Monday, May 23, 2011

"You're (Not) Welcome"

Not long ago I received an email from a long-time friend about a disturbing experience. He and his wife had attended the confirmation of their nephew in a Roman Catholic church in Delaware. They read in the printed bulletin “instructions that non-Catholics were not allowed to share in the Eucharist, as the bishop, priests and congregation sang joyful songs of welcoming others to the sacrament.” For them, it was a very painful experience.

I’m sorry to report that their experience is more common than we’d like. I’ve been to family funerals where we were told to our faces (not just in print) we were not welcome at the table. Most discomfiting and frustrating was the time the Protestant brother-in-law of the deceased woman was forbidden to read a passage of Scripture, even though it was at her specific request. And, of course, the Table was “fenced” to keep Protestant family members away.

Although I’ve touched on this subject at least twice before,* there is more to be said. Quite simply and clearly, the Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper. To prevent anyone from coming to the Table is contrary to the hospitality displayed by our Lord himself on numerous occasions, without restrictions.

Unfortunately, Roman Catholics officially see it differently. Apparently the Eucharist is the church’s sacrament, so they can decide who may come to the meal. Points I’ve heard priests make on this subject are: 1) Obviously we Protestants don’t understand the Lord’s Supper at all or else we’d celebrate it every week; and 2) One does not come to the table without adequate preparation, which is provided only by the church, to which we Protestants don’t belong, and don’t understand.

Regarding point 1), they aren’t all wrong there. If we really took the Eucharist seriously, we would be celebrating it weekly. Our infrequency doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t understand the Eucharist.

Shortly after Vatican II, I was asked to speak at a retreat held at a local Roman Catholic retreat center about “The Protestant View of the Lord’s Supper.” I was paired with a local Roman Catholic priest who would speak after me, so as to correct any heresies I might espouse.

I decided I’d give the straightforward Presbyterian view, a la Donald M. Baillie’s, A Theology of the Sacraments. I remember emphasizing our understanding of the “real presence of Christ in the sacrament.” When I had finished, the priest stood up and said, “But that’s what we believe!”

This is not to say that there aren’t differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics concerning the Lord’s Supper. It does suggest, though, that there are some strong theological similarities, and it is those similarities that we ought to be stressing.

So, what to do about the predominant Roman Catholic attitude and rejection of Protestants at the Communion Table? Several approaches might be considered:

First, sadness is a more appropriate reaction to such table-fencing than is anger. Sorrow at being separated from one another at the Table is more likely to be heard by our Roman friends than rage at the rejection. We do need to talk about the restriction, when it happens, with lay and clergy both.

Second, we Protestants should not be bashful about taking communion in Roman Catholic churches. If we listen carefully to the words of the liturgy, and we hear Christ calling us to the Table, then we should go. We can ask our hosts “how they feel about our taking Communion” and see what kind of answer we get.

But if we are told in print or to our faces that we are not welcome, it’s not a good idea to give offence deliberately and embarrass friends. Let’s keep dialogue on the subject open and friendly.

Third, we Protestants need to get our act together about the Lord’s Supper, see it for the central act of Christian worship that it is, along with proclamation of the Word, and learn how to celebrate it more faithfully.

Fourth, Roman Catholics are not the only ones who “fence” the Lord’s Table. Some Protestant and free churches limit attendance to their own denominational or church members. We would do well to make the same efforts with other non-Catholics to share the Holy Meal with them.

Whenever and wherever it takes place, the alienation experienced by diverse Christians at the Lord’s Table is tragic. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot afford such fragmentation in times when unity is so desperately needed.

How frequently does your church celebrate Communion? Have you experienced rejection at the Lord’s Table in Roman Catholic or other churches? Have you had conversations with members or clergy about such experiences?

* See “One Table” (Feb. 27, 2011) and “Open Table” (March 27, 2011)


  1. In living and working with Catholics for many years as a Protestant, I learned that priests give communion to those presenting themselves for communion. If asked by a non-Catholic, they must decline, however. Practice varies widely, and I try to determine local custom and whether offense will be taken if I receive the elements. If I cannot receive, I believe myself to be a part of the act of communion by my involved presence, just as Christ is present in the bread and wine. We are all invited to the table, after all, and it is only the institutional church that is a little mixed up!

  2. One has to know about the doctrine of "transubstantiation" and it's reaffirmation by the council of Trent of 1543-1567 to understand the role it played in the reaction to the Reformation. This may make it easier to understand the "fence" that pops up here and there, but (thankfully) not everywhere. It seems to go back to a foot-stomping reaction to Martin Luther et al.
    We just had an ecumenical service at our Presbyterian church that included our local RC priest for the sermon and it was indeed gratifying to see all in attendance taking Communion regardless of denomination.
    "Real presence" may a point of agreement, but is not necessarily the same as the transubstantiation doctrine... there seems to be a lot of hedging going on when US bishops are confronted with an edict from Rome.

  3. Sometimes it seems things are getting worse instead of better in this matter of Protestants being accepted at the altar in Catholic churches. Makes me nostalgic for the openness of the days right after Vatican II, when I was asked to (and did) concelebrate mass at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, CA. And yet there is still needed conversation regarding "rules of the table" -- a la your own espousal of invitation to the non-baptized. All things considered, though, surely we are better to err on the side of hospitality if we are unsure of the answer to any such theological questions.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!