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Non-Catholics in the Communion Line

There are usually a few Masses per year at which there can be expected to be a large number of non-Catholics present. Christmas and Easter Masses are popular with non-Catholics, mainly because they are visiting Catholic family and friends. Nuptial Masses, especially when one of the parties to be married is a non-Catholic Christian, will have large turnouts of non-Catholics (sometimes up to half the congregation). Non-Catholics can also be expected at Masses offered for other sacramental firsts and life-cycle events, such as confirmations and funerals.

This reality raises a common question for the apologists here at Catholic Answers: What should happen at Communion time? Here’s a recent question I received on the issue.

At my granddaughter's First Communion, the priest announced that if there were any Episcopalians present they could receive Communion because they believe in the Real Presence. Other Protestants could come forward for a blessing. When did the teaching change on receiving Communion? I thought you had to be in full union with Rome. My son-in-law is Protestant and this caused real confusion for us.

In this case, both the priest and the inquirer were mistaken, to some extent, in their respective understandings of the Church’s sacramental discipline.

The priest was incorrect that Episcopalians ordinarily may receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. Since Episcopalians do not have valid holy orders, they do not have a valid Communion. The fact that they believe that Jesus is in some way present in the Eucharist does not necessarily mean that they fully share Catholic faith in the nature of the Real Presence (although some do).

The inquirer also was not entirely correct that those who receive Communion must be “in full union with Rome.” Orthodox Christians, and members of a few other Christian churches with valid holy orders and a valid Eucharist, are allowed to receive Communion when attending Catholic Masses. The Guidelines for the Reception of Communion state:

Members of the Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these churches (canon 844 §3).

Occasionally, under special circumstances, a baptized non-Catholic Christian may receive the Eucharist if there is grave need, the Christian “spontaneously asks” for the sacraments, and if he cannot approach his own minister:

Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 §4) [Guidelines].

These guidelines, which are based on canon law, are rather complex and shot through with exceptions to the general principles. That can make it difficult for clergy and laity alike to offer blanket guidelines for reception of Communion when non-Catholics are present at a Catholic Mass.

And, all too often, off-the-cuff announcements made by the presider at Mass, usually right before Communion is distributed, do not accurately reflect the Church’s discipline on reception of the Eucharist. It may be more common these days to hear a variant of the announcement quoted earlier, inviting “all who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist” to receive Communion, but the less-common announcement that “Communion is reserved to practicing Catholics in a state of grace” also is problematic.

What can be done? Here are a few suggestions for clergy and laity alike.

Learn the guidelines. I trust that clergy are fully instructed in the guidelines for reception of the sacraments while in seminary. But because the guidelines are not easily boiled down to either “Come one, come all” or “Practicing Catholics only!” then I can only suggest regular reading of the USCCB’s Guidelines and the relevant section from canon law (canon 844). We have looked at the USCCB’s summary; here is canon 844:

§1 Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ's faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers, except as provided in §2, 3, and 4 of this canon and in canon 861 §2.

§2 Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid[emphasis added].

§3 Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist, and anointing of the sick to members of the Eastern churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid Eastern churches so far as the sacraments are concerned.

§4 If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgement of the diocesan bishop or of the episcopal conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed [emphasis added].

§5 In respect of the cases dealt with in §2, 3, and 4, the diocesan bishop or the episcopal conference is not to issue general norms except after consultation with the competent authority, at least at the local level, of the non-Catholic church or community concerned.

Given the importance of access to the sacraments by all those duly permitted and properly disposed to receive them, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, I do not think it is unreasonable to recommend that priests and deacons memorize this canon and the USCCB’s Guidelines. Or, if memorization is impossible, clergy can print out both the canon and the Guidelines on the front and back of a laminated card and keep it on their person at all times, as police officers do with The MirandaWarning.

Publish the guidelines. The missalettes used in many American Catholic parishes often print the USCCB’s Guidelines, usually on the inside front cover. If a parish uses a missalette that has the USCCB’sGuidelines available, great. If not, then contact the USCCB and request permission to reprint the Guidelines onto card stock to create a sturdy insert that can be placed inside all of the parish’s missalettes. Extras can be placed in the parish’s literature racks.

