Non-Catholics at a Catholic Mass: What To Do, What To Do….

On Thursday, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote about the custom of making an announcement regarding who may receive the Eucharist at a liturgy—such as a wedding or funeral—when non-Catholics are likely to be present.

Today—on my blog and elsewhere on the Internet—the conversation has turned to what, exactly, the Eucharist means in the various denominations.  The precipitating incident is a discussion initiated in the United Methodist Church about on-line communion—an event which is beyond imagining for Catholics, since the Eucharist in the Catholic Church is Christ Himself truly present, body and blood, soul and divinity.

Amidst all of the hullabaloo, I thought we might do well to review just how Catholic theology regarding the Eucharist differs from the understanding in Protestant denominations.

So I’ve invited my husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, to comment on the announcement which is common in many parishes, concerning who is eligible to receive communion.  I think he has done a fine job of it.  Here is his explanation:

Admonition or Invitation?

Deacon Jerry and Kathy Schiffer

What differentiates the Catholic Church from other Christian denominations?

  • Is it the Church’s hierarchical structure?
  • Is it the all-male priesthood?
  • Is it priestly celibacy?
  • Is it our understanding of Mary as Mother of God and as intercessor on our behalf?

It is all of these things and more. But there is another difference that is both foundational and essential to the understanding of Catholic teaching. And that, of course, is the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

When most of our Christian brethren participate in the celebration of the Eucharist, they are celebrating the memory of something that happened 2000 years ago. As Catholics, we celebrate the Eucharist as something that is happening NOW–that happens each and every day at masses in Catholic churches around the world.

The “Amen” that is the appropriate response at the reception of Communion is meant to be an intellectual and heartfelt assent to this teaching of the Church. ‘The Body of Christ,’ says the minister. ‘Amen’ affirms the recipient. That “amen” is intended as solemn assent to the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is a truth not universally shared in the Christian community.

When a priestly “admonition” is offered, it is presumably because words mean something – in this case, the words of the consecration by which the unleavened host becomes the body of Christ himself. And unless a recipient understands the Church’s teaching about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, assents to that teaching, and is appropriately disposed to receive Christ in the Eucharist, then, the USCCB suggests, perhaps he or she should refrain from receiving Communion.

Why should this shared information about the Eucharist (with its attendant restrictions) be considered so detrimental to our relationship with other Christians? It matters how the message is presented, of course, but a gracious explanation by the presider can provide an excellent catechetical opportunity that can help others to understand why the Eucharist is so important to us as a true here-and-now participation in Christ himself.

Prior to the distribution of the Eucharist, our pastor advises attendees at funerals or weddings that, despite the restrictions imposed on reception of the Eucharist, he wants them to feel welcome and able to participate in the liturgy as much as possible.  I have often heard funeral attendees thank him for his graciousness but have not yet heard anyone complain because they felt denied.

As with so many other explanations of our faith, it is the presentation that is important. If this message is presented as an “admonition” or a “verbal warning” then some may find it disturbing. But if the message, which the USCCB considers legitimate and important enough to promulgate among Catholic parishes, is presented with grace and love, might it not draw others closer to the Church and the truth of the real presence rather that alienate them?

It has been said that behind every “no” of the Church is an elevated “Yes.”

Perhaps this is one of those “no’s.” And the “Yes” that is behind it is literally elevated each day at mass.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Amen to the real presence! On-line communion is about as silly a thing as I’ve ever heard, even if it’s just a symbol as for Protestants. Don’t you have to physically take in something even if it’s a symbol? Virtual bread doesn’t quite do it.

  • Caroline Moreschi

    I figured that it had more to do with apostolic succession. My reasoning is that many Episcopalians (myself included) do believe in the Real Presence – as in transubstantiation, not just “a spiritual presence.” So then, one’s personal beliefs regarding the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ must still be insufficient; more is required in order to receive.

    I’m thinking about this because a good friend of mine (also Episcopalian) attended a Catholic parish last Sunday and asked the priest after Mass why she couldn’t partake. His first response was “well we believe the Nicene Creed” and she said so do I. And then, “we believe in transubstantiation” and she said so do I. And then, “we believe that the priest is part of the apostolic succession from Peter” and she said so do I. He didn’t say this, probably wishing to be polite, but my thought is that the Catholic church does not consider Episcopalian priests to be in the apostolic succession. This would indicate that the dividing line is what constitutes apostolic succession, correct?

