The painful question: Why does the Church treat me, a divorced and remarried devout Catholic, so harshly, forbidding me from receiving Jesus in the Eucharist? It’s not fair! It’s making me an outcast!
Answer: There is a lot of misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on this, causing much pain — sometimes it’s the misunderstanding by a priest, and often it’s the misunderstanding by those who are divorced and remarried.
Getting an annulment means the Church officially recognizes that the marriage was never a real marriage in the first place — there was a flaw from the beginning that prevented the two people from becoming united in real love — and therefore a new marriage after divorce is not adultery. If the Church’s investigation proves that the lack of a real marriage is true, then it’s true even before before the annulment is granted. Even without the official Church pronouncement, the person who marries again is not committing the sin of adultery.
But — and here’s the kicker — we don’t know if the first marriage was a real marriage until it has been fully examined. The Church doesn’t know, and the divorced person doesn’t know, but the divorced person can figure it out faster than the Church does if he/she is honest and in good conscience takes a close look at it with the Lord. Not all divorces are made from invalid marriages; some people do divorce from a real and sacramental marriage. The Church cannot assume that every divorce is the mark of an invalid marriage. And the Church has the vital responsibility of teaching the world what God is like by the examples we set.
The Church does not withhold the Eucharist from divorced-remarried people as a bribe to make them get an annulment, nor as a punishment for getting remarried before the annulment comes through. This is addressed in Pope John Paul II’s letter on the Eucharist, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia“. I’d like to share a bit from the Good News e-Class Course where it covers this. Please be sure to read all the way to the “bottom line” point of it all, at the end.
Paragraph 34 of this document deals with the word “communion” and why it’s used to describe the Sacrament of the Eucharist. What does “communion” really mean?
Quoting excerpts from para. 34:
… The Church is called during her earthly pilgrimage to maintain and promote communion with the Triune God and communion among the faithful. For this purpose she possesses the word and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, by which she “constantly lives and grows” and in which she expresses her very nature. It is not by chance that the term communion has become one of the names given to this sublime sacrament.
The Eucharist thus appears as the culmination of all the sacraments in perfecting our communion with God the Father by identification with his only-begotten Son through the working of the Holy Spirit. … Precisely for this reason it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of “spiritual communion”, which has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. Saint Teresa of Jesus wrote: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you”.
Union with God (the entire Holy Trinity) is achieved by consciously appreciating the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for he brings us to the Father and it is through the Holy Spirit that this miracle is accomplished. This is true whether a person receives his Body and Blood in communion with the Church (i.e., with the “faithful”) or desires it but must refrain from receiving it due to an irregularity that he or she is unable (as yet) to resolve.
For example, a divorced woman remarries outside the Church and then experiences conversion, returns to church, applies for an annulment of her first marriage, is unable to live celibately with her new husband because he’s not understanding, and sincerely desires to live a pure and holy life as best she can. She knows that her state of life is impure, and she respects the Church’s teaching forbidding her to receive the Eucharist until she can prove that her first marriage was invalid (which means it’s officially known that she’s not committing the sin of adultery against her first husband). Yet she yearns to be in union with God and with his people. Her desire is in itself a communion with God and the Church. In the Mass, she is not neglected by the Lord; she receives him just as certainly as anyone else does — in her heart — and God receives her fully.
May we all hunger for the Eucharist as much as she does!
Or take for example a non-Catholic who begins the RCIA process to become a member of the Church. He recognizes Jesus in the Eucharist and longs to receive the benefits of his presence in this Sacrament. His longing will give him those benefits until he can receive it directly in communion as a baptized and confirmed member of the Body.
May we all hunger for the Eucharist as much as he does!
Although Pope John Paul II did not specifically address such difficulties in this encyclical, it’s the reason he quoted Saint Teresa of Jesus: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.”
He wishes to encourage, not condemn or cast out, those who are unable to participate fully in the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.
Full communion is union with the Holy Trinity and with the Church that’s united under Christ’s appointed representative, the Simon Peter of today (i.e., the Eucharist is our communion with the Apostolic Church as it’s united to the pope who is united to Peter by apostolic succession).
The Eucharist is communion in the truest sense of the word, because by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, we receive access to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus who is the Eucharist, we’re united to all of God. Through his Body and Blood made present to us on the altar of our own churches, we’re united to the whole Body of Christ.
However, the celebration of the Eucharist is not the same experience as the spiritual communion that St. Teresa described. This is important to know! True celebration involves all of the Mass: Primarily it includes entering into the Mass with a pre-existing unity with God and the Church. Therefore our sins, because they divide us from God and from the Church, must be first absolved so that we approach the Eucharist reconciled (reunited) to the Lord and with the Church we want to receive in communion.
[Additional note on this for this WordByte: If a divorced person doesn’t know for sure that the first marriage was not a real marriage, because it has not been humbly researched enough, she/he needs to figure out if she/he is actively committing adultery by having marital relations with her/his new spouse. An annulment is merely the public, official acknowledgment that the sin of adultery is not being committed with a second marriage, and if you find yourself remarrying without an annulment, and after making a thorough, honest, humble examination of your first marriage you are sure that you are not committing adultery, there is no valid reason why you cannot receive the Eucharist — even before the annulment comes through — other than simple obedience to the Church authorities who ask you to wait in order to be sure, which is a very holy obedience that honors God who raised up those authorities, even if they sin sometimes in their use of their authority.]
