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The Pope's Eucharistic 'no'


There is a powerful reason why Pope John Paul II has chosen this particular Holy Week for an encyclical saying "no" to a Eucharistic fellowship with Christians who are not Roman Catholics. The reason is that thousands of Catholics and Protestants alike are about to say, "yes" on precisely the same issue, regardless of what the Vatican teaches. Six weeks from now, members of the laity and insubordinate priests will blatantly disobey the leadership of their church in a big way.

From May 28 until June 1, the first-ever interdenominational mass gathering since the 16th-century Reformation will occur in Berlin. Some 150,000 Catholics and Protestants will mingle, worship, sing, debate and study Scripture at the "Oekumenischer Kirchentag" (literally, Ecumenical Day of the Church).

The event as such has the blessing of both denominations, whose bishops will be actively involved, except of course in the concelebration of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, which Rome rejects.

The gathering is the culmination of decades of separate Protestant and Catholic "Kirchentage." Now Christians from both sides of the 16th-century divide will be united for one week. Some Catholic priests and lay members have announced that all baptized Christians will be communed at their Mass, just as Protestant ministers have extended "Eucharistic hospitality" to any Christian, including Catholics, for many years.

Three powerful ecumenical institutions, including Tuebingen University's Catholic divinity school, issued scholarly statements denying the existence of valid theological reasons for refusing such Eucharistic closeness. However, Berlin's archbishop, Georg Cardinal Sterzinsky, has already threatened to punish clerics admitting Protestants at the altar sacrament.

Germany may only represent an insignificant speck of the global Catholicism. But it is the homeland of the Reformation, and its Catholic church is particularly restive -- or "Protestantized," as some ruefully call it.

Hence, the pope and his curia -- and especially Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's congregation of faith -- tend to react swiftly and decisively to discipline its German faithful. Sources in Rome told United Press International Friday that Ratzinger had a heavy hand in the pope's 14th encyclical letter titled "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" (Church of the Eucharist), which made three things crystal clear:

1. "It is never legitimate to concelebrate (Mass) in the absence of full communion."

2. "The Catholic faithful ... while respecting the religious convictions of (their) separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth."

3. "It is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from (other) ecclesial communities. ... Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including Eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it."

John Paul II praised the "significant progress" in ecumenism but made it clear that the celebration of the Eucharist "cannot be the starting point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection."

In other words, the unity of the Church of Christ must precede the unity at the altar. The careful reader of the encyclical letter's impressive prose is left without a trace of a doubt that in Roman eyes the Eucharist from which "the church draws her life" is only valid if consecrated by a validly ordained priest.

Therefore, the presiding minister at the altar must be a man "ordained through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles." This applies only to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergy but not to Protestants or Anglicans, at least not as far as the Vatican is concerned.

John Paul II allows that when "Ecclesial Communities" -- meaning, non-Catholic Western churches -- "commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and they await his coming in glory."

But, the encyclical insists, this is not enough for Eucharistic fellowship.

To many Protestants and Catholics, all this may sound excessively tough, especially in Germany. This country has probably more denominationally mixed households than any other major nation.

Millions of German husbands and wives, if they practice their faith at all, have to go to separate altars to receive the sacrament. This is why the clamor for intercommunion is nowhere as loud as in Germany -- and why nowhere else its prohibition is disregarded as often.

But privately some Protestant ministers also express unease over the way the ever-increasing clamor for Eucharistic fellowship has developed almost into a fad. Some wonder if this is not just a call for a warm and fuzzy get-together of Christians with little regard for what actually happens as they receive what the pope calls a recapitulation of "the heart of the mystery of faith."

It wasn't until 1973 that Europe's Lutheran, Reformed and United Protestants agreed to commune each other, a move that did not make everybody happy because the Lord's Supper means different things to churches. Lutherans teach that Christ's body and blood are truly present "in, with, and under" the communion bread and wine, which do not change their substance, however, as the Catholic Church teaches. Lutherans therefore speak of "consubstantiation" rather than "transubstantiation." Calvinists also believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, but only in a spiritual, not a bodily way. On the other hand, the Zwinglians in the German-speaking part of Switzerland consider the Lord's Supper simply an "anamnesis," a commemorative event, which in the 16th century caused a massive rift between the Zurich reformer Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther.

These differences also exist between mainline Protestant denominations that are in communion in the United States. Not everybody delights in the fact that they share a Eucharistic fellowship.

This has nothing to do with intolerance. Rather, what troubles some theologians is the seemingly superficial approach to one of the most important tenets of the Christian faith -- the union between the head and the members of the body of Christ, which is the Church.

Perhaps the Roman Catholics have a point: Why the rush? German Catholic Bishop Werner Scheele, a specialist in ecumenism, uses an amusing metaphor. He compares the Christian denominations with porcupines that do not hurt each other as long as they keep a comfortable distance.

But if they get very close, as they will in Berlin -- boy, can those spikes hurt!


[By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Editor 2001-2003 United Press International]


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