    I think that many Catholics think that all Protestants believe in the Eucharist as a memorial or symbol, but that isn’t the case. This means that there is an even higher reason for the “gate” surrounding the Catholic Eucharist. (Sorry about the length!)

    • kathyschiffer

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Carolyn! I wrote about the meaning of the Eucharist once before, and you may be interested in this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2013/03/it-depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-%E2%80%9Cis%E2%80%9D-is-what-did-jesus-really-mean/

    • Stephanie

      Carolyn, it always surprises me to hear/read this from Episcopalians. My understanding of Episcopalians in the US is that they believe in consubstantiation. Yes, they believe in the real presence, but they believe that the bread and wine are still present there, too. If I am not mistaken, the phrase “abomination” was once used in canon law to describe what Catholics believe in – that is, transubstantiation – body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus *under the appearances* of bread and wine.

      As further illustration, I recall (after Episcopal services) how the linens and chalices were allowed to be rinsed at a kitchen sink-type set up, with no special care taken to guard against disposing of drops of Precious Blood or tiny particles of the Body of Christ.

      • Caroline

        It varies unfortunately. For historical reasons rather than theological ones per say, the Anglican 39 articles had some harsh things to say about “Papist” superstitions and transubstantiation. Episcopalians these days are actually more catholic in their practices than they were a hundred years ago. That said, unfortunately there is no set doctrine for the Anglican communion, so parishes differ on how they treat the consecrated elements. The church I attend is extremely careful because of a devotion to the Eucharist, but it’s a very Anglo Catholic type parish with Marian devotions etc, so not typical.

        • Stephanie

          Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Caroline. During my tumultuous twenties, I sat cautiously on the fence between the Catholic church and the Episcopal church. I will be eternally grateful for the Christian tether that the Episcopal church provided for me. Coming home to the church with the keys to the kingdom, upon whom the gates of hell shall not prevail, was sweet relief.

          The Coming Home Network has beautiful testimonies to share, many of which cite similar frustration with the lack of unity:

          http://chnetwork.org/category/conversion-stories/by-denomination-or-faith/episcopalanglican/

        • http://doatney.blogger.com/ David Oatney

          Caroline, it has both to do with the Real Presence and with Apostolic Succession. You might believe in the Real Presence personally, and so might the good people in your parish…that is lovely, but the Anglican Communion does not universally recognize the Real Presence as truth and allows for a very wide berth of belief indeed about what communion means, which also happens to be one of the reasons that the Catholic Church considers Anglican Orders to be invalid and the Apostolic Succession which is supposed by the liturgical nature of Anglican Orders to have long been broken.

    • lroy77

      I was an Episcopalian for 42 years, converted. It’s just not the same as I grew up anymore and that was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. I have Catholic relatives and went to Catholic school for six years so converting was not exactly a novel idea.

      From your blog, I think it’s time you start thinking about converting yourself and get the FULL effects of being Catholic.

      • Caroline

        We should talk! No seriously, we should. I have thought about it, and there are several reasons why I haven’t done so. One of them is that my husband is training to be an episcopal priest. From things he has said, he would be ok with me not attending his parish, even if it was just to go to another episcopal church, but it’s still a tight situation. And there are still theological reasons why I haven’t done so – it’s just that the Eucharist isn’t one of them. :)

  • Sandro Palmyra

    I am not offended to be denied communion at a Catholic mass. It is foolish though. Jesus would never deny any sacrament, to anyone, at any time. Why would his church do so or want to do so? Obviously it doesn’t.

    Where does Jesus say anyone should be denied communion?

    • Ronky

      The Catholic Church has never denied Communion or any other Sacrament to anybody. Evevery living human being without exception is welcome to receive Communion. But noboday has the right to demand that the Church give him its Sacraments ON HIS OWN TERMS.

      Jesus instructed the Apostles “Do not cast pearls before swine.”

      And St Paul said that ayone who receives Communion without discerning the Body and Blood of Christ, eats and drinks DAMNATION upon himself. By warning those who do not believe that what appears to be bread and wine is not, but is the Body and Blood of Christ as Christ and His Church declare it to be, the priest is showing concern to protect their immortal souls. Jesus instructed the Apostles (and God tells us in numerous places in the Bible) to warn their brother if they feared that he was about to commit a mortal sin.

