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.

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