12Jul Shared Communion forbidden at Glenstal conference

The Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is the oldest and most successful interfaith gathering between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. But a senior prelate’s decision to not allow the conference to offer a shared Eucharist as part of its anniversary observance has placed its future in doubt.

Attendees of the jubilee conference, held June 25 to 27, were told that the archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dermot Clifford, twice refused to grant official permission for a shared Holy Communion service in his diocese. Citing a “conservative” opinion from a canon lawyer, Clifford said it was not in his power to grant the permission. The apostolic nuncio to Ireland, New York-born Archbishop Charles Brown, supported Clifford’s decision.

It was on June 26, 1964, some months ahead of the Second Vatican Council’s promulgation of its Decree on Ecumenism, that members of the Episcopalian Church of Ireland and other Christian denominations, including Presbyterians and Methodists, met with Roman Catholics for the first time in Ireland. The conference met at Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick and has been held every year since then.

Hosted by the Benedictine community, the conference is organized by a committee of various Christian communities and chaired by the Episcopalian church bishop of Limerick, Trevor Williams.

A high point was reached in 1985 at the conference’s 21st anniversary, when the then-archbishop of Cashel and Emly, the late Thomas Morris, and authorities from the four other participating denominations gave permission for a eucharistic celebration based on an agreed text.

Fr. Mark Anthony Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal, presented a report of behind-the-scenes correspondence with church authorities at a session called “Towards a shared Eucharist: the process on which we are engaged.”

Hederman told the 80 people in attendance that conference organizers sought diocesan approval for a shared Eucharist to celebrate 50 years of togetherness. He said the organizers “wanted to rattle the bars and test the boundaries and at least find out what the official position was about Eucharistic-sharing.”

Hederman said he wrote to Clifford on Sept. 4, requesting permission for a Eucharist shared by all participants for this “unique” occasion. This one-off celebration of the Eucharist, he said, was provided for in the Irish bishops’ document “One Bread One Body,” which the standing committee had studied, he said he told the archbishop.

“We realize that this second occasion will not be possible without your gracious permission,” Hederman wrote. “We have no interest in, or intention of, celebrating such a Eucharist without the consent of the recognized authorities in the Church. Appropriate contact is also being made with authorities in the other churches.

“We believe that such a symbolic occasion would be a milestone in the search for Christian unity in our country at this important time.”

On Dec. 3, Hederman said he received Clifford’s reply, which included a report from a canon lawyer. “I do not have the authority to grant the request which you made in regard to the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference,” Clifford wrote.

“I would recommend that you do not have a Mass but that you have a Prayer Service if you have some difficulty with the Church’s ruling on the subject. I am sorry to disappoint you but you will see from the Report that it is not in my power to accede to your request.”

Clifford’s in-house canon lawyer said the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has jurisdiction over intercommunions with “ecclesial communities.” Any cleric defying that ban, the canon lawyer said, could incur a severe penalty, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state.

Hederman said “the only chink of light in an otherwise negative and, indeed, threatening response” was Clifford’s observation that the organizers were free to appeal his decision to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Hederman then posed the question to Brown. On Jan. 14, Brown, a former official with the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, wrote that he could find nothing wrong with Clifford’s opinion. Brown said, however, that Hederman was “most free” to bring this question directly to the Vatican’s attention.

Methodist and conference secretary Gillian Kingston explored this second window of opportunity. She contacted Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who said Clifford had “clear” authority to make the decision. He recommended Hederman write again to Clifford.

Hederman did just that on Feb. 13, this time telling Clifford that a shared Eucharist at Glenstal would be “an important sign, especially at this time of violence again in Northern Ireland where children of seven years of age will not stand beside on another because one is a Catholic and the other a Protestant.”

“A symbolic, once-off, coming together in communion of the four major denominations of Christianity in this country after 50 years of effort to do so, would seem to be an apposite gesture at this important time, when all the political efforts to achieve harmony could be in danger of regression to the former situation of unbridled violence from both sides.”

Again, Clifford said no.

Hederman did not criticize Clifford at the conference, saying he did not want Clifford to be seen as “the spoilsport who ruined our party.”

