. How I wish Cardinal Eijk or those around him would be less hesitant (afraid even?) to share his arguments and his involvement in the Synod and related events (for example, it would have been good to hear or read some comments from the cardinal himself about his involvement in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last week – this is a high-profile Catholic event which draws attention from across the globe, and a more open and sharing approach would do much good, both at home and abroad).

Anyway, the Kerknet article:

In his contribution to the book that eleven cardinals published in relation to the Synod of Bishops on the family (Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family, pp. 45-55, published by Ignatius Press), Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk argues that the Church’s  teaching about divorced and remarried Catholics must be preserved unchanged. The long history of Church practice and repeated statements from the Magisterium that divorced and civilly remarried people can not be allowed to receive Communion, indicate clearly that this is an unchangeable doctrine, according to the Dutch Church leader. The Catholic Church can accommodate them pastorally by giving them a blessing, so that they not feel excluded.

Theological sources in Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church are sufficiently clear, according to Cardinal Eijk. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew (“I tell you that he who puts away his wife, not for any unfaithfulness of hers, and so marries another, commits adultery”, Matt. 19:9), which is used by the eastern Orthodox Churches to allow a second or third marriage of someone who is divorced, can not be invoked to make a second sacramental marriage possible. “The magisterium of the Church has always been clear and resolute about the indissolubility of a marriage that has been consummated, as well as the absolute prohibition of divorce, followed by a new marriage.”

Cardinal Eijk does not believe that dissolution because of lack of faith, or a simplification of the procedures for the nullification of a marriage, is a pastoral way out. The Catholic Church should communicate the faith better and emphasise its basis more adequately and clearly, “something that was neglected in the past half century”. Couples preparing marriage should have “at least five to ten” sessions of marriage preparation and “priests should dare to ask couples who want a church wedding if they believe in the indissolubility of marriage. In the interest of the couples themselves they should be more selective about who they give access to the sacrament of marriage.”

“In Dutch dioceses those who want to are invited to come forward for Communion. Those who can not receive Communion are asked to come forward with their arms crossed, as a sign to be given a blessing.” The archbishop notes that this practice, which is especially common for Protestants attending a Eucharist and which helps avoid endless debates, can also be extended to those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

The Orthodox practice of allowing second and more marriages following divorce is treated extensively by Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ in the Five Cardinals Book published last year (Remaining in the Truth of Christ, also available from Ignatius Press).

weddingThe whole debate about nullification or dissolution of a marriage is an intricate one, and it should always be reminded that a marriage can not be nullified. It can only be established that it was null from the very beginning, to the effect that there never was a marriage to begin with. The reasons for this are many, but for the purpose of this blog posts it suffices to say that they establish the validity of the marriage. One of the most convincing for those outside the world of canon law and ecclesiastical courts is perhaps that a marriage must be entered into out of free will; there can be no coercion, for any reason. If someone was forced into a marriage, it can be established that the marriage was null, that it never existed.

In relation to this, there must be a greater focus on and recognition of the fact that the couple did share much, even if it was no marriage. Our eyes should always be open to reality. That is a first step towards mercy. People need recognition of themselves and their lives. But recognition can never be automatically equated to approval. It’s a fine line we must walk as Church, but isn’t that always the case when we are in the business of dealing with people?

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] author’s own

“Praised be” – Encyclical day is here

LaudatoSi-255x397So today is the big day. I’ve not seen such excitement for the launch of an encyclical, but, then again, I’ve only been around as a Catholic for four of them. But this time around, everyone has an opinion, in part because they’ve seen the leaked early draft of Laudato Si’*, but mostly because the encyclical’s topic is such a heavily politicised one. Especially on the American side of the Atlantic, I notice that the question of the environment, and especially global warming, is seen as inherently connected and opposed to questions of population control and, more often than not, economic concerns. The issue of the scientific validity of what Pope Francis is a distant third element of the opposition.

Are these concerns warranted? Will Laudato Si’ suddenly advocate population control to protect the environment? That would be highly unlikely, considering that Pope Francis has time and again spoken against such things as abortion, euthanasia and curtailing the rights of people, which would all be means to the end of population control. Will Pope Francis speak against economic concerns as the driving force in our lives and actions? That seems almost certain, at least if these concerns plunge others in poverty and destroy their environment. Pope Francis’ chief concerns do not lie with western multinationals or millionaires, but with the poor and marginalised of the world. He is all for the common good, but not at the expense of others, or of the environment in which we all live. And that is also the Catholic attitude,and not without reason has Pope Francis said that Laudato Si’ will lie fully within the whole of Catholic social teaching.

In the end, it all boils down to the Creation stories of Genesis, in which we learn that man’s place in Creation is that of a steward. Yes, he can make use of what the world offers, but also has a duty to maintain it and not exploit or destroy it. Man is a part of Creation. He is not separate. If we destroy or exploit the world around us, we ultimately destroy ourselves. God has given us a world to live in and care for.

Are the concerns we hear against a major focus on the environment without any basis then? Not if our environmental concerns overshadow the care we must have for the people in our society and in other societies across the world. We must balance these concerns.

In the end, Laudato Si’ will be a document that needs to be read positively. It wants to invite us to act towards the betterment of ourselves and all of creation,not force us to stop and change what is good about our use of the environment.

*As an aside, this encyclical will be the first one since 1937 not to have an official Latin title. Encyclicals are titled after their opening words,which in this case happen to come from Saint Francis’ Caticle of the Sun,which was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian. In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in German, as it was directed against the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.