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.

Good shepherds – standing for the faith

As Thomas Peters put it: “The Holy Spirit has guts”. A look at some of the most recent appointments in the Church (and rumours of future ones) shows as much. Although the decisions are of course made by prelates in the Curia and the Holy Father himself, as Catholics we firmly believe that the Holy Spirit guides and inspires them in their choices. And the choice these days seems to be for a firm stand for the faith and against the shamelessly promiscuous culture of today.

Just looking back over this past month, we have the appointment, albeit controversial in some circles) of Archbishop Gerhard Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Despite certain doubts about his suitability for such an important position, Archbishop Müller is close to the Pope Benedict in outlook and priorities, and will therefore prove a very close collaborator to the Holy Father.

There have also been a number of appointments to dioceses across the world that support the impression outlined above.

In Britain, “thoroughly sound chap” (per Fr. Tim Finigan, who doesn’t say things without good cause) Bishop Philip Egan was appointed to Portsmouth.

Further north, Bishop Philip Tartaglia of Paisley came to the see of Glasgow as the most populous Scottish diocese’s new archbishop, and mere days later he was taken to account for words that criticised a late politician’s homosexual lifestyle.

And today, staunch defender of marriage, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone (pictured at left) was appointed to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, in many ways the American liberal capital. Dubbed a “bombshell” by Rocco Palmo, the appointment of Cordileone can be considered the latest in a string of appointments that are part of what Father  often calls Pope Benedict’s ‘Marshall plan’ for the Church: an effort that must re-acquaint the Church with her own heritage and then live that out. For that, we faithful need bishops who are unafraid to clearly teach and defend what the Church has taught throughout the ages.

Additionally, and as an aside, there have also been bishops who have been taken to account for their mismanagement or failure to stand for the Catholic faith. Most recently, Slovakian Archbishop Róbert Bezák was removed as ordinary of Trnava.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Short

Red Dawn Epiphany?

And so the rumour mill sputters to life this Epiphany morning. At the month of this writing, Pope Benedict XVI is offering the consecration Mass of two new archbishops who will be sent out as Papal Nuncios (among them the new Nuncio to Ireland), but if those in the know (such as the usually well-informed Andrea Tornielli and Rocco Palmo) are right, the Holy Father will announce the names of some 15 new cardinals during noon’s Angelus. An expected date of 19 February for a consistory has long been taken as fact, but the announcement  was not expected until almost two weeks from now.

Among the rumoured names are a number of curial prelates and archbishop ordinaries who were also on the list for the previous consistories of November 2010. One of these is our own Archbishop Wim Eijk. There are currently no Dutch cardinal electors, so based on that alone his elevation seems a matter of time. Still, we’ll know more at noon. I guess there will be much to blog about.

In the meantime, let’s not forget the reason for the day of Epiphany: God revealed His incarnation to the world, showing us all the path we must go to our salvation. May the new cardinals help steer the ship of the Church on that narrow and often stormy path.

The Vatican Blogmeet: impressions from the outside

Yesterday’s Vatican blogmeet – the second major event (from a blogger’s point of view) in as many days – seems to have been a success. I was unable to follow the live feed provided by SQPN’s Fr. Roderick, but my Twitter timeline was swamped with tweets hashtagged #vbm11 (for Vatican Blogmeet 2011).

From that flood of information (evidence, with the coverage of Sunday’s beatification and the death of Osama bin Laden that Twitter is a serious contender for providing rapid news as it happens) I gather that there have been several important elements to the whole bloggers’ meeting.

One of them is the very welcome positive attitude from Church officials towards the blogging community. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press chief, spoke about the importance of service over ego when blogging, but also indicated that the Vatican is listening. He himself spends some time every morning readings several blogs, to prepare for what the day may bring. He also expressed gratefulness to Catholic bloggers who sprung into action when the regular media distorts Church developments. An example is the hubbub around Pope Benedict’s perceived permittance of the use of condoms. Before the Vatican could come with clarifications, Catholic bloggers made sure to correct the media reports and explain what the Holy Father had really said.

Related to that, Thomas Peters (the American Papist) asked why blogs could not be included among the Vatican’s accredited media, so that certain selected bloggers could receive advance copies of important documents and publications, just like newspapers and other media do now. A very valid question, I would think.

The Vatican itself also seems to be moving forward in social media. An advance view of a new news site (www. news.va) triggered much positive comments. I don’t know when that is supposed to be up and running, but a new Vatican news website would be very welcome.

