Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians
illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope’s revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn’t altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked:
My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
The Pope’s off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here’s the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here
To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”—“Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.
Always refer back to baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.
I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
Four questions come to mind.
- Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope’s recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend’s comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord’s Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that “the Lord is present” regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say.
- Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn’t forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord’s table?” Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
- What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord’s Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope’s answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord’s Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity.
- What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter.
When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that’s where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don’t usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn’t have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it’s telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It’s the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it’s not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed.
|Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I’ve spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday’s sermon:
We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).
While Justin doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ’s ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.
I used to spend time wrestling with the different formulations proposed through Church history for how we should understand the nature of Christ’s Presence in Holy Communion. There was a time when I found it helpful to compare and contrast the competing concepts of Thomistic Transubstantiation, Lutheran Consubstantiation, and Calvinism’s Spiritual Presence. To some extent, I still think those sorts of formulations have their place, though I put less stock in them now. Instead, I’ve come to embrace the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This attitude is captured well by Charles Wesley in his hymn, “O the Depth of Love Divine”. He writes:
O the depth of love divine,
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
How is Christ present in bread and wine? I don’t know. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that Christ is present, really present. He said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. That’s all. He didn’t explain it. He didn’t fill in the details. And now, finally, that’s enough for me. If we are going to say something about Christ’s Eucharistic Presence, we should learn from Wesley that sometimes it’s better to sing a hymn than write a treatise.
There has been one particularly pleasant surprise on this journey of embracing in faith the Real Presence of Christ. I have found that I am more free to simply worship and adore him, and to receive that which he offers, namely himself, his own physical presence. This freedom to worship has resulted in the discovery that Christ’s gift of himself at the Table is not a matter of magic, not about saying the right words as if we could manipulate Christ to manifest his Presence. To the contrary, the gift of himself is an expression of Christ’s sovereign pleasure to minister to us physical creatures in just the way we need, with his own tangible, touchable, taste-able presence. And it is his joy to offer himself in this way – O the depth of love divine! And because it is his joy to make me the object of his self-giving love by filling my belly and quenching my thirst with his very life, I have found increasing joy when I go to the Lord’s table. Indeed, in embracing the mystery I have found joy like never before. Thanks be to God.
How is Christ present in the sacrament of Holy Communion? Here’s Peter Kreeft in his book Catholic Christianity
), which is an exposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the chapter on the Eucharist, he writes:
Here the three meanings of “present” come together: Christ in the Eucharist is (a) present, not absent, but really here; (b) present, not past, but happening now; and (c) presented as a gift (a “present”), really given, offered, not withheld (326).
I’m happy to affirm and deeply grateful for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though I’m hesitant to attempt to parse that out too far (e.g. transubstantiation, consubstantiation). Somehow Christ mysteriously ministers his presence to his people in the bread and wine. This three-pronged comment from Kreeft is quite helpful, though, as we reflect on the character of Christ’s presence. In the consecrated elements, Christ is really present right now to give himself to his people in love and with joy.