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Special Circumstances for the Admission of Other Christians to Communion at Catholic Celebrations of the Eucharist in the Diocese of Rockville Centre Print E-mail

Diocesan Norms

Effective November 28, 1999

Introduction

The approval and publication by the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States of new Guidelines for the Reception of Communion (November 14, 1996) provides an opportunity to reflect on the Catholic Church’s current teaching, theology and practice regarding the admission of other Christians to communion at Catholic celebrations of the Eucharist. (1) His Holiness Pope John Paul II encourages us to pray and work for the restoration of unity among all Christians. (2) As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which breaks the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return. (3)

Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Whole Christian Life (4)

Christians celebrate the Eucharist to remember and give thanks for all that God has done for us in Christ, to offer themselves in sacrifice to God and for others in union with Christ, and to be nourished and strengthened by the body and blood--the real presence--of Christ risen in our midst. The Catechism reminds us that those who share in the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Furthermore, “through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body--the Church. Communion renews, strengthens and deepens this incorporation into the Church.... In baptism, we have been called to form but one body. The Eucharist fulfills this call....” (5)

The unity of the one Body of Christ is lived out in the midst of a rich diversity, which is a dimension of the Church’s catholicity. Sadly, this richness of diversity can generate tensions within the Church--tensions in spite of which the Holy Spirit continues to work, calling Christians even amidst their diversity to deeper unity.

Catholics believe that the celebration of any sacrament, especially the Eucharist, is both a visible expression of the reality of that community’s unity in faith, worship and community life, and a source of that unity. At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that, by virtue of our common baptism, Catholics share a “real, even if imperfect communion” (6)  with those Christians with whom Catholics do not share full ecclesial communion. Indeed Pope John Paul II has noted that “certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized” in other Christian communities. (7)  It is these two basic principles--sacraments as signs and sources of ecclesial unity, and the sharing of different degrees of a real though imperfect communion with other Christians--which form the foundation of the Catholic Church’s teaching about Eucharistic sharing with our fellow Christians. (8)

Pastoral Reflections On Eucharistic Sharing

Priests, deacons and pastoral ministers are often faced with situations that require prudent pastoral judgment regarding the sharing of Eucharist with our fellow Christians. Special sacramental celebrations, as well as ministry to people who are aged, sick or dying, or incarcerated, sometimes call for special pastoral sensitivity. In light of current canonical norms and theological principles, this document offers some pastoral reflections and guidance.

The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity provides us with some helpful guidance in applying and interpreting canon law. The spirit and norms of the Directory and canon law certainly dictate that Eucharistic sharing among Christians who do not share full ecclesial communion would never be done routinely or casually. This would violate the principle that the Eucharist is a visible manifestation of full communion in faith. Consequently, a general invitation should never be extended to Christians who are not Catholic to share in Holy Communion with a Catholic community.

However, the Directory reminds us that “...in certain circumstances, by way of exception and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments (Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick) may be permitted or even commended for Christians of other churches and ecclesial communities.” (9)  This may always be done if a Christian is in danger of death (cf. section IV, below, and canon 844.4). However, Eucharist may also be given to other Christians if there is, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or episcopal conference, some other “grave necessity” or “grave and pressing need.” (10) Consequently, just as it is inappropriate to issue a general invitation to Christians who are not Catholic to share in Holy Communion, it is equally inappropriate to make a general statement indiscriminately barring all other Christians from sharing in the sacrament. Such a total prohibition would be more limiting than the norms of the Directory and the 1996 statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops now published in all participation materials.

The Directory recommends that diocesan bishops establish general norms for judging situations of grave necessity, taking into account any norms that may have been established by the episcopal conference or synod of Eastern Catholic churches. In the United States, no national norms have been established; the Directory states that where this is the case, Catholic ministers are to judge cases individually according to the norms established by the diocesan bishop for judging situations of grave necessity. (11)

When making a pastoral decision in these situations, two conditions are important: grave necessity and the manifestation of Catholic faith in the sacrament. Grave necessity “is understood to mean a condition in which being deprived of the Eucharist would, in the judgment of a reasonable person, cause someone to experience a significant sense of deprivation. This obviously means more than casually wanting to receive the Eucharist.” Manifesting Catholic faith in the sacrament “means that approximately the same knowledge and faith should be required of the person in these exceptional circumstances as would be required of a Catholic in similar circumstances.” (12)

