I have been teaching study abroad courses in Italy for almost two decades. The Italy study abroad courses have become popular options for Seton Hall students who wish either to explore first-hand the foundations of Christian culture or to walk in the footsteps of the saints, as Italy has produced an abundance in every epoch of Catholicism. Every year, I am impressed with the students who take the courses, a good number of whom are not Catholic, or even Christian.
This year, an incredibly gifted young man, member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, took the course. We visited several Palermitan churches and shrines, and attended Sunday Mass at a Catholic church; my Orthodox student eagerly attended. It happened that when the student went with crossed arms to receive a blessing from the priest, the priest in Palermo, who probably was not accustomed to the practice, said: “Apri la bocca” (“Open your mouth”), and the student did as he was told and received the Eucharist. I will never forget how uncomfortable this young man felt after he received the Eucharist instead of the blessing in a Catholic Church. The priest in Palermo probably was not accustomed to blessing people who approach him in the communion line, or had never thought that a person in line was not Catholic.
I calmed the student, explaining that the Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church have the same understanding of and reverence for the Blessed Eucharist and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I realized again how much Christian division hurts, and how much still remains to be done so that Catholic and Orthodox intercommune.
Which leads to this current controversy: the much-contested matter of intercommunion with certain Protestants, which was raised by the German bishops and which is a virtual impossibility, in my view, for theological reasons. If the Catholic Church can and will think of intercommunion, then intercommunion with the Orthodox Churches is the most reasonable, probable, and feasible, as there is an imperfect communicatio in sacris with the Orthodox Churches.
If intercommunion with Lutherans or other Protestants was ever approved (which I strongly doubt), it would not only be “sacrilegious” and an “outrage” against the sacrament of the Eucharist, as Cardinal Sarah has put it, but would also cause a trauma in modern ecumenism and damage Catholic-Orthodox relations, something the Catholic Church would avoid at any cost. As Pope Francis said in a recent meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Moscow, “the Catholic Church will never allow an attitude of division to be born on its own.”
Catholic faithful, from a Catholic perspective, can receive the Eucharist and the Sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick in an Orthodox Church. But the Orthodox faithful cannot do the same in a Catholic Church. So, there is no reciprocity from the Orthodox Churches. As a general rule, the Orthodox Church—or, more precisely, the Orthodox Churches – do not allow Catholics (or members of any non-Orthodox denomination) to receive the sacraments in their Churches. However, there might be exceptions to the rule. In some Orthodox Churches, the priest might advise the Orthodox faithful to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Church under extraordinary circumstances (for example, if there is no possibility of getting to an Orthodox Church or an Orthodox priest), but this is an exception and not the rule. Most Orthodox priests would advise their faithful to wait, since the Eucharist is a sign and symbol of ecclesial communion.
To my knowledge, the Greek Orthodox Church does not allow Roman Catholic faithful to receive communion in the Greek Orthodox Church, as receiving the Eucharist requires Church membership—and, thus, unity under an Orthodox bishop. What the Orthodox Eucharistic theology implies is triple unity, which includes Eucharistic unity, Faith unity, and Ecclesial unity. Only when these conditions or unities are met will intercommunion with the Orthodox will be possible.
Instead, the Catholic Church teaching is clear regarding communicatio in sacris (participation in things sacred) with and in Churches where these sacraments are valid and not dissimilar to the Catholic understanding of them. This includes the Orthodox Churches, which have preserved the sacraments and the apostolic succession. According to Canon 844, Paragraph 2 of the Code of Canon Law:
Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.
Moreover, Vatican II emphasized the validity of the Eucharist celebrated in the sister Churches of the East and went a step further in building bridges of communication encouraging communicatio in sacris. Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, states:
Everyone also knows with what great love the Christians of the East celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the eucharistic celebration, source of the Church’s life and pledge of future glory, in which the faithful, united with their bishop, have access to God the Father through the Son, the Word made flesh, Who suffered and has been glorified, and so, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they enter into communion with the most holy Trinity, being made ‘sharers of the divine nature.’ Hence, through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature and through concelebration, their communion with one another is made manifest…. These Churches, although separated from us, possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore, some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged. (no. 15)
The value of the Eucharistic celebration in the Eastern Churches that are not in communion with the Catholic Church is not questioned by the fathers of Vatican II. Instead, Vatican II focused on and valued the diversity of ways the Eastern Churches have for centuries celebrated the mystery of the Eucharist, following their ancient and diverse liturgical traditions.
The U.S. Catholic bishops summed up the matter of communicatio in sacris with the Orthodox in their 1996 Guidelines for the Reception of Communion at a Catholic Mass:
Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Churches of the East, and the Polish National Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these Churches.
Over the centuries, the Christian East has developed its own liturgies, which in their specific forms accentuate specific aspects of the Eucharistic mystery. Eastern liturgies have more complex rites; to an Eastern Christian the Latin liturgy often appears simple, short, and straightforward. Aspects of Eucharistic theology that are more typical of the Eastern tradition are strongly anchored in the theology of the Fathers of the early Church and the Holy Scripture. The Eucharist is the sacrament or mystery; it is “mystery of mysteries.” For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is an eschatological anticipation, the veiled presence of the “Parousia” of the Lord Jesus, His presence and expectation at the same time. The Holy Spirit transforms both the gifts of bread and wine into the sacramental Body of Christ and those who participate in it, inserting them deeply into the ecclesial Body of Christ. Thus, the Eucharist constitutes the Church in communion. The faithful who participate in the Eucharistic body become one with Christ. Communion with Christ opens up to communion among the brothers, which goes beyond every distinction, in space and time. So, unity in and through the Holy Eucharist demonstrates unity in the one Faith and one Ecclesial community—that is, unity under one bishop.
So, if an Orthodox received the Eucharist in a Catholic Church, although the first requirement (unity of faith) is met, the second (unity under one bishop) is not met. As a result, it is an “imperfect” communion.
If intercommunion with the Orthodox Churches with which the Catholic Church has so much in common—including the sacraments and apostolic succession, the Fathers of the Church, the seven first Ecumenical Councils and other common beliefs and practices—is not possible, how can intercommunion exist with various Protestant denominations, which do not share apostolic succession or the same understanding of Holy Communion and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? Put simply, intercommunion with the Protestants is an impossibility. As for my Orthodox student who received the Eucharist in a Catholic Church in Palermo, I advised him to talk to his parish priest and consider this a perfect-imperfect communion, mindful of the hope-filled words of Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I in late 2006: “The Holy Spirit will help us to prepare the great day of the re-establishment of full unity, whenever and however God wills it.”