By Fr. Thom Hennen
Protestant Christians do not receive the Eucharist but they participate in communion periodically at their church. By not receiving the Eucharist, are they rejecting Christ?
This is an interesting question and one that requires me to step out of my Catholic brain for a moment. I do not usually think of the possibility that a Protestant might recognize Christ in the Eucharist, as the Catholic Church understands it, and yet not be willing to receive our Lord in that sacrament. Does this constitute a “rejection” of Christ?
A few clarifications at the beginning may be helpful. First, some Protestant traditions do have the same or at least a similar understanding of Christ’s presence in their communion, for example our Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran brothers and sisters. This is not to say that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of their communion. Rather, the Church recognizes that they do not see themselves as simply reenacting the Last Supper. They believe they are really receiving Christ in some way in this act. Other Protestant traditions do not believe this. For them it is a “symbolic” act. (The language of “symbol” in the Catholic tradition gets tricky, as “symbolic” does not necessarily mean “not real.”)
It seems to me that someone who does not believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as celebrated by the Catholic Church can hardly be accused of willfully rejecting him in that sacrament. Perhaps that person has not been presented with an accurate understanding of what the Church actually teaches about the Eucharist.
However, if a Protestant (or anyone) came to me and said he or she absolutely believed what the Catholic Church believes about the Eucharist, then I would politely ask, “Then why aren’t you Catholic?” There may be other “hang ups” (for example, the papacy, Mary, the saints, confession, purgatory, etc.), but if someone has found his or her way clear to believing in this essential Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, I don’t know how they could stay away for long.
Something of this dynamic is going on in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, in the famous “Bread of Life Discourse.” Jesus speaks plainly when he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). I have often wondered how Protestants could so easily gloss over this or do all kinds of exegetical gymnastics to say that Christ did not literally mean this. If so, then what was so “hard” about this saying (John 6:60) and why did many walk away from him after this (John 6:66)?
I think it may also be important to address what the act of receiving the Eucharist means for us in the Catholic tradition. It is more than a belief in the real, sacramental, substantial presence of Christ in that sacrament. It is also a kind of “oath.” In fact, that is what the Latin word “sacramentum” means. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we are also saying something about our relationship to the body of Christ, the Church. In other words, when we receive Communion, we are not only saying that we believe Christ is present in the Eucharist, but that we are in communion with him and with his body, the Church. For that reason, except under very specific circumstances, the Catholic Church does not allow for “open communion.” It is not out of a desire to exclude, but in fact a recognition of a person’s religious liberty.
Let us all pray for the day when Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” is fulfilled.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org)