Canonical Norms And Pastoral Principles For The Diocese Of Rockville Centre

Canon law states that Catholic ministers may normally administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who in turn may normally receive sacraments only from Catholic ministers. (13) We use the term “Catholic” to refer to those churches with whom we already share full communion. The Eastern Catholic churches (14) and the Roman Church are blessed with this complete sharing of sacramental life. Members of such churches are always welcome to Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing at parishes of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. However, as mentioned above, there are occasions when sacramental sharing with other Christians is possible. Indeed, Pope John Paul II remarks that “it is a source of joy” that Catholic ministers, in particular cases, can administer sacraments to Christians with whom Catholics do not share full ecclesial communion. (15)

Whenever a pastoral decision regarding Eucharistic sharing with other Christians is made the following norms and principles are to be followed carefully in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

In considering the possibility for sacramental sharing, especially Eucharistic sharing, it is important to note that Church law makes a distinction between churches whose sacraments the Catholic Church recognizes as valid and which manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament, and other churches and ecclesial communities.

Orthodox Christians

Churches in which the sacraments are considered valid and Catholic faith is presumed include the Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church. Members of these churches may receive Eucharist, Reconciliation or Anointing of the Sick from Catholic ministers if they are in danger of death, (16) or when they freely request the sacraments and are properly disposed. (17) In addition, due consideration must be given and sensitivity shown by both the Catholic minister and the person requesting the sacrament to the discipline of these churches regarding sacramental sharing. (18) If there is a question about the laws of a specific church and if there is time, the person should be encouraged to speak with a member of the clergy or other person learned in the discipline of that church.

When all these conditions have been met, no special permission is needed when these Christians request to share in Holy Communion at a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. (19)

Episcopal (20) and Protestant Christians

At this time, fruitful dialogue is continuing on the local, national and global levels between the Catholic Church and the Anglican and Protestant communions concerning the sacramental life of our communities. However, since we do not yet share full ecclesial communion, there are stricter conditions for Eucharistic and other sacramental sharing with members of these denominations. Episcopal and Protestant Christians may receive the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick from a Catholic minister when in danger of death, or in situations of  “grave necessity” or “grave and pressing need,” as interpreted and explained in section III above. In such cases the five conditions of canon 844.4 must be met:

  • The person requesting the sacrament must be validly baptized. Baptism is valid when water is poured or the person is immersed and the trinitarian formula is used. For example, valid baptism is presumed for Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. (21)
  • The person must manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes in the sacrament. As a minimum for Eucharistic sharing, the person must believe that in receiving the Eucharist we receive the body and blood of Christ. In some communions this is standard dogma; for example, Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.
  • The person must ask for the sacrament freely. The request must have been initiated by the person seeking Eucharistic communion.
  • The person must be unable to have recourse for the sacrament to a minister of his or her own community. This condition is met when gaining access to one’s own minister poses a reasonable physical, moral or psychological difficulty, or causes serious inconvenience for the minister or recipient.
  • The person must be properly disposed to receive the sacrament. As noted above “proper disposition” is the same as required for Catholics, i.e., not conscious of serious sin (see canon 916). “Being properly disposed means being in a good relationship with God, or if not, taking whatever steps are necessary to return to a good relationship with God.” (22)

In light of the above canonical norms and pastoral reflections, the following situations are examples--not an exhaustive list-- of occasions, other than danger of death, when a “grave necessity” may be discerned and Eucharist may be shared with Episcopal or Protestant Christians if all the conditions are met:

Catholic Eucharist in Institutional Settings

Catholic ministers who visit hospitals, nursing homes or prisons frequently encounter other Christians who request the Eucharist. People who out of necessity are confined to institutions--willingly or unwillingly, temporarily or permanently--are often in a state of heightened spiritual crisis, questioning, searching and receptivity. They may seek out the comfort and healing of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, from a minister and with a community with whom they share a spiritual kinship. Because of the religious demographics of Nassau and Suffolk counties, the Catholic ministerial presence in institutions is often stronger than that of other Christian denominations. Consequently, Episcopal and Protestant Christians may be deprived of the presence of their own ministers at times when they need or desire the Eucharist most. Their situation may indeed be judged by Catholic ministers as constituting a grave spiritual need.

When in the prudent pastoral judgment of the local pastor all five conditions of canon 844.4 are met, no further permission is needed.

