Chapter 17: Eucharist and Ecumenism

Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or share with friends what has been your experience of services of other denominations? Do you discuss religion with people of other denominations or faiths?

The Unity of Christian Churches and the Eucharist

The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. At Mass we pray frequently for unity. The prayer after Communion on the eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time says:

As this reception of your Holy Communion, O Lord, foreshadows a union of the faithful in you, so may it bring about unity in your Church.

In John’s gospel the story of the Last Supper is followed immediately by a long discourse by Jesus which includes his prayer for unity among his followers.

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)

What unity are we praying for? We are praying for unity on many levels. We pray for unity among the parishioners, we pray for unity within families, we pray for unity within the Catholic Church. We pray for unity among the many Churches that claim allegiance to Christ, and we pray for unity among people of all faiths or none.

Wonderful strides have been made towards unity between the Christian Churches in the last hundred years. The extreme bigotry of previous eras has passed and there is a new mood of friendliness between the Christian denominations. Agreement about doctrine has reached a level that would have amazed people of a hundred, even fifty years ago. We praise God for these wonderful advances and we sometimes even wonder how we could have been so hostile to one another in the past.

The Catholic Church was slow to join in the push for unity but the Vatican Council of the 1960s gave a wonderful impetus to the Church to seek unity with other Christians in the Decree on Ecumenism called Unitatis Redintegratio (UR for short).

All those who are baptised already have so much in common.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4–6)

The word ‘one’ comes repeatedly through this inspiring verse like the insistent beat of the drum in a marching song!

He (Christ) is the principle of the Church’s unity.  (UR, 2)

This is necessarily so as belief in Christ is ‘The Sure Foundation’. (eleventh century hymn)  The decree goes on to say:

… all those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ.

Sadly, over the centuries disputes arose over doctrines and governance, and many of these disagreements led to separation and the ‘one body’ was not just divided but splintered into fragments, lessening the Church’s credibility and effectiveness in setting up the kingdom of God on earth.

Divisions among Christians

The split that we are most familiar with is the one that occurred in the sixteenth century that we call the Reformation and that gave rise to the churches we call Protestant because they were protesting about the abuses in the Church at that time. However, a more catastrophic split is that between the Eastern Church and the Western Church 500 years earlier. The Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism displays a positive attitude towards these Eastern Churches and pays special tribute to the beauty of their liturgies, their spirituality and their hymns:

Although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship. (UR, 15)

The Decree then says that some worship in common with these Churches is recommended.

The decree is also positive towards the Churches of the Reformation highlighting the deep reverence they have for the Word of God and suggesting that we can use our common bond with the scriptures for building unity.

Nevertheless, in dialogue itself, the sacred utterances are precious instruments in the mighty hand of God for attaining that unity which the Saviour holds out to all. (UR 21)

Sharing Insights

The Catholic Church is very much indebted to the Protestant Churches as they led the way in modern times into the valuable research that has helped us to a much better understanding of the Bible. This research has shown us so much about the times in which Jesus lived and about the times of the Old Testament figures. Now we can break open the Word of God in a way that makes much more sense of the Sunday readings.

While Catholics have learned from other denominations in this way, some Protestants have begun to recover the power of symbols which earlier generations of the Reformers had to a large extent discarded. This was due in no small part to the historical fact that following the Reformation came the Enlightenment which pushed so strongly for a rational understanding of everything. The Protestants picked up this attitude and largely dropped the use of symbols and images.

Catholics were influenced by this trend to a lesser extent. But times are changing. Some years ago a Uniting Church minister asked me if he could use some of my oil of the sick for anointing, and he enthusiastically showed me some lovely candles that he had bought. Oil and fancy candles were a new experience for him and his parishioners.

At the doctrinal level a great deal of work has been done in the last 50 years by theologians of the various denominations and many documents have been produced for study and reflection. Catholic and Anglican scholars wrote an ‘Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine’ in 1971 and an ‘Elucidation’ in 1979. It’s wonderful to see the level of agreement we now share on the Eucharist. Further work has been done in other areas such as governance and communion, and with other denominations.

The Views of a Few Protestant Churches on Eucharist

Other Churches also wrestle with the question of how Christ is present in the bread and wine, just as the Catholic Church has done, as I discussed in Chapter 8. A theologian of the Churches of Christ (otherwise known as Disciples) says:

Disciples are clear that the bread and wine in the Eucharistic meal are not mere reminders of the death of Christ, or even of the spiritual significance of that death. The bread and wine are sacramental means of grace through which Christians are transformed by the presence of the risen Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine become for us, through faith, the Body and Blood of Christ. Exactly how this occurs, for Disciples, remains a sacred mystery, but one for which we pray confidently at the time of the consecration of the elements.  (William Tabbernee, The Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a paper given in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, December 6, 2005, p.11, emphases in the original).