The results of this first blogmeet (I say ‘first’, because I get the impression that several participants would like to see this become an annual event) will become more clear over the course of the coming weeks and months. It will be interesting to see the developments on both sides; will the sense of community in the blogosphere increase in a spirit of service, and will the Vatican, through the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Social Communications make more and more effective use of this enormous resource? And how will the latter take shape? The measure of involvement of local bishops’ conferences and Church communities is still up in the air.

Fr. Roderick Vonhögen participated in the first panel and spoke of how he, as a simple parish priest from the Netherlands, reaches an audience of thousands through social media.
Rocco Palmo moderated the first panel
Father Federico Lombardi spoke about the attitudes of Catholic bloggers during the second panel: service should prevail over ego.

Photo credits: intermirifica.net

Beatification information

What with the celebration of Queen’s Day here in the Netherlands and the assorted social engagements that accompany it, I find little time to write something substantial about tomorrow’s big event: the beatification of Pope John Paul II, whom we may from then on call Blessed John Paul II. Luckily, several other bloggers and reporters are in Rome to share the amazing atmosphere in the eternal city with their readers. I happily link to them.

Father Roderick and Steve Nelson are in Rome for SQPN. They give a foretaste of the excitement and the crowds here. Anna Arco of the Catholic Herald shares her first Roman blog post to give an excellent overview of the events of today, including the closure of St. Peter’s Square at 1 this afternoon until 5:30 tomorrow. Finally, Rocco Palmo, of the excellent Whispers in the Loggia, offers several detailed posts about the preparations as well.

I will spend tomorrow morning in front of the tv. Dutch Catholic broadcaster RKK will start live coverage at 10 in the morning.

Fr. Michel Remery celebrated Mass for the Dutch pilgrims in Rome's church of the Frisians today

Photo credit: Louis Runhaar/RKK

Rome’s crazy weekend

The prayer card of Blessed John Paul II released by the Diocese of Roermond

Rome is facing a rather busy weekend, with some 1 million visitors expected (of whom a fair number are arriving today and tomorrow) for an event that has been unmatched since the funeral of Pope John Paul II. It is therefore quite fitting that this same venerable pope is the focus of this weekend’s happenings as well.

For the first time in more than 1,000 years, a pope is being beatified by his immediate successor. And it could have happened even sooner, had Pope Benedict XVI not decided to have the regular process followed. Cardinal Ruini, vicar general of Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference during the conclave that elected the current pope, has recently said that he received a petition at the time signed by a significant number of cardinals, that called for the immediate canonisation of Pope John Paul II. Rather a gesture made in the heat of the moment, I would say. Still, six years since the death of the future Blessed is a very short time to reach beatification. But it is happening nonetheless.

The Belgian king and queen (kneeling) amid other heads of state during the funeral of Pope John Paul II

The Vatican has published the calendar of the beatification, which will take place on Sunday 1 May. As during his funeral, the beatification of John Paul II will be attended by numerous dignitaries from across the globe. King Albert II and Queen, as well as the prime minister will represent Belgium, a similar representation as during the funeral of the late pope. The Netherlands are also repeating their attendance at the funeral, with the smallest possible delegation. Did the prime minister attend the funeral, now only the Secretary for the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Piet Hein Donner, will be present. I guess that, when it comes to relations with religions, especially the Catholic Church, the state of the Netherlands still does not really understand how things work.

Sadly, this minimal representation is also copied by the Church in the Netherlands. Cardinal Simonis is the only Dutch bishop in Rome this weekend. Simonis, the former archbishop of Utrecht and host to Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Netherlands in 1985, was created a cardinal in that same year, by the same pope. The other Dutch bishops will be in The Hague to celebrate a solemn High Mass to mark the sixth anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. A lofty purpose, certainly, but it leaves the Dutch presence, and thus the sign of importance attached not only to the beatification, but also to the person of Pope John Paul II, absolutely tiny.

Luckily, with the Vatican blogmeet happening a day after the canonisation, the beatification will be well-covered by the social media. Catholic bloggers and social media entrepeneurs such as Father Roderick, Rocco Palmo and Thomas Peters are in Rome to cover the events. Follow them and some of the other bloggers in my blogroll. I’m sure they will all have much to say about the events of the weekend.

Photo credit: [1] Diocese of Roermond, [2] White House/Eric Draper

A Rome “Reformation Day”

Rocco Palmo reports on yesterday’s demonstration/vigil of some 75 victims of sexual abuse at the Vatican. Go there to read about what happened at the event that was expressly supposed not be a protest, but which featured placards and cries of accusation nonetheless.

Vatican press head Fr. Federico Lombardi met with the protesters and addressed them with some words which are also featured at the Loggia above. My translation of this address is available here and via the ‘Translations’ tab above.

Fr. Lombardi meets with representatives from the abuse victims