Pope Francis visited the city’s Evangelical Lutheran church for an ecumenical dialogue. (Indeed, with an eye to the coming 500th anniversary of the German Reformation in 2017, today’s event follows quickly on the heels of Declaration on the Way, a major joint statement from the USCCB and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America rolled out earlier this month as a roadmap for the path forward.)
Among the handful chosen to take part in today’s Q&A, Francis heard from a member of the mostly German-Swiss congregation who, speaking of her marriage to a Catholic, addressed “the hurt we’ve felt together due to [their] difference of faith” and asked about their ability “to finally participate together in Communion.”
In an answer that’s almost certain to resonate broadly across the ecumenical scene (and elsewhere, quite possibly show his hand on his intended course following last month’s Synod on the Family), the pontiff – clearly wrestling with the plea – pointedly appealed less to the standard prohibition of the Eucharist for Protestant communities than to the woman’s discernment in conscience.
As if to reinforce the point, in a move clearly decided in advance, Francis publicly presented the pastor with a chalice which appeared identical to the ones the Pope gave the archbishops of Washington, New York and Philadelphia during his late September US trip. On another context front, meanwhile, having employed Q&A as a favorite format with no shortage of groups over time, Papa Bergoglio is customarily appraised of the questions to be put to him in advance – and given the situation here, it’d be practically impossible to believe that Francis didn’t anticipate the topic coming up. Along these lines, it was oddly telling that the Pope referred positively to the deeply irregular situation of Jerónimo Podestá – the Argentine bishop who fled his ministry to marry in 1968 – to whom the now-Pope was close at his death in 2000, and to whose widow Francis has remained in contact both before and since his election, all while the country’s other prelates kept a disapproving distance.
All that said, as Cardinal Walter Kasper looked on between the current Ecumenism Czar Cardinal Kurt Koch and the Papal Vicar for Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini.
Below is an English translation of the Pope’s reply:
The question on sharing the Lord’s Supper isn’t easy for me to respond to, above all in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper – I’m scared!
I think of how the Lord told us when he gave us this mandatumto “do this in memory of me,” and when we share the Lord’s Supper, we recall and we imitate the same as the Lord. And there will be the Lord’s Supper in the final banquet in the new Jerusalem – it’ll be there! But that will be the last one… in the meantime, I ask myself and don’t know how to respond – what you’re asking me, I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together? I leave that question to the theologians and those who understand.
It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means that there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand. But I ask myself: but don’t we have the same Baptism? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? And you’re a witness of a likewise profound journey, a journey of marriage: itself a journey of family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism.
When you feel yourself a sinner – and I’m much more of a sinner – when your husband feels he’s sinned, you go forward to the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and also goes to the priest and asks absolution, [thus] I’m healed and kept alive in my Baptism. When you pray together, that Baptism grows, becomes stronger. When you teach your kids who is Jesus? Why did Jesus come? What did Jesus do for us?, you’re doing the same thing, whether in the Lutheran language or the Catholic one, but it’s the same.
The question [Pope draws question mark with his finger]…. The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me – this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.
I once had a great friendship with a bishop who went a little wrong – 48 years old, he married [then had] two children. This made for great discomfort in him – a Catholic wife, Catholic children, him a bishop. He accompanied them on Sunday, his wife and children, to Mass, and then went to worship with his community…. It was a step toward his participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went forward, then the Lord called him [to realize] “I’m not right.”
I can only respond to your question with a question: what can I do with my husband that the Lord’s Supper might accompany me on my path? It’s a problem that each must answer [for themselves], but a pastor-friend once told me that “We believe that the Lord is present, he is present” – you believe that the Lord is present. There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism – one faith, one baptism, one Lord: this Paul tells us; the consequences come later.
I would never dare to give permission to do this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and go forward. [Pauses] And I wouldn’t dare – I don’t dare say anything more.