I was delighted to read this quote and, indeed, the whole paper, as it picks up several of the themes of this book. The Disciples of Christ was formally founded in 1832 and from that time the founders made ‘the Eucharist central to its life and witness’. (Tabbernee, p.2). Commenting on the meal aspect of the Eucharist, Tabbernee says:

This feeding, however, is not thought of in terms of partaking of the physical flesh and blood of Christ. Rather it is held that the feeding comes through communion with the risen Christ who is acknowledged to be spiritually present in the Supper’. (Tabbernee, p.8)

A Lutheran takes a more literal approach while acknowledging the mystery:

We believe that Christ is really present taking literally his words: Take and eat, this is my body … take and drink, this is my blood …! Ultimately it is a mystery understood only in faith, confessed more than explained!  (Editors: Ray Williamson & Gerard Kelly, Eat This Bread, Drink This Cup – Eucharistic Practice in Australian Churches, NSW Ecumenical Council Incorporated, 2000, p.18, emphasis in the original)

There is a great diversity of views and practices not only among Protestants in general but within each denomination. The following comment comes from one of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) adherents:

As far as the meaning of Eucharist is concerned, the thoughts and experiences of UCA folk would be quite varied. For example:

It is a memorial meal, and only that, a recalling of an event which happened 2000 years ago. Over the centuries, the Jewish sense in which remembering has its own reality in the present action, seems to have been lost.

For some, the presence of Christ may be interpreted as being by the Spirit only, whilst others would affirm a kind of mystical presence in the bread and wine. The bread and wine are generally seen only as symbols.

It would generally be agreed that the celebration of the Eucharist has become a rich, more deeply meaningful experience in the UCA. (Williamson & Kelly, p.20)

The Armenian Apostolic Church makes the following contribution:

At the heart of the Eucharistic theology of the Armenian Church are the doctrines of the sacrifice and presence of Christ. In the action of the Eucharist, Christ’s sacrifice is re-enacted, and Christ is really present in the bread and wine – in the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ are present spiritually. This is the faith of the Armenian Apostolic Church. (Williamson & Kelly, p.28)

The Salvation Army is a non-sacramental church and does not celebrate the Eucharist. Their International Spiritual Life Commission sets out their approach to the Eucharist in nine points which I will summarise: no particular outward observance is necessary as God’s grace is freely available to all; unity of the Spirit exists within diversity and rejoices in freedom of the Spirit in an expression of worship;  Salvationists may receive communion at other Christian gatherings if the host church allows; Christ is the one true sacrament living in us; Christ’s atoning sacrifice is at the centre of corporate worship; the Salvation Army rejoices in its freedom to celebrate Christ’s real presence at all meals and in all meetings and members are encouraged to develop creative means of hallowing meals in home and corps with remembrance of the Lord’s sacrificial love. (summarised from Williamson & Kelly, pp.43-44)

A reflection from the Eastern Orthodox Church says:

Underlying the whole eucharistic action is the basic conviction that the Liturgy is a meal of the kingdom. It is during the Eucharistic Prayer that the bread and wine, which have been offered on the altar are lifted up to God the Father, and are changed – becoming the body and blood of Christ – by the very presence of the Holy Spirit, which has been invoked … The church is basically the people of God gathered in order to break bread and bless the cup. (Williamson & Kelly, pp.45, 46)

I find it fascinating that we have so much in common with the other Churches including the sincere attempt to understand more fully what the Eucharist is, how to use its riches and acknowledge the awesome mystery of the event.

Ecumenism at Grass Roots

On the grass roots level there is a lot of activity between parishes, and many priests and ministers of other denominations are involved in regular ‘Ministers Fraternal’ meetings.

I’ve often attended the Ecumenical Summer School in Melbourne and it’s a delight to mix with people of other denominations and share our beliefs and practices on what it means to be a follower of the risen Christ. It is abundantly clear from being present at the Ecumenical Summer School that all the participating Churches echo the statement of the Churches of Christ who ‘have remained passionately committed to the goal of visible unity’. (Tabbernee, p.11)

The overwhelming impression I have is that these are people of good will and their hearts are set on living the gospel and spreading the kingdom of God on earth. It is very edifying to hear of the enormous amount of time and energy many of them put into their faith practices. Praise be to God that Jesus’ prayer for unity is moving, albeit in some areas only inching, towards reality.

In the Catholic Missal there are three sets of prayers for unity, each has a choice of two opening prayers and a special preface is also given. The one I like best says:

O God, who have united many nations in confessing your name, grant us, we pray, the grace to will and to do what you command, that the people called to your Kingdom may be one in the faith of their hearts and the homage of their deeds.

One of the Prayers after Communion says:

Pour out on us, O Lord, the Spirit of your love and, in your kindness, make those who believe in you one in mind and heart by the power of this sacrifice.

Pope John Paul II worked tirelessly for unity and met many leaders of Churches during his pontificate. He also asked forgiveness of the other Churches for any hurt caused by the Catholic Church to them.

