This Autumn Christians will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolution. Pope Francis has already traveled to Lund in Sweden to mark the beginning of the commemorative year, and the question of Protestants receiving the Eucharist at Catholic Mass has again bubbled to the top of the ecumenical slow cooker.
In 2015 Pope Francis himself pushed the boundaries when he told a Lutheran woman asking about receiving Communion with her Catholic husband to “go forward” guided by individual conscience. The rumors of a change in discipline were furthered recently when Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed hopes that the pope’s “next declaration opens the way for shared Eucharistic communion in special cases.”
The pressure is also coming from the Lutheran side. In an essay on the reformation in Sweden, Professor Clemens Cavallin observes that the official Church of Sweden webpage states, “What we foremost wish is that the common celebration of the Eucharist will be officially possible. This is especially important for families where members belong to different denominations.”
As a convert from Anglicanism, I understand from first hand experience what it is like to have family members who belong to different denominations. There is genuine pain when the non-Catholics are not invited to receive communion when they attend Mass with us.
However, the whole discussion requires some compassionate common sense. When the subject comes up in the family, the more blunt speaking Catholics say to the non-Catholics, “You can receive communion in the Catholic Church. All you have to do is become Catholic.”
When they demur, the Catholic then says cheerfully, “If you don’t want to be Catholic, why do you want to receive communion in the Catholic Church? If you don’t believe what we believe why do you want to be a public hypocrite and use our Mass to pretend you do?”
While a bit more of this common sense would add astringency to the ecumenical dialogue, it is probably not the best way to move forward. The fact of the matter is that emeritus Pope Benedict has already provided the most practical, positive and pro-active ecumenical move ever taken by a pope.
It is called the Anglican Ordinariate.
The Anglican Ordinariate is similar to an Eastern Rite church inasmuch as it is an autonomous ecclesial structure in full communion with the Catholic Church.
The Anglican Ordinariates provide a way for Christians from the Anglican tradition to be in full communion with Rome while maintaining their own historic patrimony. The Ordinariates have their own bishop or ordinary. They may have their own seminaries, their own liturgy, their own religious orders and their own property.
To date there are three Anglican Ordinariates: The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England, the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter in the United States, and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia.
When considering the long and somewhat fruitless ecumenical progress over the last fifty years, the Anglican Ordinariates are the first real, positive, substantive, corporate step towards church unity. The ordinariate offers at last a concrete model for genuine unity while also maintaining the distinctive cultural and historical gifts of the English church.
One of the best results of the establishment of the ordinariate is that both the Catholics and Anglicans have been able to come to see a clear end point. While theologians from both sides still meet for fraternal discussion, the existence of the ordinariate looms large.
Its mere existence says to Protestants who are toying with becoming Catholic, “Here is a way for you to do so while still cherishing your Anglican traditions. We have made this available to you. The door of the ordinariate is open. We welcome you.”
The ball is therefore in their court. Individually and corporately they may apply to join the ordinariate.
If Christians on both sides of the dialogue really want church unity, then in this 500th anniversary of the Luther’s sad separation from the Catholic Church, why not replicate the ordinariate model for the Lutherans?