Shared Communion: Brother Roger’s Death Spotlights Perennial Issue

By John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The death of Brother Roger Schutz prompted an outpouring of sympathy on the part of many Catholics and expressions of ecumenical appreciation from Vatican officials.

But it also highlighted a perennial and neuralgic issue in ecumenical dialogue: the Catholic Church’s rules against shared Communion.

Brother Roger, who was stabbed to death in mid-August by a deranged woman, was a longtime friend of Pope John Paul II. The pope had visited Brother Roger’s Taize community in eastern France and lauded his efforts to bring Christians together in prayer.

Despite his ecumenical passion, Brother Roger, a minister of the Swiss Reformed Church, did not believe in shared Communion, and it was not practiced at the services in Taize. He also had good ties with the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

So when Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Pope John Paul’s funeral Mass in April, he was probably surprised to see Brother Roger being rolled up in a wheelchair at the head of the Communion line.

What to do? Cardinal Ratzinger had long defended the church’s general prohibition on shared Communion. Special circumstances might allow for Communion, but the cardinal could hardly probe the matter in the middle of the pope’s funeral.

In the end, he did what many pastors in local dioceses do in such circumstances: He gave Communion. What made it different was that the world was watching, and wondering. Immediately people began asking: Had Brother Roger converted to Catholicism? Or had Cardinal Ratzinger changed his mind about shared Communion?

The answer in both cases was no, according to Vatican officials interviewed over the summer.

Because the questions about Brother Roger’s taking Communion would not go away, the Vatican made available in July an informal, unsigned statement of explanation.

The bottom line appeared to be: It was all an unfortunate mistake. Brother Roger, it seems, had been moved to a closer vantage point at the start of the Mass and had unwittingly ended up in the section reserved for those receiving Communion from the chief celebrant, Cardinal Ratzinger.

When he was wheeled forward, “it did not seem possible to refuse him the most Blessed Sacrament,” the Vatican said.

The statement noted that Brother Roger shared the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It also said his situation was unique and stressed that his receiving Communion did not represent a generalized policy.

With Brother Roger’s death and funeral four months later, the question was revisited in news reports and in conversations around the Vatican. Informed Vatican officials, who spoke on background, emphasized that the church’s position on shared Communion had not changed.

But the issue has nuances that are still studied and discussed inside the church.

Canon law states, for example, that Communion may be given to members of Eastern churches not in full unity with the Catholic Church — like the Orthodox — as long as recipients ask on their own and are in a state of grace.

These Eastern churches share the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, that it is the real body and blood of Christ and not something symbolic, and they share the sacrament of the priesthood.

On the other hand, members of churches that derive from the Reformation may be given Communion only if there is a danger of death or “other grave necessity,” and on the condition that they are unable to approach a minister of their own community, that they manifest the Catholic Church’s faith in the Eucharist and that they be in a state of grace.

So according to a strict reading of church law, just believing in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist would not be enough to allow a Protestant or Anglican to take Communion, church sources said.

But here, too, there is discussion. Some have argued that “grave necessity” can include a variety of circumstances, and that being unable to approach one’s own minister could simply refer to the immediate impossibility of doing so — at a Catholic funeral or marriage, for example.

Others have argued that manifesting one’s agreement with Catholic belief in the Eucharist may be done simply by approaching the minister of the sacrament and saying “Amen” when the minister presents the host with the words, “The body of Christ.”

The Vatican’s 1993 ecumenical directory spoke of “exceptional” cases of shared Communion during interchurch marriages. The language of that document and the fact that it did not rule out shared Communion has affected the way local bishops’ conferences have addressed the problem.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has underlined the exceptional nature of shared Communion and said the practice must follow local diocesan directives and the provisions of canon law. Like most bishops’ conferences, the USCCB has issued guidelines but not a specific set of rules on the practice.

For those unable to receive Communion, an increasingly common practice is to approach the minister with arms folded for a blessing. While that may reflect ecumenical sensitivities, it has not been proposed by Vatican liturgical officials and does not have their endorsement.

One official said that when people ask about this, the Vatican’s worship congregation tells them that the Communion line is not a place to give a blessing — and in any case a blessing is received by everyone at the end of the Mass. A blessing as a substitute for the Eucharist is viewed as liturgically confusing and seems to promote the idea that everyone should come forward to get something at Communion time, the official said.

Still, even Pope John Paul sometimes gave a blessing in place of Communion to non-Catholic leaders, most famously to a group of Lutheran bishops in Sweden in 1989. Though unauthorized, the practice has grown considerably since then, in part because people pay attention to what their church leaders do.

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