“We are dealing here with the institution of the Catholic Church and we decided, as a committee, from the outset to take on this august body in our search for ecumenical communion. Dermot Clifford was, at all times, as he always does, following the norms of Catholic teaching and Canon Law. He has been a very good friend to this community for the 25 years he has been Archbishop of our diocese, and indeed before that.”

After lengthy debate, the Glenstal community and the organizing committee decided the conference will not be held in 2014, giving the members a year of reflection on its relevance and role in a multicultural and increasingly secularized society in Ireland.

Noel Coghlan, an Episcopalian theologian and longtime participant in the conference, said he regretted Clifford’s decision but said while defying it would be welcome in Ireland, it would be received with hostility in Rome. He said it is better to stay within existing official boundaries but warned that “a blank year” carried the danger of the conference falling further apart.

Hederman defended the year off. “The great danger is that by continuing to meet as we do, without kicking up too much of a fuss, that we provide an alibi for the institutional churches of this country and an excuse for not moving forward ecumenically. It is sufficient for the various authorities to throw some money at us and then to say that Glenstal is looking after our ecumenical obligations.

“Well, the truth is that it is not; and, indeed, the question needs to be asked as to whether the Roman Catholic church is really serious about church unity.”

In the meantime, the focus will be on whether and how Clifford and Brown explain this decision to the Rome of Pope Francis.

Veteran theologian Ausgustinian Fr. Gabriel Daly was emphatic that the Glenstal Conference would return and that there is “no upstairs and downstairs” in Pope Francis’ vision of the Kingdom of God.

(Published in the National Catholic Reporter on 11 July 2013: See story and comments here.)

23 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    If Pope Francis is consistent in his teaching and reaching out to “other” faiths, the decision of Papal Nuncio Charles Brown would not be supported by the same Pope Francis. I feel another quote coming on….”They will hear and hear and not undertand” This refusal for common communion certainly makes the Catholic Churches attempt at convincing us of the importance of Ecumenism, rendered “mute” and makes us look like liars.

  2. Wanderer

    Foolish men. None so blind as though who will not see. Cannot see. Blind lead the blind.

    “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

    St Francis of Assisi….. of the cloud of witnesses, ora pro nobis.

    One fear you’ll never have to fear in this world – drowning in the depths of a certain spirituality. 🙂

    Cast it out. Fear that is. Let Love, Compassion and Peace reign – the Kingdom come.

  3. Anne

    Reaching out to other faiths doesn’t mean you can give the Body of Christ to those who believe that the host is merely a symbol. That is wrong. Thank God for the Bishop and the Papal Nuncio for standing up to this.

  4. Mary Cunningham

    It is no use paying lip service to Ecumenism and at the same time crushing any attempt to share communion with Christ and with one another, ironically the theme of last year’s Eucharistic congress. Could such a sharing with our Christian sisters and brothers be a powerful source and means towards unity?

    Jesus who walked this earth, embraced open table fellowship. Why can’t we Christians follow his lead? The Catholic Church appears to have made reception of the Eucharist a reward for good behaviour, instead of food for the journey.

    Perhaps it is time to take a risk and move outside the suffocating box that we Catholics have built for ourselves, and embrace inter communion with fellow Christians. We do not always have to wait for ‘permission’. This ingrained attitude is an indication that we are stuck at a level of morality that does not rise above blind obedience.

    We can open our hearts and minds and move forward with what Ruth Patterson, speaking at the Eucharistic congress called ‘our chief evangelistic tool’, the final prayer of Jesus the night before he died ;

    ‘that they may all be one even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee that they also may be in us, so that the world might believe that thou hast sent me.’
    John 17:21.

    Mary Cunningham

  5. DOM

    It is interesting to note that the senior prelete’s decision not to allow the 50th Ecumenical Conference to offer a shared Eucharist was followed by a cash donation to assist with the running of the Glenstal Conference itself. This action in itself could be very revealing.
    The very future of the Conference is now in doubt and the following extract from John Cooney’s article is very relevant.
    “The great danger is that by continuing to meet as we do, without kicking up too much fuss, that we provide an alibi for the institutional churches of this country and an excuse for not moving forward ecumenically.Well the truth is that is not and indeed the question needs to be asked as to WHETHER THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IS REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT CHRISTIAN UNITY”.