Catholic Funeral Mass

Another example of a pastoral situation that might constitute a case of “grave necessity” and therefore qualify as an exceptional circumstance is the funeral Mass. At a funeral, a Christian spouse, family member, relative or friend of a deceased Catholic might be drawn to Eucharistic communion as a source of strength and consolation in his or her sorrow. This might well be judged as a moment of grace and fulfill the condition of a grave and pressing need.

The principles and norms of canon law and the Directory can be applied by priests, deacons and pastoral ministers in particular cases for individuals who request Eucharist on the occasion of funerals. There may be an opportunity to explain the principles of sacramental sharing with persons who are not Catholic at the wake or at a meeting with family members to plan the funeral liturgy. Because of the complexity of conditions, it is permitted neither to offer a general invitation to all people at the funeral Mass to share in the Eucharist, nor to forbid them by public announcement. (23)

When all five conditions of canon 844.4 are met, the pastor may give them permission to receive Holy Communion at the funeral liturgy.

Catholic Nuptial Mass

When a Catholic marries a validly baptized person who is not Catholic, the sacrament of marriage should normally be celebrated within a Service of the Word. Such a celebration allows all those present to participate in the liturgy and to celebrate marriage as a sign of unity and love. For example, at a Service of the Word, Christians of any denomination may read the Scriptures.

In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, priests are granted the pastoral faculty to determine where there exists a “just cause” for the celebration of the wedding of a Catholic and a validly baptized member of another church in the context of the Eucharist. (E.g., one or both spouses show a serious commitment to celebrating the Eucharist on a weekly basis.) Presuming the priest or other minister has explained to the couple Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and on the sacrament of Marriage they will share, and instructed them on the nature of the inter-church marriage, the priest can permit the nuptial Mass.

The Directory deals specifically with the question of Eucharistic sharing between Christian spouses at their marriage celebration in a Catholic church. It suggests that although Eucharistic communion between the spouses can only be exceptional, it is possible, and might in certain cases be permissible. (24) A decision as to whether the spouse who is not Catholic may be admitted to the Eucharist is to be made according to applicable general norms, “taking into account the particular situation of the sacrament of Christian marriage by two baptized Christians.” (25) The spouse who is not Catholic already shares with the Catholic spouse the sacraments of baptism and marriage. There may be an occasion where the spouse who is not Catholic desires to receive the Eucharist at the nuptial Mass. A spiritual need constituting a “grave necessity” may indeed be present on such an important occasion.

In such a case, the priest, deacon or pastoral minister who is arranging for the wedding may take the opportunity to explain to the spouse who is not Catholic the conditions required to receive the Eucharist. Because of the very public nature of the wedding ceremony, the diocese requires that in such cases the following process be followed:

  • Submit the mixed religion petition. The mixed religion petition is submitted to the Chancellor’s Office when a Catholic marries a validly baptized Christian who is not Catholic. A notation is to be made that the spouse who is not Catholic has requested to receive the Eucharist.
  • With the petition, attach a statement explaining the request of the spouse to receive the Eucharist. 
  • Along with the mixed religion petition, the pastor or the priest who will be presiding at the nuptial Mass should include a written statement explaining how the conditions have been met. That is, the spouse is validly baptized and believes that in receiving the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ; the person has asked to receive the Eucharist freely and is properly disposed; this is an occasion of grave necessity to receive the Eucharist. The rescript stating that the permission to marry has been granted will also state that the spouse who is not Catholic may receive the Eucharist at the nuptial Mass.

Priest Presider

If the request is made by someone other than the priest presider of the nuptial Mass, the statement explaining the request of the spouse who is not Catholic should indicate that the priest presider will be informed of the contents of the rescript. Whenever possible, the priest presider is to be part of the process of discernment.

Consultation with the Chancellor’s Office

The Chancellor’s Office is available to review the request and assist the pastor for advice regarding the principles of canon law and the Directory.

General Guidelines

Situations may arise where a person who is not Catholic requests to receive Eucharist on occasions other than those discussed in this document. In such instances, the same general principles of church law and pastoral practice apply: the minister must determine to the best of his or her ability if the person shares Catholic faith in the Eucharist, and if a situation of  “grave necessity” is present. It is recommended that, whenever possible, the minister consult the Chancellor’s Office or the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs about the request. As in the case of a wedding, special permission may be required due to the very public nature of certain Eucharistic celebrations.

