Vatican: Non-Catholics Can't Have Eucharist 'Guest Status'

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Msgr. John Radano holds an unusual position: The American priest is the senior Vatican representative on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, even though the Catholic Church is not a member of the council.

From his perspective as a member of the commission and as an official with the Western Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Msgr. Radano has years of experience of dealing with the prospects and pitfalls posed by ecumenical dialogue. He spoke with journalist Friedrich Degenhardt during the Faith and Order Commission's July 28-Aug. 6 meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

What is your hope for this Faith and Order Plenary Commission meeting?

Msgr. Radano: For me the study on ecclesiology — the nature and mission of the Church — is very important. It's a central question in most of the bilateral dialogues between different confessional families, and now it has become more and more central in Faith and Order.

I hope that out of the discussion on the study, ecumenical perspectives on ecclesiology might be brought further so that separated Christians may, more and more, see a common perspective on the church. This study touches on a number of things that we can say together.

What is it that we can say together?

The study speaks, for example, of biblical images of the Church: the “people of God,” the “body of Christ,” the Church as temple of the Holy Spirit, or the Church as communion. And then it also points to particular issues where we are divided, like the nature of episcopacy and the authority and questions of ministry.

Will a common understanding on ecclesiology lead to a common Eucharist?

Our understanding of the Eucharist is very much tied to our understanding of the Church. So this study, by promoting common perspectives on the Church, will help in terms of our common understanding of the sacraments, including the Eucharist.

The point is to come to full unity. We need, among other things, to have a common understanding of what is the nature and purpose of the Church which Christ founded.

Could you imagine some sort of guest status at the Eucharist?

No. We don't. Maybe other Christians do, but we don't. For us, the Eucharist is a sign of unity achieved. An expression of perfect communion which exists. It's not something you do to achieve unity.

The Eucharist is the summit and the source of the whole life of the Church. So we don't envision guest membership along the way. We have to be very honest about that, although we do everything we can to promote unity. That is why we are here.

And baptism is the starting point on the way to unity?

If we can recognize each other's baptism, that is a very important starting point. Theologically, the 1982 Faith and Order document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” (BEM) helped us to develop a common understanding of baptism. And in the official Catholic response, we had a very positive assessment of that. We had some questions too, things that still needed to be discussed.

But basically, if Christians could accept this view, I would say they have a basic common understanding of baptism.

But there are still large numbers of Christians who hold the position that infant baptism is not acceptable. And for some, baptism is not the entrance into the body of Christ but the affirmation of their personal commitment of faith.

So there are a number of those questions still outstanding, and other problems are emerging. There are some churches which don't use water. And other churches are developing a formula that substitutes for the language of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. These practices make mutual recognition of baptism very difficult.

The work of BEM and the text on baptism we have here have brought us a long way towards the possibility of mutual recognition of baptism.

What is your personal motivation to work in this process?

I believe that the work for Christian unity reflects the will of Christ. It's basically a question of theology and faith. Christ prayed that his disciples might be one so that the world might believe: that is the connection between the unity and the mission of the Church.

The divisions among Christians go against the mind of Christ. And they are a scandal to the people, to the world. And they are an obstacle to the preaching of the gospel. My motivation is to contribute within our Church and in the ecumenical settings to overcome those divisions.

Is this what makes the work of Faith and Order so important?

I think the ecumenical movement is a gift of God to help us try to reverse centuries of separation, and move Christians together where they should be according to the mind and prayer of Christ.

Can we find a shared identity with all these traditions here in Faith and Order? It's a marvelous task, a challenging task, for which we all need a spirit of conversion of heart, creating new attitudes.

It's a constant effort to change our minds and begin to trust each other more and more. And a way to do that is to enter sincerely into dialogue.

Friedrich Degenhardt is a trainee for the ministry in the North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Germany.