True celebration requires a heart that’s unimpaired by sin and division, because this already-existing union is “a communion which [the celebration] seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection.” For this reason, it’s very important that if we have irregularities in our lives — i.e., anything that prevents us from honestly and purely participating fully in the Church’s celebration — we should work with all haste and due diligence to overcome these obstacles to full participation.
This means getting that annulment, no matter how painful or difficult. God will help! Miracles happen because the Lord wants us to receive full communion. [Many couples abstain from marital relations and live like brother and sister until the annulment comes through.]
This also speaks to all of us: We need to make a good examination of conscience before Mass. Thus identifying venial sins (a sin is mortal only if it completely severs our union with God and with the Church), we arrive ready to utilize the penance rite that’s at the beginning of Mass for the forgiveness of our sins. If we’ve committed a grave sin, which threatens our salvation, we must first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Thus we are restored to full unity with God and the Church, and we receive the Eucharist rightly.
Because communion means union with God and with the Church, it’s an intrinsic (built-in, essential) requirement of the Eucharist that it be celebrated in unity. It’s not a private affair, between me and God alone, for that’s only partial unity (and “partial unity” is not a unity at all). The gathering of people for Mass does not exist for convenience; it’s an important element of communion, for the Eucharist is our union with all those people.
Nor is it a celebration of a pick-and-choose, do only what feels good to you, self-centered morality. The Eucharist is our union with all the moral teachings of the Church, as they have been handed down to us since the first Apostles.
This fact is often misunderstood or overlooked. The Church is not being mean and uncaring when the Code of Canon Law requires that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” (such as those who are remarried without first obtaining an annulment) are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.
AND HERE’S THE REALLY IMPORTANT BOTTOM LINE:
While acknowledging that only the individual person can judge his or her own state of grace or sinfulness, the Church in its concern for the whole community must take a stand against visible conduct that’s contrary to Christian morality. With genuine compassion for those to whom it says “no, you cannot do this”, it must say “no” so that others are not confused by mixed messages. The responsibility is very grave indeed: The people as a whole Body must be protected from misunderstanding what is holy, even at the cost of hurting the feelings of a sinful or mistaken individual.
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© 2005 by Terry Modica
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From pain to holiness, the response of a divorcee:
I’ve given much thought and prayer to what Terry wrote. At first, I was still angry. I still felt that the Church “picks on” people who have been divorced and remarried. How come the church doesn’t scrutinize the other sinners sitting in the pews? I felt that the Church singles out one group of sinners and makes a mockery of them, or uses them as an example of what the Church will do to you if you openly sin. You will not be welcomed to the banquet table. Like it or leave it!
When I examined my feelings further on this subject, I felt a question posed on my heart. Where exactly was my anger coming from? It all stems back to the fact that all sin has consequences! And it is those consequences that I want the Church to turn their faces from.
I learned long ago that when we go to confession and confess a sin, the sin is washed away. God no longer remembers the sin. However, the consequences of sin remains for us to clean up. If we’ve stolen something from someone and go to confession and confess it, the consequence of that sin is that we must go to that person we stole from and ask for their forgiveness and return to them what we took. If they won’t give us forgiveness, we have to accept that. If they want back more than we stole from them, that’s called “restitution”.
The Church recognizes that the consequences of divorce hurt more than just the couple involved, and it does not take this lightly. The end of a marriage causes havoc and pain to many innocent bystanders. Most of the time, couples are so wrapped up in their own pain and issues that they can’t or won’t see these facts of life. The Church does see it.
The consequences of marrying my first husband and not sticking with my decision, divorcing and getting into another relationship and marrying before I would allow the Church to annul the first marriage is NOT the Church’s fault. It’s my fault for not waiting. It’s my fault for making one bad decision right after another, after another! And I come along and want the Church to bend over backwards to accommodate ME and my circumstances! The Church says “NO”. God made the marriage rules, not the Church. Jesus says it quite clearly when the disciples asked about divorce (see Mark 10:2-12). They said, “Moses allowed divorce” (as if Moses was God!) and Jesus reminded them of who instituted and wrote the rules about marriage, which is explained in the very beginning of the Bible (see Genesis 2:24). He stated that Moses allowed it because they had hardened their hearts. They did not want to love their wives anymore.
Love is a decision, not a feeling. The Church had to stop me from receiving Communion because, in fact, I was not in communion with God. My god was not the Lord God Almighty, it was MY wants, MY needs and MY desires. I was breaking the first commandment: “Thou shalt not have any false gods.”
In this wishy-washy world that our society is creating around us, it’s getting harder and harder to identify truth and what is sacred and holy. The Church takes a lot of slaps in the face for standing up for what it believes. I have to admit, I’ve been many times first in line to slap it! Granted, the Church has not always been right and holy during it’s entire existence, but it has always been filled with God’s grace and covered in the Holy Spirit.
I no longer have to stay in my pew during Communion, but I’ll be honest with you, there have been times when I should not have received Communion. Just because “I can” is not reason enough. Sin is Sin. Sin hurts God. Sin offends God. And sin and God cannot co-exist in my heart. When I try to force Him in there, it only makes my heart more chaotic and my life filled with more turmoil. There comes a time when I must say to myself, “STOP THIS MADNESS!!! JUST STOP IT!!!!” And fall on my knees to God and humbly beg His forgiveness. Only with a truly contrite heart can God enter fully into someone’s soul. He always knocks on my door. I hear Him there. Pride keeps me from reaching the door handle and opening it. Humility — knowing that I don’t know everything — is the way to open that door to Christ.
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© 2005 by Nancy Gardner
Good News Ministries
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