QUESTION: Is it still true that only Roman Catholics are welcome to receive Communion in a Catholic church? And if so, why is that?
ANSWER: It is correct that only baptized Catholics in good standing with the church are welcome to receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Note that it is not true that only “Roman” Catholics are welcome. All Catholics, including those who belong to “non-Roman” Catholic churches (those united with Rome), are welcome to receive holy Communion in Catholic churches.
It is true that other Christian communities have taken a different course and have what is called “open communion,” where anyone may receive. But this is not the case with Catholic and Orthodox churches. Incidentally, taken together this would represent a significant segment of Christianity.
To understand the reasoning underlying this view, we must establish an understanding of the notion of “communion.” The word Communion is most often understood to mean the body and blood of Christ received as the Eucharist. But this word is also used to describe an ancient belief that, emanating from the Eucharist, there exists a unique communion among the church’s pastors, believers, and teachers.
Upon this basis then the holy Communion we receive as Eucharist is offered in view of the communion in which we are. This view is a very important concept. Those preparing for baptism (or reception into full communion) are often instructed that they are not to remain at Mass for the Liturgy of the Eucharist (much less receive it).
When the one distributing the Eucharist holds the host before us and says, “The body of Christ,” and we answer, “Amen,” a dialogue has taken place. That dialogue is not simply one of theological awareness, but one of common faith and communion. It would be difficult for Christians of other faith communities to share in that dialogue in precisely the same way.
It is true that within the New Testament Jesus challenges all of his disciples when he prays “that all may be one.” The understanding of the Catholic Church, however, is that the path to unity is marked by such things as mutual understanding, prayer and common efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged. The open sharing of Eucharist, from our perspective, is not the beginning of the effort but its goal.
At times, the position of the Catholic Church on this matter must seem narrow to some. But by taking this position, the Catholic Church is not making judgments about other Christians or their religious communities, but saying that Eucharist is essentially a community matter. The Catholic Church contends that if one is not fully sharing in the life of our community and not in union with its believers and teachers, it would be inaccurate to share the Eucharist, the greatest sign of our unity.
The Catholic Church greatly values baptism, proclaiming the Gospel and common efforts of assistance as signs of our unity. However, the reception of the Eucharist is so central to our faith and identity that it should be shared only with those who share the faith more completely.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.