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A true sense of Communion (Catholic priest in ecumenical Communion) ^ | Sunday, December 12, 2004 | David Briggs

Posted on 12/12/2004 11:59:04 PM PST by Destro

A true sense of Communion

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Story by David Briggs

They marched down the sloping concrete ramps of the Communion aisles by the thousands -- Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Lutherans and even one Catholic priest.

For more than a century, Christians had scattered throughout the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution to receive the sacrament in the small churches and denominational houses dispersed throughout the upstate New York enclave.

But something was different this summer at the retreat, which is a landmark of mainline Protestantism's search for perfection in mind, body and spirit.

The night of July 31, torrential rains beat down on the roof of the open-sided theater during a performance by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

Then the skies cleared the next morning, Sunday, Aug. 1, as eight seminary presidents in matching robes led 5,000 of the best and brightest in American Christianity to a liturgical moment that past generations could barely imagine.

Chautauqua officials decided the Christian unity movement had made so much progress that for the first time in the institution's 130-year history, faithful from all denominations were ready to celebrate a Communion service in the community amphitheater.

Male Lutheran and Episcopal priests flanked a female American Baptist minister at the center of the Communion table. A Catholic priest, risking discipline, and a female Presbyterian pastor distributed Communion to all who came before them, and then to each other.

"We dare to come together," the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, a Cleveland-area minister who is the pastor of Chautauqua, said at the service. "We have caught a vision of our unity."

The Chautauqua Communion service is one of the more extraordinary signs of what religious leaders and scholars say are revolutionary changes in Christian attitudes toward the central ritual of their faith.

Interviews with area worshippers at several Sunday services bear out the findings of national surveys: More people are coming to the Communion table, invited or not, and letting God sort out who is worthy to be there.

"Jesus was all inclusive no matter what denomination you are," said Mary Summers, 63, of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland.

Over the last half-century, several Protestant denominations have moved from quarterly to monthly and now weekly celebrations of Communion. In a recent national poll, 45 percent of churchgoers said they had been to Communion in the past week.

At the same time, the gradual breakdown of Catholic-Protestant animosity and the development of inter-Protestant agencies along with rising rates of intermarriage and geographic mobility have contributed to a growing movement welcoming everyone to the Communion table.

Even Protestant churches with substantially different understandings of Communion are signing on. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which believes the Communion host represents the real presence of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which views the elements as symbols of Christ's body and blood, formally agreed in 1997 to share the sacrament.

This spring, the United Methodist Church urged its followers to see a divine power beyond mere symbolism in the bread and grape juice they share at Communion.

Not everyone is on board. The Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still do not practice general intercommunion. Last year, Pope John Paul II warned that moving too fast toward intercommunion could produce a false sense of unity that diminishes a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.

Distinctions over whether the bread and wine at Communion are symbolic or become the body and blood of Christ are important to people in the pews. In a study of American Catholics last year, 81 percent of respondents said the belief that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist is an "essential" part of the Catholic faith.

But churches opposing open Communion tables are going against formidable social and cultural tides.

"To me, it's a dinner Christ is inviting people to share with him," said Jim Hayes, of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Cleveland. "To deny someone who wants in their heart to receive Christ through Communion doesn't make any sense at all."

Roots of ritual go back to Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus takes a piece of bread, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in memory of me." The Last Supper account in the Gospel of Matthew speaks of "my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

How important is Communion to Christians? "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day," Jesus said in John's Gospel.

Christians from their earliest days have celebrated Communion to commemorate their belief in Christ's sacrificial death for the sins of humanity, and to remain close to the founder of their faith.

What is happening today is a widespread new appreciation of Communion that is transcending old differences.

The differences are clear. For example, Catholics believe in the principle of transubstantiation, or that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Many Lutherans talk of consubstantiation, or that the bread and wine both remain bread and wine and take on the real presence of Christ. Other denominations consider the elements symbols of Christ's sacrifice.

But the development of ecumenical groups, the fresh wind in Protestant-Catholic relations that blew through in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and other changes have lifted old anathemas. Churches were given new freedom to select what was best in the Christian tradition free of centuries-old prejudices.

Now this ancient ritual from Jesus' last days on Earth is enjoying a revival that is sweeping across American Christianity.

In the Catholic Church, laypeople are participating much more in services, including serving the transformed bread and wine to their neighbors. The practice of going to confession declined, but with it also went a lot of the guilt that kept many people away from receiving the sacrament out of fear they were not worthy.

Many Protestant churches also are discovering the more they offer Communion to their members, the more they want it.

"To reverence the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a growing phenomenon," said Ted Campbell, president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "I think it's part of that whole deep hunger for spirituality."

This spring, United Methodists approved a statement on Communion asking congregations "to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebrations of The Lord's Supper."

Listen to the voices of worshippers at East Shore United Methodist Church in Euclid who have just received Communion on a recent Sunday.

"I felt like the burden was lifted off of me," John Landrum, 53, said after the service.

Gwen Henderson, 49, said she no longer buys into the notion that some people are not worthy to receive Communion.