      • Dale

        Ronky, please correct me if I am wrong, but when you mentioned St Paul’s words, I think you were referring to 1 Cor 11:23-29. I am putting that in, just in case Sandro (or anyone else) is interested.

        Sandro, an encyclical letter from Pope John Paul II (Ecclesia et Eucharistia) explained that the celebration of the Eucharist is not the starting point of communion, it presupposes that communion already exists. The Eucharist consolidates and perfects our communion with God. It does so by uniting us with Christ, and also by uniting us to one another. The Eucharist unites us to the teachings of the Apostles, it unites us to the other sacraments, and it unites us to the hierarchy of the Church which preserves these things.

        A link to the entire encyclical letter is below, but I will quote from section 44 because it explains why persons not in communion with the Church should not receive the Eucharist.

        “Precisely because the Church’s unity, which the Eucharist brings about through the Lord’s sacrifice and by communion in his body and blood, absolutely requires full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance, it is not possible to celebrate together the same Eucharistic liturgy until those bonds are fully re-established. Any such concelebration would not be a valid means, and might well prove instead to be an obstacle, to the attainment of full communion, by weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by introducing or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another truth of the faith”

        http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/special_features/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_20030417_ecclesia_eucharistia_en.html

    • Micha_Elyi

      Jesus would never deny any sacrament, to anyone, at any time.
      Sandro Palmyra

      Really? Perhaps you have overlooked Mark 6:4-5, where Jesus refused to work miracles (which is what the sacraments are) in his hometown.

      Where does Jesus say anyone should be denied communion?

      Luke 10:16-18

      (Christians who know the Bible can’t help but be Catholic.)

    • lroy77

      I’m surprised as Methodists are mainstream Protestant. Next thing you know some denomination will propose online baptism for Pete’s sake!

  • Elisa

    Any readers here have family or friends who are Orthodox Christians? I understand they can receive Eucharist as well.

    • Ronky

      Yes, but all or nearly all of the Eastern Orthodox Orthodox churches have strict rules against their members receiving Communion in a Catholic church (or anywhere other than an EO church). The Catholic Church advises members of EO churches who are attending Catholic Mass that they should abide by the rules of the church that they belong to, except under extraordinary circumstances (e.g. when in danger of death and no priest of their own church is available). The Catholic Church has no desire to use Holy Communion to put an EO church member in bad standing with his own church. If a member of an EO Church wants to become a Catholic, he should receive instruction and be received into the Catholic Church before receiving Communion at a Catholic Mass.

  • GP

    I think its high time that USCCB put an end to the “communion blessing” practice. Each person has to take full accountability and responsibility of their faith life and conscience to be in good graces when receiving Holy Communion and to profess the truth of the Eucharist as the church have taught through the years. The practice of communion blessing does not teach anyone anything but encourages non-sense.

  • Victor R. Claveau

    Why should those not of our Faith community, those not in a state of grace, or baptized babies, who have not reached the age of reason (read here Saints) receive a special blessing not authorized by the GIRM during Holy Communion? The final blessing at the dismissal will surfice.

  • poetcomic1

    Would you jump out of an airplane with a ‘symbolic’ parachute?

  • Kim

    I missed RCIA this year but recently I have started attending Daily Mass M-F and of course Sunday. Each time I walk up, cross my arms, and get a blessing from the priest. I would never EVER even think of taking Holy Communion without completing RCIA and being confirmed into the Catholic faith.

  • Micha_Elyi

    As with so many other explanations of our faith, it is the presentation that is important.
    –Deacon Jerry Schiffer, “Admonition or Invitation?”

    What if priests, prior to the distribution of the Eucharist, were to advise attendees at Mass that all who believe all that the Catholic Church teaches and are in union with the Church and are properly disposed to receive Jesus Christ in His body, blood, soul, and divinity and are not now in the state of mortal sin are, however unworthy otherwise, invited to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. What if bishops asked their priests to say this at every Mass or communion service?

  • Parmenter

    Confessional Lutherans most certainly do believe, teach and confess the Real Presence, and reject impanation and conpanation (though there are some confused on that last point, just as there are Catholics who are confused on that point)


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