Promote the guidelines. Once a parish has determined where its copies of the Guidelines are—whether they are already printed in the parish missalettes or are printed by the parish on card stock and placed in the missalettes—the parish can create a plan of action for promoting the Guidelines at liturgies where non-Catholics are expected to be present. For example, a regular announcement before Masses offered at Christmas, Easter, and for weddings and funerals can be to direct the congregation’s attention to the Guidelines and ask the congregation to read the Guidelines before the liturgy begins. For example:

Before we begin, we would like to direct your attention to theGuidelines for Reception of Communion, which can be found on the inside front-cover of the missalettes placed in the pew pockets in front of you. Please take a moment to read theGuidelines so that you may properly discern whether or not you are able to receive Communion during this liturgy. We welcome all who are unable to receive Communion to offer silent prayer or personal reflection during the Rite of Communion.

Nota bene: The announcement suggested here (my own wording, which may be revised appropriately at the discretion of clergy) is not an open call to receive Communion, nor does it make assumptions about who is properly disposed to receive. It simply directs all present to read the Church’s guidelines for receiving Communion and to discern their own preparedness for reception. No assumptions are made about the personal religious convictions of those visiting, some of whom may either not be comfortable praying in common with Christians or may not even be theists (which is why the invitation to “personal reflection” is extended).

When the Church’s guidelines are not heeded

Despite all of these precautions, there may be times when someone who in not properly disposed to receive Communion receives Communion anyway. It is more likely that a layperson will notice this than will a member of the clergy.

Clergy have the authority to counsel people not to receive Communion; laypersons have the authority to make the guidelines for receiving Communion known. In a previous blog post, I offered these suggestions to laity concerned about the proper reception of Communion by non-practicing Catholics or non-Catholics:

  • A non-Catholic friend is coming to Mass with me. What do I do to prepare her for Communion? This is the easiest [question] to answer, and the one form of the question in which [a layperson] needs to take action. Suggestion: Before Mass, notright before Communion when the people are standing to enter the line, show the non-Catholic friend the Communion guidelines that are printed on the inside front cover of most parish missalettes and allow her to read the guidelines for herself.
  • My Catholic relative has not been to confession in decades. How do I tell him he can’t receive Communion? There is no way you can know that this person has not gone to confession in decades. For all you know, he could have gone to confession just last week and never told you about it. People do not always choose to announce that they have returned to the sacraments. Recent case in point: Famed movie director, Alfred Hitchcock, who we only recently learned returned to the sacraments not long before his death. Suggestion: After Mass, say, “I didn’t know you returned to the sacraments! How wonderful! When did this happen?” If this prompts discussion that reveals that the relative actually has not been to confession in 30 years, you can gently explain that Catholics are expected to confess their mortal sins at least once per year. If not, you may have given him something to think about. Or, best-case scenario, your relative might smile shyly and say he returned to confession just last week.
  • I know this Catholic is leading an immoral life and should not be receiving Communion. How do I stop him from doing so?Again, be careful about deciding what you do and do not know. You may be wrong. Or, it may be that the person is going to confession on a regular basis and is struggling with the sin.Suggestion: If the sin is particularly scandalous, this is the time to talk privately with the pastor. Give him the information. Then trust him to handle it in an appropriate manner. It is unlikely that the pastor will be able to tell you anything about how he handles the matter. Give it over to him and then do your best to put the whole thing out of your mind.

Bottom line: We must accept that human persons have free will, and may freely choose to use it either positively or negatively. We can offer information. When we have the authority to do so, we can counsel accordingly. In a few individual cases, it may be that ecclesial authorities can take more drastic steps to protect the Blessed Sacrament from unworthy reception.

But there is only so much we can do to inform, counsel, and instruct. In the end, ultimate responsibility for worthy reception of Communion belongs to the individual communicant. We can trust that God knows that communicant’s mind and heart, and that he will respond to that person accordingly.

In order that this judgment [by the Lord] be favorable or rather that I be not judged at all, I want to be charitable in my thoughts toward others at all times, for Jesus has said, "Judge not, and you shall not be judged" (St. Therese of Lisieux).

By Michelle Arnold



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    I’ve read several articles by Michelle Arnold here, and in general her advice seems pretty good, pretty reasonable. What’s interesting is that so many Catholics seem to think God needs their help bring “the other” to heel. It’s sort of a “Well, if I have to put up with these stupid rules, then so do you!”

  2. Denis Khan Reply

    “He that comes to Me I Will Not Cast out’. (John6:37).”No man Can Come to Me unless the Father wills it.”-(John6:44).

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