"As I've . . . grown older, one of the wonderful things I know is that Jesus died on the cross, not just for the people who were worthy, but for everyone that was there. I rest in that place," she said. "It's personal for me. It is for me. It really is for Gwen, too."

Barrier breaking begins in families

People over a certain age - 45 or so - may remember a time when a mixed marriage meant a wedding between an Italian and an Irish Catholic or a German and a Swedish Lutheran.

Today, marriages across Christian boundaries are commonplace, and many people reject the idea they cannot break bread together at both the dinner table and the Communion table.

"It begins in families when a Presbyterian marries a Lutheran or a Catholic marries someone from the United Church of Christ. As families share faith, they see a common commitment in Christ," said Bishop Marcus Miller of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The principle is so important that some said they would rather switch if their church opposes intercommunion. Claire Hayes, a former Catholic, decided to join St. Luke's Episcopal Church after her daughter became an Episcopalian.

"It was an issue for me that she couldn't receive Communion" in the Catholic Church, Hayes said. "I thought when I die when she comes to my funeral she wouldn't be able to receive Communion. That really bothers me."

The rules are flexible already

The rules on intercommunion are a lot more flexible than many people realize.

The Catholic Church permits Communion for non-Catholics in emergency situations or in places such as hospitals, prisons or battlefields where other Christians may not have access to the sacraments from their own clergy.

Diocesan bishops also may make exceptions. In special cases, such as weddings or funerals, Northeast Ohio Catholics may appeal to Bishop Anthony Pilla to allow, for example, the non-Catholic spouses to receive Communion.

And, in practice, almost no priest or Eucharistic minister will turn someone away from another Christian tradition if they come up to receive Communion during a service.

"It's gauche. It's simply crude and cruel to make some kind of scandal," said the Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Parma.

What church leaders say they try to do is approach such people afterward, and privately and respectfully try to explain the church's understanding of the sacrament.

Groups such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod say they take Communion seriously, meaning people must be in communion with one another to receive the sacrament.

Many Christian leaders say it is best to preserve the unity they have around the Communion table rather than undermine the sacrament by taking away its foundation of a shared faith.

In his recent encyclical, the pope speaks of both "the burning desire" to share the Eucharist with other Christian groups, and the impossibility of doing it today because the sacrament requires full communion.

"Any such concelebration would not be a valid means, and might well instead prove to be an obstacle, to the attainment of full communion, by weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal," the pope said.

In other words, Berzonsky asked, "Do I abandon the Communion that I already have for the instant gratification of making someone happy for a minute?"

A new era is yet to come

At the Aug. 1 service, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell invited worshippers filling up the Chautauqua amphitheater for the Communion service to settle in and relax:

"Historical events take a bit longer."

It also will be a while longer before all Christians share the same Communion table, she acknowledged. "We pray for the day," she said, "when God's vision is our reality."

Yale theologian George Lindbeck, who favors an open Communion table, said even Christians who share Communion must do so with a sense of both the sweetness of the growing unity and the bitterness of the realization that there still are substantial divisions in Christianity.

"Pluralism is inevitable, but both those who intercommune and those who do not need to learn to weep together," he said in the Yale Divinity School publication Spectrum.

Yet, slowly, in some cases person by person or family by family, others are not waiting for policy changes to push ahead with open Communion.

At the Chautauqua service, Campbell asked the Rev. Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, to read the Gospel as a gesture to acknowledge a Catholic presence.

The Catholic leader, however, had different plans. He got so caught up in the spirit of things that he, too, distributed Communion at the service, and received Communion himself from a female Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Cheryl Gosa.

"It was really a special moment," an ebullient Gosa said afterward. "I thought God was probably just fine with that."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4812

TOPICS: Catholic; Charismatic Christian; Current Events; Ecumenism; Evangelical Christian; General Discusssion; Mainline Protestant; Orthodox Christian; Other Christian; Theology; Worship
KEYWORDS: communion

1 posted on 12/12/2004 11:59:04 PM PST by Destro
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To: Destro

A puff piece propagandizing for the declining mainline churches. Theological issues become mere matters of quaint ritualistic traditions and those who ask questions simply must understand that the rest of the world is becoming tolerant so they should as well. You get the picture...

2 posted on 12/13/2004 2:43:30 AM PST by Huber (Let's talk about race and culture honestly and openly!)
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To: Destro
Not everyone is on board. The Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still do not practice general intercommunion.

There is a reason for that. We do not agree on enough to share communion with each other. While the LCMS does permit emergency intercommunion, it is not encouraged (though sadly to many parishes are practicing "close" communion).

While we have much in common, to receive each others sacraments plays a unity that is not really there yet. When a Baptist and a Lutheran go to communion, they have radically different ideas of what they are receiving.
3 posted on 12/13/2004 5:07:59 AM PST by redgolum (Molon labe)
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To: Huber; Destro

I agree. I prefer people to come to some theological understanding rather than abandon their beliefs in order to "get along".

4 posted on 12/13/2004 5:38:35 AM PST by HarleyD
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