May 27, 2007–Pentecost Sunday. For the end of May it was going to be another unusually hot day in Rome. My wife and I boarded the Metro and headed for the Vatican. I’d told many friends that the next time I went to Rome I was going to a Vatican Mass and take Communion—if they’d let me. My Protestants friends didn’t seem to think much of that. Some didn’t say anything. They just stared at me. Telephone calls produced silence. Or “why” questions.
Some of my Catholics friends didn’t think I would be allowed. But others said, “Why not?” I would soon find out.
Even though I was raised in a church that railed against Catholics, I had long ago learned from the Scriptures that God said something else about faith in Jesus Christ. Genuine faith is where you find it, because real faith comes from the heart, not from an institution or church membership rolls. And I have found real faith in the Catholic church, from people who love Jesus Christ just as much as Protestants do.
Furthermore, Jesus Christ prayed long ago that his followers would be one in spirit, even as he and his Father were one, so that the world might believe that God had sent him (John 17:20-21). Ever since I read those words when a teenager in the Church, I have been a promoter of Christian unity on the basis of a shared faith in Jesus Christ.
In light of John 17, why wouldn’t I be allowed to take Communion at a Vatican Mass? Wasn’t the church at Rome the place where Peter and Paul preached? It is true that some perverse, unchristian thoughts and actions have taken place there over the centuries, but what Protestant church or movement can claim spiritual and theological purity even today? Peter and Paul were my progenitors in the faith, and St. Peter’s Basilica, nearly two thousand years later, continues to proclaim the Christ those two apostles preached as they walked Rome’s ancient streets.
The train came to a halt and we headed quickly toward the Vatican, a short walk from the Metro station.
Had things changed since John Paul II had been pope? I wondered. I had received the Eucharist on occasion at Catholic churches in the U.S. Of course, official Roman Catholic Church position—supposedly—was that non-Catholics were not to be served Communion in Catholic churches.
I was undaunted and determined. My wife and I slowly inched our way through the security checkpoint outside St. Peter’s Basilica only to run into another massive line. Time was running short for the 9 a.m. Parish Mass. Two ladies darted out of the line and headed up the other side of the empty stairway toward the entrance to St. Peter’s.
We followed them into the church. Already the seats were nearly full. No one comes late to a Vatican Mass, I thought. Halfway through the immense basilica we were stopped by a cord and two men in blue suits. “We’d like to go to Mass,” I said. They let us through.
I saw some seats on the end near the front and we headed that way as a long line of priests filed in on the other side of the church. They were dressed in stunning scarlet and gold waist-length capes, a type of vestment I had never seen among Catholics or Protestants. They were not wearing head coverings.
We took our seats on the edge of a row as close to the altar as we could. The floor at St. Peter’s is flat, and it’s difficult to see the altar over a sea of worshipers (some of them tourists with cameras!). I could not see Pope Benedict XVI at this time, but he appeared later, dressed in cream-colored vestments and miter. It was apparent that he was in charge of the Mass. Some, I suppose, had come just to see him.
The Mass, in Italian, began with music and a greeting. The Families of Nazareth, a new communion of Catholics from around the world, was welcomed—in English. And a short time later two New Testament passages reflective of Pentecost Sunday were read. The first, Acts 2:1-11, on the coming of the Holy Spirit, was read by a woman in perfect English. The second, John 20:19-23, where Jesus told his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” was read by a man, also in English.
The Parish Mass was, to my surprise, rather simple. I confess that I did not understand much of the Italian, although I did know what was happening. Both those who led the service and those seated near us worshiped God with great reverence. The spirit of Christ was present, touching our hearts and bidding us to receive his love and grace and word of truth.
Many nationalities were evident. We heard French, German, English, Spanish, and Italian on the way out, and saw numerous Asians and Indians. I don’t know if they were tourists or lived in Italy, but believers in Christ from many countries were present at the Vatican Mass on Pentecost Sunday. It really was a “Communion of Saints.”
The moment of truth—for me—finally came and I got out of my seat and into one of the lines streaming for the altar to receive the Eucharist. More than two-thirds of those present joined me.
Would a priest or someone else stop me? I wondered. They better hurry. The line kept moving to the altar. But I saw no one being questioned. There was no exit line for non-Catholics.
Then it was my turn and I walked up to the priest. He truly was filled with joy as he placed a wafer in my mouth. “Corpus Christi,” he said. As the line slowly moved back toward the row of seats, I saw that the priest was filled with consternation. He had run out of wafers and quickly hurried to a side room for more. He loved what he was doing as he participated in sharing Christ with those who came for the Eucharist.
There was no Communion wine shared, I suppose because there were just too many people; it is shared in many Catholic churches today, although for centuries it was not. The only person I saw drink wine from an altar chalice was Pope Benedict.
I felt Christ’s presence as I walked back to my seat. Despite some unchristian occurrences here in past times, this truly was his church—a church established and grown amidst persecution in the first three centuries. This was not only the church of Peter and Paul, but countless courageous saints—Christ’s church. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with joy for participating in a celebration of Christ’s life at this historic church as I walked back to my seat.
I thought much about my experience at the Vatican during the remainder of our time in Europe (even while we visited a 400-year-old Protestant church in the tiny mountain village of Soglio, Switzerland, and St. Pierre Cathedral, John Calvin’s old church in Geneva). I kept asking myself: If, at a Vatican Mass, no attempt was made to stop anyone from taking Communion, where do many Catholics—and Protestants–get the idea that Catholics cannot serve the Eucharist to non-Catholic Christians?
