Since I began blogging nigh on 3 years ago I have encountered with some frequency, the topic of ‘closed’ communion in regard to the Catholic Church. In view of questions recently being asked on this same topic, I thought I’d write a post about it rather than attempt to post my response as a comment. In the following dialogue, typed in bold are a selection of the type of questions I have come across with regard to this topic and my responses to them can be read in unbolded text. This is by no means an exhaustive article on the subject of ‘closed communion’, but I hope it goes some way to assisting the understanding of anyone who has questions about it.
Why can’t Protestants receive Communion in the Catholic Church?
Short answer : Protestants can not receive Communion in the Catholic Church because they are not Catholic and do not accept the teachings of the Catholic Church (or else they would be Catholics…).
Long answer ….
Jesus fed everyone gathered for the feast of the five thousand; surely he wants to feed us all, doesn’t he?
Yes, indeed Jesus did feed the five thousand and he does want to feed us all.
Then what’s the problem?
We are not receiving fish and bread when we receive Communion.
Okay, we are receiving bread and wine instead of fish and bread, it’s basically the same thing though isn’t it?
No it isn’t the same thing at all. The table of the Lord is open to all who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and to all whom have received proper catechetical instruction and have received the first two, of the three Sacraments of Initiation which are Baptism & First Holy Communion (the third being Confirmation). Through the mystery of transubstantiation the bread is transformed into Christ’s Body and the wine is transformed into Christ’s Blood.
What is ‘faith formation’?
From the earliest times following Christ’s death and resurrection, a period of discernment, development of understanding and prayerful preparation was the norm for those who were seeking to become Catholic. In those days it took as long as three years for the catechumen to be sufficiently prepared to receive the Sacraments. As the centuries passed the period of catechesis (instructing the catechumen on the teachings of the Church, the Sacraments etc) was shortened, but never dispensed with. Each diocese now has their own requirements for those who are being prepared to be received into the Church.
Parishes run programmes for such a purpose and are usually given a title of, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children (RCIC) and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Such preparatory courses may go by other titles, in my own parish we run RCIA but it rarely is publicised as such as we open the course up to those Catholics who are looking to learn more about their Catholic faith, as well as to non-Catholics – we do this because it is such a comprehensive course and so many can and do benefit from it.
Why is faith formation necessary?
When we think of formation, it might help us to think about how any event of extreme importance requires careful planning. For example, few people would decide today that they wish to marry, and tomorrow marry. Likewise, when a new life is conceived, it can not be born into this world until it has been nourished and has been formed to the greatest extent possible to enable survival outside its mothers womb.
Of course, such examples simplify the need for Catechesis somewhat, but may help to explain in simple terms that for really important life events, there is always a time of preparation; every student first has to learn the basics of speech, learning to write etc, before they can progress to graduation, after all.
The period of faith formation is a time of preparation. It is not a time of solitude and nor is it a time of deprivation as may first be thought. As a convert myself, I know that the Lord used my time of faith formation to draw me nearer to Him and I know that I would not have been able to appreciate the Miracle of the Eucharist if I had been allowed to receive Communion without being properly prepared first.
A person who discerns a calling to the Catholic faith may do so gradually, or through a sudden revelation. I’m not ruling out the latter for anyone (I’m thinking Road to Damascus here), but the former is more the usual route. Discerning a call may indeed at first be greeted with protestation (forgive the unintended pun) or even disbelief!
An individual responds of his own free will, as he will. For me, I know that it took almost 2 years for me to even enter a Catholic Church after my discernment process began. I needed to know where I was taking this family of mine; I needed to be certain that I was responding to a call from God.
I was unfortunate in that I knew no Catholic’s, but fortunate too that I was able to research Catholicism via the internet. I participated in online Catholic forums, I interacted with cradle Catholics and converts alike and the Vatican website was a daily point of reference for me. Others, may not have access to the internet and nor may they need a time of ‘researching the history of Catholicism’ before stepping foot inside a Catholic Church, but I believe my faith was all the more deepened precisely because of the care that I took as I prepared to swim the Tiber.
When it finally became crystal clear that I was indeed called to conversion, I began attending Mass. When I did first attend a Catholic Mass, so sure was I of the faith that God had led me to that my first words to the parish priest when I met him, were ‘I want to become Catholic, when does RCIA start?’.
