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.

Müller: Freiburg proposal on Communion for remarried “to be withdrawn and revised”

ringsShortly after the retirement of Archbishop Robert Zollitsch as ordinary of Freiburg im Breisgau, someone in that archdiocese pushed through a proposal to allow remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. This caused some consternation, not least in the Vatican, since no such changes in doctrine had been proposed, let alone come into effect. Simply put, the archdiocese was out of line, doing something which it simply could not. Last month, Archbishop Gerhard Müller wrote an article outlining the Church’s  teaching about marriage, divorce and the sacraments in L’Osservatore Romano.

Today, he wrote a letter to Archbishop Zollitsch, who still manages the affairs of Freiburg as Apostolic Administrator, in which he presents his conclusions about the proposal In short, it needs to be withdrawn and revised. Below is my translation of he letter, which will also be sent to the other diocesan bishops of Germany.

MüllerYour Excellency!
Honourable Lord Archbishop!

With the Document Prot. N. 2922/13, of 8 October 2013, the Apostolic Nuncio has communicated the draft of the guidelines for the pastoral care of separated, divorced and civilly remarried people in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, as well as your newsletter to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference prior to the publication of this letter, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A careful reading of the draft text reveals that it does contain very correct and important pastoral teachings, but is unclear in its terminology and does not correspond with Church teaching in two points:

“Remarried divorced people themselves stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist”

1. Regarding the reception of the sacraments by divorced and remarried faithful the proposal from the bishops of the Oberrhein area is recommended anew as a pastoral direction: after a process of discussion with the parish priests, people concerned can either reach the conclusion to participate much in the life of the Church, but to deliberately refrain from receiving the Sacraments, while others can in their concrete situations achieve a “responsibly reached decision of conscience” and be able to receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, and this decision is “to be respected” by the priest and the community.

Contrary to this assumption the Magisterium of the Church emphasises that the pastors must recognise the various situations well and must invite the affected faithful to participation in the life of the Church, but also “reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred  Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have  remarried” (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, of 22 November 1981, N. 84; also compare the Letter of this Congregation of 14 September 1994 about the reception of Communion by remarried divorced faithful, which rejects the proposal from the Oberrhein bishops; and Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 22 February 2009, N. 29).

This position of the Magisterium is well-founded. Remarried divorcees stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist, insofar as their state of life is an objective contradiction to the relationship of love between Christ and the Church, which is made visible and present in the Eucharist (doctrinal reason). If these people were allowed to receive the Eucharist this would cause confusion among the faithful about the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage (pastoral reason).

2. In addition to this a prayer service is suggested for divorced faithful who enter into a new civil marriage. Although it is explicitly stated that this is not some “semi-marriage” and the ceremony should be simple. but it would still be a sort of “Rite” with an entrance, reading from the Word of God, blessing and giving of a candle, prayer and conclusion.

Such celebrations were expressly forbidden by John Paul II and Benedict XVI: “The respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples  themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful,  forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to  perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry. Such ceremonies  would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid  marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility  of a validly contracted marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 84).

The affected faithful are to be offered support, but it must be avoided that “confusion arise among the faithful  concerning the value of marriage” (Sacramentum Caritatis, N. 29).

Due to the aforementioned discrepancies, the draft text is to be withdrawn and revised, so that no pastoral directions are sanctioned which are in opposition to Church teaching. Because the tekst has raised questions not only in Germany, but in many parts of the world as well, and has led to uncertainties in a delicate pastoral issue, I felt obliged to inform Pope Francis about it.

“Going paths which fully agree with the doctrine of the faith of the Church”

After consultation with the Holy Father, an article from my hand was published in L’Osservatore Romano on 23 October 2013, which sumarises the binding teaching of the Church on these questions. This contribution was also published in the weekly edition of the Vatican newspaper.

Since a number of bishops have turned to me and a working group of the German Bishops’ Conference is dealing with the topic, I would like to inform you that I will send a copy of this letter to all the diocesan bishops of Germany. Hoping that on this delicate issue we are going pastoral paths, which are in full agreement with the doctrine of the faith of the Church, I remain with heartfelt greeting and blessings in the Lord.

Yours,
Gerhard L. Müller
Prefect

For Corpus Christi, prayer around the world

pope benedict xvi“The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself. Indeed, “only in adoration can a profound and genuine reception mature. And it is precisely this personal encounter with the Lord that then strengthens the social mission contained in the Eucharist, which seeks to break down not only the walls that separate the Lord and ourselves, but also and especially the walls that separate us from one another.” [1]

 “The  bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). In  these words the Lord reveals the true meaning of the gift of his life for all  people. These words also reveal his deep compassion for every man and woman.

Our communities, when they  celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of  Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to  become “bread that is broken” for others, and to work for the building of a  more just and fraternal world.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, N. 66 and 88.

These words about the value of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI open a prayer card issued by the Dutch bishops on the occasion of the Feast of Corpus Christi, this June 2nd. This year the day will be marked with a worldwide Holy Hour of Adoration, as called for by Benedict XVI as he opened the Year of Faith. The power of prayer before the physical Lord should never be underestimated, but a simultaneous effort should be truly significant.

The prayer card continuous with a Gospel passage that reflects this same unified nature of the Church:

green-grapes-on-vine“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more. You are clean already, by means of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a branch — and withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt.

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for whatever you please and you will get it. It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and be my disciples. I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.

If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.

Gospel of John 15:1-11

Finally, a short prayer by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, perhaps chosen not entirely by coincidence, as he is the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Order of which Pope Francis was a member:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.

Suscipe, St. Ignatus of Loyola

[1] Benedict XVI, Address to  the Roman Curia (22 December 2005): AAS 98 (2006), 45.

Photo credit: [1] AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito

Verbum Domini

In case you were wondering, dear reader: yes, I am very much aware of yesterday surprise (well, to me) publication of the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini about “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. It is the lengthy document which is the result of 2008’s 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Exhortation is the second from Pope Benedict XVI, following 2007’s Sacramentum Caritatis.

Verbum Domini fits into a lineage of Exhortations and other documents relating to the Word of God, dating back to the the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century.

Time constraints mean that I am slowly working through it, and I intend to post thoughts about Verbum Domini semi-regularly. If possible, I will also provide Dutch translations of individual chapters. Something to look forward to then.