The working document of the synod on the Family highlights the longing that many inter-church couples experience to receive the Eucharist together. It calls to mind the provision the Catholic Church already makes on the occasion of celebrating a marriage, and under the usual conditions, for a baptised member of another church or ecclesial community to receive Holy Communion with their new spouse during a Roman Catholic Nuptial Mass. It also acknowledges the possibility for such a spouse to receive Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Mass, by way of exception and in “situations of grave and pressing need”, at the discretion of the minister and according to any norms established by the competent Bishops’ Conference (PCPCU Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism § 130).
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales established its own norms in the 1998 teaching document One Bread One Body. This recognises that “a couple in a mixed marriage may well have a strong desire to receive Holy Communion together, to be fully united at the Lord’s table”(§ 83). However, because of the exceptional nature of such occasions, “there will sometimes be a deep sense of pain and sadness when they find themselves divided at this most sacred moment of unity”. One Bread One Body identifies some unique occasions “for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or an individual” which might include Baptism, Confirmation, First Holy Communion, Ordination, and the Funeral Mass as well as Marriage (cf §§ 106 – 109) – unique occasions when careful and sensitive consideration should be given to spontaneous requests for the sacraments.
Personally, I cannot foresee a proposal arising from the synod that would regard the sacramental unity of a couple in marriage as representing in itself a situation of “grave and pressing need”. Such a proposal would tend to establish a category of Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church yet distinguished from other Christians by a “right” to receive Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Mass on any occasion. Nor can I imagine that the usual and recurring demands of a hectic family life could be regarded as constituting a long-term situation where a person would “be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community” (one of the conditions currently required by the Ecumenical Directory §131).
At the same time, I believe we should make the sacramental possibilities that are currently offered by the Catholic Church much better known for the good of couples in mixed marriages or inter-church families and I hope that the synod will take up this theme. One Bread One Body §115 urges Catholic priests to “treat with kindness and sensitivity other Christians who seek admission to these sacraments, welcoming them with pastoral love even when their request cannot be granted.” We need to take much greater care in discerning such situations since “the sacraments should not be denied to those whom the present law of the Church allows to receive them.”