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The question of Intercommunion

Calls to allow ‘intercommunion’, that is, a person from a non-Catholic Christian church receiving Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass, have increased in recent times.


(OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The Church in Germany which proposes sweeping changes to the Church through its ‘Synodal Way’ has been one place where there have been repeated requests to allow for intercommunion.

After Pope Benedict’s death on the last day of 2021, 31 December, a book of his essays was published. It had been his request that the book be published only after his death. One of the essays in this book addressed the question of intercommunion.

Pope Benedict noted that in his native Germany there was a movement among some to favour common Eucharistic Communion between Christians of various confessions. He offered some observations on the question.

He spoke of the distinction between the description of the liturgy as “Supper” and “Eucharist”. He stated that the former, commonly used by Protestant churches, proposes that a representation of the Last Supper was central to the liturgy whereas the latter, the preferred Catholic term, refers to thanksgiving for the redemption won by Christ through his death and resurrection. Catholics believe that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ.

He argued that the Protestant view and the Catholic view are quite different. Thus, for example, a Protestant pastor in the United States explained his understanding of the Lord’s Supper in these terms: “The understanding in the Episcopal tradition, and broadly among the more Protestant traditions, is that the Eucharist is the family meal of the Christian community and all it takes to come to that meal is to be a baptized Christian.”

Such an understanding explains why Protestant churches have no issue with intercommunion and actually encourage it. However, the Catholic position is very different because we believe that the bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is how the priest presents the Eucharistic species to those about the receive Holy Communion when he says, “Body of Christ/Blood of Christ”, to which the person responds, “Amen” (“Yes it is!”).

In Australia, in rural and remote communities a spirit of ecumenical co-operation can be very strong and this is praiseworthy. People are used to attending one another’s churches and liturgies, especially if the community only occasionally has a minister to celebrate the liturgy. The bonds of Christian fellowship can become quite strong and a desire for intercommunion can be in evidence.

In these circumstances it is not uncommon for members of other churches to attend a Catholic Mass and wish to receive Holy Communion. The Catholics themselves can be open to this because of the level of mutual respect, and not wishing to seem to exclude their Christian brothers and sisters.

The official teaching of the Church on this matter can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states,

Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fulness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders”. It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible. (CCC 1400)

A Catholic in receiving Holy Communion is not just brought into a personal communion with the Risen Lord. There is a communal level as well to be considered. When a person receives the Eucharist they are in fact in communion of mind and heart with the Church.

It is an act which signifies not only a spiritual union with other members of the Church, but it is also a public affirmation of the beliefs of the Church and a commitment to the practice of the faith as it is defined by the Church.

This was something understood from the beginnings of the Church. Justin Martyr, a convert to Christianity writing in the second century, lays down three prerequisites for admission to Eucharistic communion: baptism, acceptance of basic Christian doctrine, and a moral lifestyle. Thus, to receive Holy Communion a person fully accepts the doctrines of the Church. They are at one with the Church.

Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, addresses this issue saying that intercommunion “cannot be the starting point for communion [among Christians of different faiths].”

Why? “Precisely because the Church’s unity, which the Eucharist brings about through the Lord’s sacrifice and communion in his body and blood, absolutely requires full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance.”

The reception of communion by members of a differing Christian denomination cannot be a sign of unity among those believers when, in fact, significant differences in belief and practice remain between Catholics and those of other Christian traditions. Eucharistic communion would then be a counter-sign: it would signify a unity which does not yet exist among these Christians.

This lack of unity is an unhappy reality, but a reality nonetheless. Praying publicly with Christians of other denominations can be a rewarding and a beautiful ecumenical gesture. But sharing Eucharistic communion with other Christians would be a misuse of what the Eucharist is meant both to signify and effect.

So, while we must strive for greater unity among all Christians, we should realize that the limitations on intercommunion are based in the very nature of what the Eucharist is and what it does in uniting us with the Church.

It is also the case that Catholics should not receive communion at a non-Catholic liturgy.

Pope John Paul II says of Catholics, “The Catholic faithful … while respecting the religious convictions of [their] separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear witness to the truth.”

The Eucharist is at the centre of our Christian life. It unites us with the risen Christ and also with one another in a communion of faith and life in and through the Church. We long for full unity among Christians but until that is achieved we must bear the pain of not being able to share in a Holy Communion with the Lord’s Body and Blood.

This inability of full sharing in the Eucharist also can spur us on to deepen our faith in the Eucharist and seek a fuller communion with the Risen Christ each time we receive Holy Communion. Pope Benedict wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis,

The Sacrament of the Altar is always at the heart of the Church’s life: thanks to the Eucharist, the Church is reborn ever anew! The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples.


    2 responses to “The question of Intercommunion”

    1. Michael says:

      Fantastic! Thank you!

    2. Jude Hennessy says:

      I have often struggled to explain why I do not go to
      Communion with some of my friends and pastors with whom I get the opportunity to share prayer time with. There are some great reminders and new insights in these musings for me- all this teaching is a desire for true unity, not papering over the. Racks of disunity- Many thanks +JP for the clear thinking. Jude

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