Bishops Move to Avoid Infractions over Communion

LONDON—In a year when U.S. President Clinton's reception of holy Communion sparked a worldwide controversy, bishops in Britain and Ireland have published a document to clear up public confusion that has arisen over similar infractions in their own countries.

One Bread, One Body, issued last month by the Bishops' Conferences of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, calls on the faithful to refresh and renew their belief in the holy Mass, firmly restates the Church's Eucharistic teaching and discipline, and stresses the need for other Christian denominations to respect Catholic teaching on inter-communion.

Earlier this year, Irish President Mary McAleese caused a storm when she received communion at a Church of Ireland service. Even mild-mannered Cahal Cardinal Daly, the retired Irish primate, admitted she was wrong, although he also said she had been placed in the awkward position of avoiding an appearance of rudeness to her hosts.

He called on Protestant churches not to pressure Catholics on such occasions; this plea is reiterated in the new document.

In England, a similar controversy arose concerning Prime Minister Tony Blair, a committed Anglican whose wife, Cherie, is Catholic. In the summer of 1996, reports of Blair's receiving Communion at a Mass in London appeared in the Catholic press. A hastily issued statement promised that he would not receive again, so as not to offend Catholics. England's Basil Cardinal Hume privately rebuked Catholic newspaper editors, asking, “One wonders what purpose running these stories served?”

Speaking at the new document's launch, Cardinal Hume said he had written to Blair, informing him that he should not receive Communion.

But the cardinal also said Blair had been entitled to receive Communion while on vacation in August in Italy, where “he couldn't get to his own church.”

“He had a spiritual need,” the cardinal said. “He believes what we believe. So he responded entirely to Catholic teaching.”

The statement, issued by Cardinal Hume as primate of England and Wales, along with Thomas Cardinal Winning, primate of Scotland, and Archbishop Sean Brady, primate of Ireland, acknowledges the pain and ecumenical difficulties which the issue raises: “We look forward to that day when all obstacles to full visible communion are overcome, and all Christians can celebrate the Eucharist together, sharing as ‘one body,’ the ‘one bread’ of the Lord.”

The bishops said the document's primary purpose was to present the Church's teaching on the mystery of the Eucharist, adding that the Mass was the hallmark of Catholic identity. They urged Catholics to renew their reverence for the mystery of the sacrament, adding that “the fundamental principle which underlies our norms, is that ‘the Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1395).

“It is important that Catholics themselves understand this doctrine. We appeal in love and truth to the whole Catholic community in our countries for their faithfulness to the deepest meaning of the Mass.”

One Bread, One Body also acknowledged, “We know only too well that the Catholic Church's understanding of itself, and our convictions about who may or may not be admitted to Holy Communion, can and do cause distress to other Christians and to some Catholics.”

But it added, “It is not, however, the Church's norms on sacramental sharing which cause division: those norms are simply a reflection and consequence of the painful division already present because of our Christian disunity.

“People often ask ‘What would Jesus do?’, implying that he would offer the gift of himself to anyone who asked. Jesus himself was often the cause of division. His will was that all be one, but his teaching and action led to people going away from him. This was even true of his ‘hard saying’ on the Bread Of Life.”

Seeking to quell misunderstandings which have grown up in recent years, the document stated that the sacrificial understanding of Mass needs renewed emphasis even among Catholics. “In some Catholic circles, there can appear to be a confusion between the celebration of Mass on the one hand, and a Communion Service or ‘Celebration of the Word and Communion’ on the other.

“The Eucharist or Mass is much more than a service in which we are led in prayer, hear the Word of God and receive Holy Communion,” the document said.

It noted that there are proper occasions for Communion services, such as Good Friday or when no priest is available. But it stressed that such services in the absence of a priest are not the same as Mass. “No Communion Service can substitute for the celebration of the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” the document said.

It also outlined why it is impossible for mutual Eucharistic sharing between Catholics and Protestants. Restating Catholic teaching that only a validly ordained priest can consecrate the bread and wine, the bishops noted, “It is therefore essential that the one who presides at the Eucharist be known to be established in a sure sacramental relationship with Christ, the High Priest, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, conferred by a bishop in the recognized apostolic succession.

“The Catholic Church is unable to affirm this of those Christian communities rooted in the Reformation. Nor can we affirm that they have retained ‘the authentic and full reality of the Eucharistic mystery.”

Paul Burnell writes from England.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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