Whilst interchurch couples have achieved spiritual unity through sharing the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage, for many of them the inability to share communion together regularly feels divisive and does nothing to foster Christian harmony within their home. This unfulfilled desire is one of the issues that most concerns many interchurch couples.
However, there are situations when those not in full communion with the Catholic Church may be given permission to receive Holy Communion. In 1995 Saint John Paul II wrote:
“It is a source of joy that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments”. (“Ut Unum Sint” para 46)
The following text is taken from a leaflet (now out of print) published by the National Board of Catholic Women, a consultative Body to the Bishops Conference of England and Wales. It outlines the current situation with regards to the opportunities for sacramental sharing.
What do the churches say?
The Free Churches have admitted all Christians to Communion for many years and the Church of England has done the same since 1972 (on the condition that they are baptised members in good standing in other churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity).
The Roman Catholic Church has always maintained that Eucharistic sharing is more a sign of unity achieved than a means of reaching unity. However exceptions can be made. For example, the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II states that “the fact that it should signify unity generally rules out common worship. But the gaining of a needed grace sometimes commends it”. The document went on to suggest that, in practical terms, decisions should be left to the local Bishop.
The Ecumenical Directory of 1967 was the first to lay down “norms” (guidelines) that had to be met by a Christian from another church to be admitted to Holy Communion, stating that the person had to be:
- In danger of death or urgent need – and
- Make a spontaneous request for the sacrament – and
- Have no access to a minister of his/her own communion – and
- Have a faith in the sacraments in harmony with the Roman Catholic Church
The “urgent need” would be judged by the local Bishop, with situations such as persecution or prison being quoted as examples.
By 1993, in the latest edition of the Ecumenical Directory, the phrase “urgent need” had become “grave and pressing need” and local Bishops Conferences were strongly recommended to establish general norms to guide Roman Catholic priests in individual circumstances.
The fourth condition “a faith in the sacraments in harmony with the Roman Catholic Church” may need some explanation. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is a celebration of the communion which is the Church, when the sacrifice of Jesus and his Paschal meal are shared. A more detailed explanation can be found in the first part of the Bishops’ of England and Wales’s teaching document on the Eucharist, “One Bread, One Body” (see pdf here: http://www.catholicnews.org.uk/Home/News/Benchmark/One-Bread-One-Body-1998/(language)/eng-GB
What does this mean for us?
In Britain and Ireland the Bishops’ local norms are contained in “One Bread One Body” issued in 1998. They state that:
“Admission to Holy Communion and to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick may be given to baptized Christians of other faith communities if there is danger of death, or if there is some other grave and pressing need. This may at times include those who ask to receive them on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or an individual. It is for the diocesan bishop or his delegate to judge the gravity of the need and the exceptional nature of the situation. The conditions of Canon Law must always be fulfilled”.
What are unique occasions?
The unique occasions quoted in the Bishops’ norms could refer to the most significant moments of a person’s life, such as
- Christian initiation (Baptism, First Holy Communion or Confirmation)
Requests, for example “may come from:
- The parent of a child to be baptised during Mass or receiving First Holy Communion
- The parent or wife of someone being ordained
- The intimate family of the deceased at a Funeral Mass
There could be other circumstances. For example, the desire of interchurch couples to receive communion together often constitutes a serious spiritual need and might be a case where exceptional sharing of the Eucharist could be allowed. It is important to note that each request will be judged individually, according to the particular circumstances.
How should I ask?
Your first approach should be made to your local Roman Catholic priest to whom your situation should be explained. He may have been delegated authority to give permission himself, but in some dioceses he may need to ask his bishop or the person delegated within the diocese to make the decision.
Hopefully the answer will be yes!
You can find a few examples by clicking on the button below:Suggested Reading and Members Stories »