A key issue is whether people of different denominations can participate fully in the Eucharists of other Churches. The non-Catholic Churches do not see this as an issue, but at this stage the Catholic Church does not permit its members to receive communion in other Churches nor permit people of other Churches to receive communion in the Catholic Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders”. (Unitatis Redintigratio)  It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church’. (1400)

The Church is saying the Protestant Churches do not have valid ordination for their priests and hence their Eucharists are not valid. This is the reason why the Catholic Church does not allow intercommunion. Not all scholars agree with this decision, but that is the situation at this time.

Interchurch Families

The prohibition against interchurch communion makes it difficult for spouses of different denominations. A sincere Catholic and a sincere Christian of another denomination who are married are placed in a very painful situation by the current legislation which forbids them to receive communion together no matter which Church they attend. In a marriage ‘the two become one flesh’ and they are encouraged to share their love for God in Christ. Yet at the deepest level, the level of spirituality, they cannot share fully. They cannot approach the table of the Lord and together receive the spiritual nourishment of the body and blood of the risen Christ. For couples who are sincerely striving to grow together in spirituality and to bring up their families as sincere Christians this is a very painful experience.

The Association of Interchurch Families met in Rome in 2003 and published a report in 2004 which sums up the situation of these struggling families very well. It says in part:

We believe that, as interchurch families, we have a significant and unique contribution to our churches’ growth in visible Christian unity. Many people in our churches have told us that we are pioneers. As two baptized Christians who are members of two different, and as yet separated Christian traditions, we have come together in the covenant of marriage to form one Christian family. As we grow into that unity, we begin and continue to share in the life and worship of each other’s church communities. We develop a love and understanding not only of one another, but also of the churches that have given each of us our religious and spiritual identity. In this way interchurch families can become a sign of unity and a means to grow towards unity. We believe that interchurch families can form a connective tissue helping in a small way to bring our churches together in the one Body of Christ.

(Interchurch Families and Christian Unity: Rome 2003)

This is a new area of ecumenism which is still to be explored but which has promise of being very fruitful. See, for example, Wendy’s Story.

When we think about the question of intercommunion we need to keep the historical perspective in mind and be thankful for the progress that has been made. It seems to me we need to keep praying very sincerely and frequently that the move towards unity will continue as dialogue between the Churches progresses. This is a work of the Holy Spirit and it does take time.

Let these sentiments be a part of your spirituality. It is vital that all followers of the risen Christ be sensitive to the pain of the present separation and strive earnestly in prayer and practice to achieve the full unity that Jesus prayed for.

Interfaith Ecumenism

In more recent years there has been a lot of interaction between the different faiths in the world. Christians, Jews and Muslims share the fatherhood of Abraham and much of the Bible. They are the ‘Religions of the Book’, believing that God has revealed himself to us through these writings of prophets and mystics. Through these revelations we know things about God that could never otherwise be known.

With this one origin, these three religions have a great deal in common. Many adherents of these religions are now meeting regularly for discussion, sharing beliefs, sharing prayer, and discovering values in the other faiths.

I like particularly this passage from the Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Speaking of the Jews it says:

The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy deigned to establish the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olives of the Gentiles. (4)

Today also many are discovering the values in Buddhism, Hinduism, Ba’hai, Zoroastrionism and other faiths. Have we anything to share with these faiths?   There is a beautiful sentence in the intercessory part of Eucharistic Prayer IV which says:

Therefore, Lord, remember now . . . those who take part in this offering, those gathered here before you, your entire people, and all who seek you with a sincere heart.

A person born in a Hindu village in India, growing up with the customs, rituals and festivals of the Hindu faith has little chance of knowing Christ and becoming Christian. Given the strict taboos on converting and in some countries even laws against converting, he or she has virtually no chance of being baptised into the Christian faith. Yet such a person could be trying to live a good life and loving others in so far as he or she understands love. This is seeking God ‘with a sincere heart’. In its cosmic, all embracing dimension, I believe the Eucharist includes all these people because Jesus died and rose for them as much as he did for us.

Paul recommends praying

. . . for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:2–4)

This hope is echoed in the Collect of the Mass for the Evangelisation of Peoples:

O God, whose will it is that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth . . .

On the other hand, Jesus says:

No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:5)

And he also says:

No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

Some theologians today are wrestling with the tension between these texts and the question regarding how Christ’s saving action relates to people who have never known Christ. The discussion is a continuing one.

Vatican Council II issued a Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, called Nostra Aetate. This is a very positive document. It says:

For all peoples comprise a single community, and have a single origin, since God made the whole race of men dwell over the entire face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. (1)

Of the Church’s position regarding these religions, the document is very positive:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. (2)

What has this to do with my spirituality?   A sound spirituality is concerned with everyone in the world and with the religions that guide people through life. The more we know about other religions, the better equipped we are to relate to neighbours who may be Buddhist, Jewish or Hindu. The Church encourages us to embrace in love those of other faiths and pray for their needs.

Eucharistic spirituality demands that we pray for the unity of all people and do all we can for unity on the practical level. God is a much greater reality than we could ever imagine, God has a bigger heart than we could ever imagine.

→ Chapter 18: Eucharist and the Cosmos