Prudent pastoral sensitivity requires that if a minister has, in accord with the Directory’s norms, made a pastoral decision to give Communion to a person who is not Catholic, it is incumbent upon the minister to see that this action is not interpreted as a general practice. This is best achieved through general adherence to canonical norms, appropriate preaching, and solid catechesis for both adults and children.

It also requires that Communion not automatically and publicly be withheld from a person known not to be Catholic who comes forward to receive Eucharist. It is best to approach such a person about the matter at another time in an appropriately pastoral manner.

The pastor bears the general responsibility for the distribution of the sacraments in their parishes. All other parish ministers follow the pastor’s direction and keep him informed of situations where giving communion to a person who is not Catholic have arisen. In ecumenical sensitivity, the pastor will also want to communicate recurring situations to the local Christian pastors, especially when their own congregants are involved.

Scripture Readers at Catholic Celebrations of the Eucharist

In accordance with the principles of the Directory, Bishop Murphy hereby grants delegation to priests to give permission for members of Episcopal and Protestant communities to read Scripture at a Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist for prudent pastoral reasons. (26)

Conclusion

As the Jubilee year 2000 draws closer, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II urges all Catholics to pray and work untiringly to build relationships with our fellow Christians which will ultimately lead to full ecclesial communion, without abandoning the unique gifts and contributions of each community.  Catholics look forward in joyful hope to the day when all Christians can feast at the same Eucharistic table.

If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them. — Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, n. 22

These diocesan norms were recommended for approval by the Senate of Priests, June 24, 1999, and formally approved by the Most Reverend John R. McGann, D.D., September 14, 1999. The norms take effect on the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 1999.

Endnotes

  • This document is not intended to address church discipline regarding Catholics sharing in communion with other Christian communities. Canon 844.2 states that “Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it... Christ’s faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.” These churches are listed on page 4, section IVA. Catholics requesting sacraments from ministers of these churches are to respect the discipline of these churches regarding sacramental sharing. Orthodox churches do not allow Christians who are not Orthodox to share in the Eucharist under any circumstances. Because we do not yet share full ecclesial communion, Catholics are not at this time permitted to receive Eucharist in Episcopal or Protestant churches.
  • Cf. Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint (Encyclical on Commitment to Ecumenism), 1995, and Tertio Millennio Adveniente (Apostolic Letter on Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000), 1994.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1398.
  • Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), n. 3.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1396.
  • Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), n. 3.
  • Ut Unum Sint, n. 14.
  • Cf. Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, n. 129.  Henceforth “Directory.”
  • Directory, n. 129, referring to canon 844.4 and eastern canon  671.4.
  •  Note that the 1983 Code of Canon Law’s phrase “urgeat gravis necessitas” has been translated by the Canon Law Society of America as “grave necessity,” and by the canon law societies of  Great Britain and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada as “grave and pressing need.” The official French text of the Directory, as well as its English translation, favors the second rendering (“situations de grave et pressante necessite”).
  • Cf. Directory, n. 130.
  • Bishops of Kentucky, Ecumenical Handbook for the Dioceses of Kentucky, 1995, n. 89, 92; cf. also Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Guidelines for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, 1996, p. 7.
  • Canon  844.1.
  • Both Ukrainian Catholic and Byzantine Catholic churches are ministering in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
  • Ut Unum Sint, n. 46.
  • Note that “danger of death” is a phrase used to denote situations when there is a reasonable possibility of death (i.e., major surgery or whenever general anesthesia is used) and not only in extremis situations.
  • Proper disposition is understood as the same disposition required of Catholics, e.g., not conscious of serious sin. (See canon 916.) For further elucidation of “proper disposition,” cf. section B, below.
  • Directory, n.125.  Any suggestion of proselytism is to be avoided.
  • In January, 1998, the NCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs published two brief pastoral guides for Catholic-Orthodox Marriages: A Guide on Catholic Orthodox Marriages for Catholic Clergy and Other Pastoral Ministers and also A Guide for Catholics Considering Marriage with an Orthodox Christian. Copies are available from the USCC Publications Office (800-235-8722).
  • In the United States, these are members of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. This also refers to members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world.
  • Some communions “dedicate” rather than baptize, or a person is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.” These baptisms are not considered valid.
  • Kentucky Bishops, n. 89.
  • Cf. section II, last sentence of third paragraph.
  • Directory, n. 159-160.
  • Ibid., n. 159.
  • Cf. Directory, nn. 127 and 133. Special permission is not required for Eastern Catholics, Orthodox Christians and others listed on page 4, section IVA.