Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ask Tony: Can a non-Catholic receive communion at a funeral Mass?

From Becky in Omaha, NE, via Facebook:

My sister-in-law’s mother died this week. She was someone very dear to me and a devout Catholic. I will be attending her funeral in a couple of days. I’m sure it will be a full mass. Is it an offense if I participate in the communion? I regularly participate in communion at my non-denominational church obeying the command, “Do this in remembrance of Me” [Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:25]. I however certainly do not want to offend anyone in the family or anyone in the parish if this is something inappropriate for a non-Catholic.

First, I believe every Christian church ought to have Communion every Sunday, without exception. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Some churches celebrate Communion so rarely, they don’t proclaim the Lord’s death so much as they mention it in passing.

The Catholic Church has what’s known—and sometimes damned—as a “closed table”. To participate in Communion, you must be in communion.

Many people—mostly but not exclusively Evangelicals—like to speak of the “invisible unity of believers”, a bond that reaches across dogmatic and sectarian divisions to embrace all Christians. This “invisible unity” has some utility in interfaith dialogue. We could postulate, for example, that the degree to which we all hold the points of faith in the Apostle’s Creed is the degree to which we’re united as Christians; we could go so far as to plug it as the minimum standard for what C. S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity”.

But there’s no denying that there are visible fissures and fractures among Christians, from the squabbling between Catholics and Orthodox over the filioque to the Docetist denial of the Real Presence by Evangelicals. (And let’s not even start on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and LDS, okay?) Whatever we can say about the invisible unity, the all-too-visible disunity is a scandal and a tragedy.

Setting aside for one moment the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for Communion to fully symbolize the unity of believers, there must be unity among those partaking. By the rules, even Catholics who have committed mortal sin or publicly broken with the Church on dogmatic grounds—think Vice-President Joe Biden, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—should not participate.

This is not a question of judging souls but rather of telling the truth. Partaking in Catholic Communion as a non-Catholic, or as a Catholic ex communione, is telling a lie: it says, “I’m fully united in faith with everyone else here” when the person is not. You could tell yourself it’s a harmless lie, but it’s not. It deliberately misleads people to whom the truth is owed in full justice. In fact, you are one of the people owed the truth, and you’ve denied it to yourself. Not only should you not bear false witness against your neighbor, you shouldn’t bear false witness against yourself.

I also recognize Becky’s intent in wanting to participate; I for one am happy she wants to do this in memory of Our Lord. To help her out, I sent her instructions for the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The Chaplet is a series of prayers, revealed in a vision to St. Faustina Kowalska sometime in the 1930s, which spiritually unites the person praying with the Eucharist. Hopefully it will help. And please keep Becky’s sister-in-law’s family in your prayers.


  1. "for Communion to fully symbolize the unity of believers, there must be unity among those partaking"

    I have heard it stated this way: the Eucharist is not a TOOL of unity, it is a SYMBOL of [existing] unity.

  2. An essential regarding reception of Holy Communion is to be in a state of grace, that is, free from mortal sin (definitely) and free from venial sin if at all possible.
    This involves, among many things, a belief in the sacraments and, therefore, actually being a Catholic.
    This is a sensitive issue at weddings and funerals especially and some effort should be made on "Order of service" cards to point it out.

  3. I've been to a few Catholic Masses—funeral, Christmas and Easter—where some effort was made to politely inform non-Catholics of the "closed table" without going too heavily into the rules. Every now and again, though, you hear about or actually see a priest or parish that opens the table up in the name of ecumenism ... leaving you to wonder if the priest actually believes in Catholicism.