I attended RCIA later that year and all the while I was attending Sunday Mass and many of the other parish events that would enrich my spiritual life. I literally cried in the pews on more than one occasion because my heart ached for the Eucharist, but I was not deprived and nor did I feel deprived! I understood that this great gift of Christ Himself occasioned a period of preparation, study and prayer. When eventually I did receive First Holy Communion, I stood side by side with my two children and we received as a Family and once more I cried, though these were now tears of joy an not of longing.
Well that’s a nice story, but I don’t want to be Catholic. I just want to receive Catholic Communion!
Why would anyone want to receive Catholic Communion if they had no intention of becoming Catholic?
I don’t understand.
Unless of course, they felt that they were not being fed in their own church and had recognised the ‘truth of the Eucharistic Miracle’ in some way?.
I would never, ever so much as contemplate receiving ‘communion’ in any church outside of the Catholic Church. So I ask again, why would anyone want to?
Because Communion is about coming together as a community, we are all God’s children and should all be able to receive communion wherever we choose, shouldn’t we?
Would you partake of communion at any religious service regardless of that particular church’s teachings? Would you partake of communion, for example, with Jehovah’s Witness’ when they celebrate it once a year? (how would you know you were one of the 144,000 elect who alone can take it?)
If your answer to this question is ‘yes’, then I would ask you to consider how you can imagine that it would be God’s will for your life to do so. I would also like you to tell me exactly what you think you would be receiving. If a church does not believe in the actual presence of Christ’s body and blood, then how can you believe it is Christ’s body and blood? If you think of it as merely fulfilling a community response, then you might like to look at other ways that you can feel a part of a community. Every faith group I know of believes something different than another one and expects it’s congregation to believe the same thing. And frankly, you can’t possibly believe every church’s teachings and would therefore not adhere to their teachings or necessarily agree with them.
If your answer is ‘no’, then, why is it ‘no’? Do you differentiate between what is valid and invalid communion? Do you perhaps use the Nicene Creed as a guideline to those churches’ in which you would partake of Communion? Once again, there are many differences in teachings in even those churches which use the Nicene Creed as their profession of faith.
It’s all bread to me. I believe that Communion is symbolic rather than actual and that is why I would be happy to receive it in any Creed-professing church.
Christians who ascribe to Sola Scriptura often try to find ways around those scripture passages that cause them discomfort, but Christ himself tells us that the Eucharist is not symbolic; there really isn’t any getting around it.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body. Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”Mathew 26:26-28
Christ didn’t say, this is not my body, or this is purely symbolic, he said ‘this is my body’ .
He further said, to the unbelievers…
“ Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” John 6:53
For a person to receive Communion in a Catholic Church it is essential that they believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Through the mystery of transubstantiation what was bread and wine, become Jesus’ actual body and blood, all the while appearing to us as bread and wine still.
For a Catholic, Communion is more than a ‘feel good re-enactment’ of the last supper. While there is certainly truth in the idea that Communion is a building up of the community, it is so much more than that. Through Communion we are being grafted ever more closely into the Body of Christ on earth and in Heaven, and we who receive are united in belief. When we say Amen (meaning; it is so) before receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, we are each agreeing to the one thread of belief that runs through the very core of us all. That we do believe in the teaching of the Church and in the Real Presence.
If you can not say Amen to that, then you can not receive. There are even occasions that though we believe, we as Catholics can not receive Communion, due to our not being in a state of grace. This is how seriously we take our faith!
In partaking of Communion we also become one with Christ in our physical and spiritual bodies. For those that are not in union with the Catholic Church, sharing the Eucharistic feast would be in a sense an attempt to create some kind of illusion that we were in union, which at this time, we are not. In conclusion then, while the Eucharistic table is open to all, not all will be open to the means which enable them to partake at the Eucharistic Table.
For any individual genuinely discerning the truth about the Eucharist, I would suggest that they put aside all former beliefs, all former thoughts and pray for enlightenment and understanding. While doing so it might be worthwhile to contemplate our responses to the following points…
- “Do you believe in the Real Presence?”
- “Do you accept or reject Catholic Doctrine on the Real Presence?”
- “Do you believe in open communion – that anyone, whether Christian or non-Christian, should receive Communion?”
- Do you believe that all who partake of Communion should be ‘one’ in mind and heart and consciously have discerned and agreed to what Communion is?
Ever since Christ instituted the Eucharist only those who believe in the Real Presence have been allowed to receive it. How can a belief in ‘open communion’ be reconciled with what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 -?
“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
God Bless you!
Edited: There’s a lot of interesting discussion going on in the comments box, be sure to take a look :-)