  6. Wanderer

    3. Like 99% of Catholics already do ?

    I am not sure about giving Communion, as Body and Blood of Christ, to someone who does not believe it to actually be that. I would not have an issue with the Bishop here, or the others – having to abide by Church ‘law’. They have to abide by the laws and teachings or they get kicked out.

    But the gospels make it clear it is faith that saves – and makes well.

    The faith of the person that is important.

    I agree with Mary that this could help in bringing unity to the Body of Christ – a Universal Body.

    Faith makes well.

    God works in mysterious ways. Who are we to deny Christ to anyone ?

    Some of those ‘protestants’ might have more faith in the ‘symbol’ than the ones eating day in and day out – and going nowhere fast.

    Look at the weekend in the North again. Sectarianism, ignorance, hate and violence. And all in the ‘name of God’ – supposedly.

    38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    I wonder how much faith we place in these words ? Nothing can separate from the very love of God that is in Christ.

    Ut Unum omnes Sint.

  7. Wanderer

    PS Just to add here that this ‘Wanderer’ and I have wandered in and out of many churches, faiths, traditions and religions and with people of no faith – though in ways were more deeply faithful – agnostic, atheist etc, just other human beings.

    Coming back to the RCC has been extremely difficult for me, even till very recently. Seems always something to tell me to get the hell away again.

    But the reality is again that I am attending Mass regularly, make time for lengthy quiet prayer, read Scripture, Rosary and any and all aids. I find it really helps me no end. I just decided to come off the fences, stop being fearful and get into the faith of my childhood which I’d loved deeply, and still do. My home – soul. And not to let what others think, say, do or don’t do etc – annoy me.

    Seems I am really finding a more secure path again IF I make my prayer core and critical to my journey.

    “Pray, till prayer becomes joy for you………. ”

    Need to take my real name too which others might have thought anyway.


    Thank you all for being here, sharing and dialoguing. Be nice to do for real with some of you some times.

    God bless

  8. Liam

    The Catholic Church is the one true church. I think it is sad to see Fr Hederman trying to promote shared Communion. The protestant church does not have the real presence so a shared Communion with them would be an insult to Our Lord.

  9. Pól Ó Duibhir

    This is simply highlighting that the RCC is interested in unity only on its own terms and no other way. No Surrender.

    It also throws the RCC interpretation of the real presence into sharp relief. This is a deprecated concept that is due for an update.

    Constantly circling the wagons is not an answer.

  10. Wanderer

    Would like to ask something of you good people. These days for me, to ‘go to Communion’ – share in the Eucharist, is to go and receive the offering Jesus makes of all of Himself to me, a mere mortal – His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. His ALL, as He would have me offer all my deepest humanity to Him, that He we might one day become all in all, become One as They are One, just as He and the Father, are One.

    Where we were, are – will all be one in the Body of Christ. One – in Unity.

    It’s the Communion between a human being and a Human Being who is also God, the Father – Christ; and in and through the Holy Spirit.

    Jesus offers all He is to me and if I choose to accept in good faith – that it feeds, assists in the transformative communion – to become a real follower of Jesus – a more Christ like soul, individual – person.

    Something like this.

    Could someone like me, with such beliefs, be a ‘Eucharistic Minister’ ? I would always have refused in the past for various reasons. But would like to remain open to it this time – as seems no greater honour than to bring Christ to the sick, and even the dying, when they are most vulnerable, and some times afraid. May our love for God, for them, cast out that same fear.

    I would not do it though if my ‘theology’ is wrong and I’d make a mockery.

  11. Patrick Courtney

    Who in today’s Church is the wounded Jew on the road to Jericho? Who in today’s Church are the brigands who attacked him and left him half dead? Who in today’s Church are the priests and Levites who walked by on the other side of the road? Who in today’s Church is the Samaritan? For me the wounded ‘Jew’ are the men and women who had the courage to voice their opinions on many contentious matters and humbly asked for dialogue from those on the other side of the road. That road to Jericho is filling with wounded ‘Jews’.
    For me, the Samaritans are those who have allegedly adulterated the ‘true morals and dogma of the Church’ and are willing to help and support those who have raised their heads above the parapet and any human who is in need.
    Transfer Christ’s parable to the 50th celebrations of Ecumenism in Glenstal Abbey. The priests and Levites on the other side ignored the wounded Jew. Furthermore, they threatened censure against those who embraced with open arms their Christian neighbours (aka Samaritans) in a shared Eucharist. As far as they are concerned, ‘Samaritans’ cannot share in a communion of love.
    They are deemed less and unworthy. Those on the other side rely on law and precepts to pass by. Jesus weeps. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.

