Who Can Receive? Part One

Many readers have asked these questions in the past few weeks. Before addressing the questions, we need to first provide the foundation for the answers.

The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church described the Mass — “the Eucharistic sacrifice” — as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (No. 11). As Catholics, we truly believe that the Sacrifice of the Mass, transcending the limits of time and space, sacramentally makes present anew the sacrifice of the Lord: “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood” (Catechism, No. 1382). By the will of the Heavenly Father, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which is entrusted through the Sacrament of Holy Orders to His priest who acts in His person, bread and wine truly become (i.e. are transubstantiated into) the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord.

One of the great fruits of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism (No. 1396), is that the Holy Eucharist makes the Church: “Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body — the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism.” Therefore, the reception of Holy Communion truly unites in communion the Catholic faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments, and leadership.

Given this foundation, we can address the first question: Can Catholics receive communion in a Protestant Church or vice versa? Vatican Council II recognized that the Protestant Churches “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic Mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” (Decree on Ecumenism, No. 22). For this very reason, the sharing of Holy Communion between Protestants and Catholics is not possible (Catechism, No. 1400). This statement does not suggest that Protestant Churches do not commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in their communion service or believe that it signifies a communion with Christ. Nevertheless, Protestant theology differs with Catholic theology concerning the Holy Eucharist over the real presence of Christ, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the nature of the priesthood. For this reason, Protestants, although perhaps upright Christians, may not receive Holy Communion at Mass, and Catholics may not receive communion at a Protestant service.

Our Holy Father in his beautiful encyclical, The Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church (Ecclesia de Eucharistia) taught

The Catholic faithful, while respecting the religious convictions of these 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 clear witness to the truth. This would result in slowing the progress being made towards full visible unity. Similarly, it is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned Ecclesial Communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including Eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it. (No. 30)

Objectively speaking, to knowingly violate these precepts by receiving communion in a Protestant Church or neglecting to worship at Mass constitutes a mortal sin.

Therefore, until the differences between Catholics and Protestants are healed, a real “intercommunion” cannot take place. Moreover, out of respect for the differences in belief, a Catholic is obliged to refrain from receiving communion at a Protestant service, and likewise, Protestants, at a Catholic Mass. I remember once I participated at the funeral of a friend at a Protestant church, which included a communion service. The minister invited everyone to receive communion. I refrained out of respect for their beliefs and my own: I did not fully accept all the beliefs or practices of their particular denomination, nor did those members accept all that the Roman Catholic Church believed. Therefore, to receive communion would be to state, “I am in communion with them,” when I was not. Worse yet, had I partaken, I would have received something sacred which should bind me as part of their communion — at least from a Catholic perspective — when in fact I have never participated in one of their services since then.

We must remember that to receive communion does not depend simply on what a person individually believes. To receive communion aligns a person to a church, identifies him as a member of that church, and binds him to what that church teaches. By observing the Church’s regulations concerning receiving Holy Communion, we will better appreciate the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, respect each other's beliefs, and work towards unity — here is true charity. Ignoring these regulations will only build a false sense of communion and a shallow expression of love, which is really a great act against charity.

Next week we will address the second question, “What would prohibit a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion at Mass?”

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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