Determined to find the answer, I searched the Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law when we got home. What I found surprised me and may well shock Catholics and Protestants alike. Book IV, Part I: THE SACRAMENTS, Canon 843, §1 states, “Sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”
In Part I, Title III: THE BLESSED EUCHARIST, Article 2: PARTICIPATION IN THE BLESSED EUCHARIST, Canon 912 simply states, “Any baptised [sic] person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to holy communion.” I’m a baptized person! But was I forbidden by any law? Canon 915 clarifies that: Only those who are under a penalty of excommunication or interdict or who persist in manifest sin are not to be admitted to Communion. This section refers to Catholics who are being disciplined by their church, not non-Catholics.
Canon 844, §1, does seem to prohibit Catholic ministers from administering any sacrament to non-Catholics: “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from catholic ministers . . .” But the next clause states: ” . . . except as provided in §§ 2, 3 . . . “
The exception clauses are telling. §2 states that Catholics “may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.” And §3 says the reverse: “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the eastern Churches not in full communion with the catholic Church . . . . The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid eastern Churches so far as the sacraments are concerned.”
None of this is defined further. Do Catholic churches around the world need to contact the Vatican (the Apostolic See) every time a non-Catholic enters their church or other Catholic gatherings for Communion? Of course not. Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that I am the only non-Catholic ever to be served Communion at St. Peter’s Basilica. (I may be the only one talking and writing about it!) Given the nature of Mass at the Vatican where thousands of visitors are permitted to attend every year, countless non-Catholics have likely been served the Eucharist at the Vatican’s Parish Mass.
And why not? The Apostolic See—the Vatican itself–has already approved of other believers taking Communion in Catholic churches.
So . . . contrary to a common perception, there is nothing in Catholic Church law that prohibits non-Catholic believers in Jesus Christ from celebrating Communion in a Catholic church. In fact, it specifically prescribes it.
If this is not so, why was I allowed to receive the Eucharist at the Vatican’s Parish Mass with no questioning of me or anyone else?
Given these facts, why do some–perhaps many–Catholic priests still prohibit non-Catholic Christians from taking Communion? And why do some Protestants still view all Catholics and Catholic churches as non-Christian, people and places to be avoided by true believers in Jesus Christ? It seems to me that these two practices are historically intertwined.
Far too many in Christ’s Church—on both sides of the dispute—still act and think as though we are living in the Middle Ages. Some Protestants insist that the Catholic Church still believes in salvation by works and not through faith in Christ. After all, that was the issue of the Reformation and the Reformation is hardly over. “The Catholic Church hasn’t changed at all!” they say.
Too many Catholics view all Protestants, even Eastern Orthodox, as incomplete, or unchristian, even though they may believe in Christ, because they are outside the one true Church that Christ and the apostles established.
Both of these arguments, were, of course, hot button accusations of the sixteenth century. Both sides firmly—even vehemently—believed their validity.
Furthermore, Protestants who disdain Catholics have one wish for them: that all Catholics leave their churches and become just like them. And Catholics who disdain Protestants have one wish for them: that they leave their churches and join the Catholic Church, Christ’s only true Church.
All of this is nonsense. We are not living in the Middle Ages. Although the Council of Trent did institute many needed, practical reforms in the late sixteenth century, it is true that the Catholic Church did not change much, at least officially, until Vatican II in the 1960s. But change they did. Faith in Christ is a key ingredient of The Documents of Vatican II. One quote, from the decree entitled “Ecumenism,” will suffice: “Nevertheless, all those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic Church.”
All the accusations aside, here is the crux of the problem for both Catholics and Protestants: some people just can’t believe that others in the Church who are not just like them could be real Christians. They prefer to believe that their brand of Christianity is the only real deal and anything else is a cheap imitation.
Those who believe this way—and even Protestants don’t trust or like other Protestants—have failed to allow the spirit and truth of Jesus Christ into their hearts. Where is it in the New Testament that Paul or Peter or anyone else demanded that every believer worship and think exactly alike in order to be a “real” Christian?
We are to follow Christ and serve him. We are never told to get in line with a particular tradition’s viewpoints. Jewish, Greek, and Roman believers all worshiped God in different ways in the first century, but Paul plainly said, “. . . in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).
Although Christ’s Church has often strayed from it’s love for him and the principles of the New Testament, Paul’s essential understanding of Christianity and the Church has never changed. Nor can it. Christ’s Church is not an institution or a tradition, but a worldwide body of every person who has faith in him.
What right do we have to refuse to recognize our fellow believers in Christ or to label them with unchristian names? Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). If we cannot practice this simple command, then we have no right to proclaim that the spirit of Christ lives within us.
It does not.
In another statement from “Ecumenism” in The Documents of Vatican II, we find these insightful words, calling all Christians to unity in Christ: “In His Church He instituted the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist by which the unity of the Church is both signified and brought about.” There is a mountain of truth in this statement.
After all, welcoming all our brothers and sisters in Christ to the Communion table is one way we demonstrate our love for Christ, our love for each other, and our love for the people of our world.
At the Vatican, at least, all Christians are welcome to share in Communion.