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Can Catholics Receive Communion in Protestant Churches?

Here’s a recent question asked by a student. Is it OK for Catholics to go to a Protestant worship service?I told him, “The answer is yes, but with an important asterisk.”

That asterisk is this: as Catholics, we are obliged to worship God at Mass on Sundays (or Saturday evenings if it’s a Vigil Mass). As the liturgy of the Eucharist, the Mass is our participation in the eternal sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and there is no substitution for our participation in this liturgy.

Attending a Protestant worship service does not excuse Catholics from our Sunday Mass obligation. But assuming you are also going to Mass on Sunday, it can be permissible to also attend a Protestant service.

Why would a Catholic want to do this? I can think of several reasons. Perhaps you have a Protestant friend or family member who has invited you to attend with them. I encourage students all the time to invite their non-Catholic friends with them to Mass. If we want our friends to come to Mass with us, it’s only fair that we return the favor. Or perhaps you just want to see what a Pentecostal, Baptist, or Methodist service is like. While I wouldn’t recommend a Catholic attend Protestant services on a regular basis, as long as one is well-formed in their faith and fully aware that the message being preached won’t necessarily be in conformity with Catholic teaching, there is no reason one couldn’t attend on occasion with a friend from that church.

But this leads to an important follow-up question. Can a Catholic receive Communion in a Protestant Church?

One might immediately assume the answer would be “No” (and one would be correct). But there is a certain logic to the question. The student who asked expressed this rationale: we don’t believe Protestant Communion has the Real Presence. They don’t believe their Communion has the Real Presence, either. So if both of us agree it’s just a symbol in their church, why couldn’t we receive Communion there?

First of all, it’s not as simple as “Catholics believe in the Real Presence and Protestants don’t.” Protestants have a wide range of beliefs about the Eucharist, with some coming very close to the Catholic belief of transubstantiation and others believing that receiving the bread and wine are only symbolic gestures. Our Catholic teaching is that only a validly ordained priest can celebrate the Eucharist, which means that from our perspective only Catholic and Orthodox Churches have the Real Presence in the Eucharist, regardless of what Eucharistic theology individual Protestant denominations may hold.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that a Catholic is attending a worship service at a Protestant church that teaches the bread and wine offered is merely a symbol. The Catholic still would not be free to receive Communion in that church, for the simple reason that he or she is not in communion with that church. The Eucharist is all about communion, which is why we also call it “Communion.” It’s not only about being in communion with Jesus in the Real Presence, but about being in communion with the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth.

To put it plainly, Protestant denominations are not in communion with the Catholic Church. This is why the Catholic Church has what’s known as “closed Communion.” You have to be a practicing Catholic in order to receive Communion in our Church. To receive Communion in a Church without being in communion with that Church is a dishonest act.

Even if various Protestant denominations may practice open Communion and say “all are welcome to receive,” that doesn’t make Catholics free to do so. For us, it is still a sign of communion that should be honored.

In that situation, it’s fair to ask why would we want to receive Communion in that church? Our reasons for receiving Communion are twofold. First, to receive the Sacramental Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. But as they wouldn’t have a valid Eucharist there is no Sacramental Presence. Second, as a sign of our communion with the Church. But to practice “open communion” is to negate the idea of communion entirely. If all are invited to receive regardless of personal beliefs, spiritual state, or church affiliation, then it ceases to be a sign of communion with anything at all. It becomes an empty ritual.

In conclusion, while it is good to pray together with our Protestant brothers and sisters, the reception of Holy Communion is the “source and summit of the Christian life” to quote the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. By not receiving Communion from churches we are not in communion with, we give witness to the importance of the Blessed Sacrament in the life of the Church.

Flipping Our Expectations

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Jesus has a way of turning our expectations on their heads. The Beatitudes from last week’s gospel reading are a perfect example. The world says being rich will make you happy. Jesus says blessed are the poor. The world says happiness is a full belly. Jesus says blessed are the hungry. The world says celebrity and popularity are measures of success. Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted.

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Plant Yourself Near the Water

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

The Psalm for this Sunday is one of my favorites. It’s the very first Psalm, and it tells us right off the bat the way to blessedness. “Blessed is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked… but delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on his law day and night” (Ps 1:1-2). It says the blessed person is “like a tree planted near running water, that yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade” (Ps 1:3).

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Lord, I am Not Worthy

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Have you ever felt like you are not good enough for God? Like you don’t have what it takes to do what God asks of you? Are you hesitant to share your faith because you don’t think you know enough? Do you put off prayer because you don’t feel worthy enough to talk to God? If so, you are in good company, because that’s just how Isaiah, St. Paul, and St. Peter felt when God called them.

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A More Excellent Way

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

St. Paul begins his beautiful exhortation on love in this Sunday’s second reading by promising to show us “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). He describes this “excellent way” of love as being patient and kind, not seeking self-interest, and rejoicing in the truth. Love endures all things.

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