Francis suggests Lutherans might discern taking Catholic communion individually

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has strikingly suggested that Lutherans married to Catholics can personally discern whether to take Communion in the Catholic church, saying it is not his role to give permission to such persons but to encourage them to listen to what God is telling them about their situations.

In a moving ecumenical visit to Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran church Sunday afternoon, the pontiff also called for “reconciled diversity” between the Christian denominations and said both must ask forgiveness of each other for historic persecutions.

The pope’s words about the issue of communion for Lutherans will likely attract wide attention, as Catholic teaching currently prohibits members of other Christian denominations from taking communion in the church in normal circumstances.

Francis spoke about the issue during Sunday’s visit in response to a question from a Lutheran woman who said she is married to a Catholic man and that the current prohibition on Lutherans receiving communion in the Catholic church causes them sadness.

“We have lived together for many years, sharing joys and pains,” the woman said. “And therefore it hurts us very much being divided in the faith and not being able to participate together at the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to reach, finally, communion on this point?”

The pontiff responded with a wide-ranging reflection on the nature of Christian faith and on Jesus’ words as recorded at the last Supper, when he is said to have told his disciples: “Do this in memory of me.”

“I ask myself: Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a path or is it the viaticum for walking together?” said the pontiff, using a Latin term for food or provisions along the journey.

“It is true that in a certain sense sharing is to say that there are not differences among us, that we have the same doctrine -- I underline the word, a word difficult to understand -- but I ask myself: Don’t we have the same Baptism?” he continued.

“And if we have the same baptism, we must walk together,” he said. “You are a witness of an even profound path because it is a conjugal path, a path truly of family, of human love, and of shared faith. We have the same Baptism.”

The pontiff then spoke of a friendship he had with a deceased Episcopal bishop, who every Sunday worshipped with his own faith community and also attended Catholic Mass with his wife and two children, who were Catholic. The pope said that was an example “of a way of participation in the Lord’s Supper.”

“I respond to you only with a question,” Francis then told the Lutheran woman. “’What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me in the paths of my life?’”

“It is a problem to which everyone must respond,” said the pontiff. “But a pastor friend told me: ‘We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. And what is the difference?’”

“There are explanations, interpretations,” said the pope. “Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always make reference to Baptism.”

“‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ Paul tells us,” Francis continued. “From there, grab hold of the consequences.”

“I will not ever dare to give permission to do this because it is not my competence,” he said. “One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare to say more.”

Francis was speaking Sunday in a lengthy visit to the Lutheran church, which saw him answer questions from one child and two women, pray with the church community, and offer a homily.

The pontiff focused his reflection in the homily on a portion of Matthew’s Gospel focused on the criteria Jesus will use in his final judgment.  

“Which will be the questions that the Lord will ask us that day: ‘Did you go to Mass? Did you make a good catechesis?’” asked the pope. “No, the questions are on the poor, because poverty is at the center of the Gospel.”

“‘You, your life, have you used it for yourself or to serve?’” Francis gave an example of one of the questions. “‘To defend yourself from others with walls or to welcome them with love?’”

The pontiff then asked rhetorically how Catholics and Lutherans would be judged as communities.

“There were ugly times amongst us,” said Francis. “Think of the persecutions -- amongst us! With the same baptism! Think of those burned alive.”

“We must ask each other forgiveness for this, for the scandal of division,” he said.

“I would like, at the end, when I see the Lord … I would like to ask him that he may be the servant of unity, to help us to walk together,” said the pope. “Today, we prayed together. Let us pray together, work together for the poor, for those in need; loving them together, with true love of brothers.”

Francis then imitated a Lutheran who might think differently, saying, ‘But, father, we are different because our dogmatic books say one thing and yours say another.’

“A great one of yours said one time that there is the hour of reconciled diversity,” the pontiff responded. “Let us ask today for this grace, the grace of reconciled diversity in the Lord, the servant of Yahweh, of that God who came among us to serve and not to be served.”

Earlier in the visit, Francis responded to a question from a young child who asked what he likes most about being pope.

“The thing that I like, sincerely, is to be a priest, to be a pastor,” responded the pontiff. “I don’t like office work. I don’t like that work. I don’t like doing protocol … but I must do it.”

“Dialogue with children -- this I like,” he continued. “You are a kid and maybe you might understand me. You [kids] are concrete; you don’t make questions that live in the air.”

“That’s why I like being a priest and … what I like most is to be with children, to speak with them, and to learn so much,” he said. “You learn so much. I like to be the pope with the style of a priest.”

“I love so much to go to prison, but not to put me in jail!” Francis later joked, speaking of how he likes to visit prisoners.

“Why speak with prisoners?” he asked. “Maybe you will understand that which I will say to you -- every time I go to a prison I ask myself: ‘Why them and not me?’ And there I feel the salvation of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ for me.”

“Because it is he who has saved me,” said the pope. “I am not less of a sinner than them, but the Lord has taken me in hand. And this, I feel it.”

“Being pope is being bishop, being priest, being pastor,” said Francis. “If a pope doesn’t act like a bishop, if a pope doesn’t act like a priest, doesn’t act like a pastor, he will be a very intelligent person, very important, will have much influence in society, but I think -- I think! -- that in his heart he is not happy.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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