What it means to receive Communion

A Catholic who attends Mass every weekend and who certainly wishes to be a good Catholic told me that she had attended a wedding in an Episcopal church and had received Communion. She asked if she had done the right thing. She said that she worked with the bride and that she did not wish to offend her. 

She did not act correctly. Of course, no one would want to offend the bride and groom, and certainly not at their wedding. You might tell the bridal couple very clearly that they are valued and every hope is for their happiness in marriage. But receiving Communion at their wedding, given the fact that the church was not Catholic, is not necessary to make this statement of kind regards. Actually, it is inappropriate, because it is not honest. 

This does not accuse the Catholic who went to Communion of dishonesty. She simply did not consider all the ramifications of what she did. 

Still, this is why receiving Communion in a non-Catholic church is dishonest: 

First, we Catholics believe that in the Eucharist we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, actually present under the appearances of bread and wine. Jesus is present not because we somehow force the Lord, the Son of God, into the elements of bread and wine by our personal faith, but because a priest, validly ordained to the priesthood, acts in accordance with his ordination and, in the celebration of Mass, literally changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. 

So, in addition to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, there is the essentially necessary component of a validly ordained priest. More than a century ago, the Church, speaking through Pope Leo XIII, concluded after much study and review of all that had occurred in the English Reformation that Episcopal ordinations are not valid. If this is the case, regardless of how honorable and devoted to God Episcopal clergy may be, they are not validly ordained priests. Thus the ceremonies over which they preside do not bring about the presence of Christ in a way similar to the Eucharist. 

It is difficult these days to say precisely what Episcopal doctrine is, but their official documents, the words in their liturgies and the beliefs of many Episcopalians surely imply that, in some way, Christ is present in their Eucharist. 

Catholics cannot say or act as if Episcopal Eucharistic services are what they are thus presumed by Episcopalians to be. Receiving Communion says that they are. Therefore, for Catholics, receiving Communion under these conditions is dishonest. 

The Eucharist also represents unity of faith. This is why Catholic churches offer holy Communion only to Catholics and to a few others whose belief in the Eucharist exactly corresponds with the belief of Catholics. While Catholics and Episcopalians, or Catholics and other Protestants, may have many things in common, in the last analysis they are not fully united in faith, and no reasonable look at things suggests otherwise. 

It is not just about having a name on the mailing list of a Catholic parish. By “belonging” to the Church, Catholics express their beliefs in certain fundamental theological principles, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and holy orders as a sacrament, instituted by Christ, with certain specific requirements for validity. 

Catholics believe in a precise structure of the Church, with believers gathered around St. Peter, the present pope’s predecessors and the bishops, who are successors of the apostles. 

We may agree on many things, but without fully agreeing in these vital points, Catholics and others are not fully united in faith. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.