  12. Teresa Mee

    Pol 9 ‘It also throws the RCC interpretation of the real presence into sharp relief’


    Wanderer 10,’.to ‘go to Communion’ – share in the Eucharist, is to go and receive the offering Jesus makes of all of Himself to me, a mere mortal – His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. His ALL,

    Just a further question from a slow learner:
    Is the Mystery of Eucharist that Jesus is present under the appearance of the bread and wine,that the bread and wine have become his body and blood?

    Or is the Mystery that Jesus the Christ is present in me and in the community, all of us together in communion. He and the absent sick and the celebrating community are also in communion through the ministry of Eucharistic ministers.

    The latter interpretation would be hugely life giving and challenging, reassuring. ‘.you in Me and I in you… without Me you can do nothing..’Go out to the whole world’ in communion with Me and with the community.

    My own choice is the latter. All are welcome at this table.


  13. Ciaran

    Should the Catholic church change its Eucharistic teaching? Maybe. But above all don’t change it to please people. Be honest.
    there are plenty of places to be Christians together. e.g. feeding the poor, working for peace and justice.
    A meeting of intellectuals and clergy at a quiet Irish monastery is not at the cutting edge.


  14. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Teresa 12
    In your preferred interpretation, I don’t think the “real presence” would be a stumbling block to Christian unity and all this arguing about non-RCs participating in the Eucharist would be redundant.
    It is the extreme interpretation of the first option you mention that is the problem. It needs changing, and (Ciaran 13) not to please the people but because it is a nonsense.

  15. john

    I believe that #12 Teresa Mee has put it so well. All should be made welcome at the table of the Lord. Well said…

  16. Los Leandros

    Jestures like those of Dom Hederman are irresponsible in the extreme ; and ironically only serve to heighten passions/discord. He should know the reasoning behind the Church’s teaching in this regard ; it is not capricious. I come from a parish where there is close co-operation between the RC and C of I, but inter-communion would never be attempted, out of mutual respect. But please God in time it may be possible.

  17. Darlene Starrs

    We are ever so pleased that God does not require our permission for inter-communion. I recall one place in the N.T. letters of St. Paul, where he says…..we cannot control what God does…

  18. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    I feel like Jesus is weeping at our rules, laws, legalisms, and self-created divisions that we, as Roman Catholics, are continually creating in His Church.

    Didn’t Jesus repeatedly and deliberately keep breaking laws when He walked on this earth?

    Who are we to deny shared communion to anyone who also claims Jesus as Lord and Savior???

    Jesus wants us to live the SPIRIT OF THE LAW, not the LETTER OF THE LAW.

    When will we stop finding ways that separate us, and start finding ways that unite us for the greater glory of God???

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

  19. ger gleeson

    Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh is so right. Because of the rules, regulations and laws, our church has marginalized so many of our members. And all the rules and regulations are issued by a few Men who never really lived in the real world. Jesus weeps.

  20. Brendan Cafferty

    Followers of Jesus who are not allowed to break bread together ?

  21. Cyril North

    Rules! That is what the institutional church has become. Silly nonesense. Infantile!

  22. DOM

    The 26th July issue of ‘The Phoenix’ in its section ‘Affairs of the Nation’ has an account of the Glenstal Conference entitled ‘Archbishop Bans Shared Communion’. So, this whole issue has gained further public exposure. Hopefully, this may be a helpful development for the future?

  23. John Leogue

    Surely a lot more needs to be achieved at shared conferences regarding the understanding and validity of Orders- who can validly be Celebrant must first be agreed – fast forwarding to shared communion is premature as though there are no outstanding doctrinal differences between traditions – there are and they are growing further with the ongoing issues around who is ordained, who can be and by whom ? Whither ecumenism without this first step ? The Archbishops had no choice on this request. To cast them otherwise is I think too simplistic. A shared liturgy without the Eucharist would better recognise the reality of differing standpoints.

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