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Ruling on inter-communion sends signals


On Nov. 13, 1962, Pope John XXIII decreed that the name of St. Joseph be added to the Eucharistic Prayer during Mass, placing it after Mary and before the names of the apostles, popes and martyrs. Most in the Catholic world chalked it up as the sentimental gesture of a peasant pope who felt a personal devotion to the patron saint of workers and families.

In liturgical circles, however, the addition set off shock waves, because the pope had done what many traditionalists had long regarded as unthinkable: He had altered the Roman canon, the ancient eucharistic prayer known to devotees as the “unchanging rule” of worship.

It was a small step that created an enormous precedent. When the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) began to transform how Catholics pray and worship, some experts looked back to John’s amendment as the opening shot of the revolution.

That’s the kind of context one needs to understand why Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, a liturgist and expert on Eastern Christianity, says an obscure recent Vatican ruling on inter-communion among Assyrian Christians is “perhaps the most significant decision to come out of the Holy See in a half-century.”

Like Pope John’s insertion of St. Joseph, the new move is important not so much for what it does but for the example it sets.

In brief, the ruling (dated July 20 but not released until Oct. 25) allows members of the Chaldean Catholic church, an Eastern rite in communion with Rome, and members of the Assyrian Church of the East, its Orthodox counterpart, to receive Communion at each other’s liturgies. The intention is to address cases of “pastoral necessity,” in which Chaldeans cannot attend one of their own liturgies but can go to an Assyrian service, and vice versa.

Christianity in Assyria, an ancient name for a region of the Middle East whose center lies in modern Iraq, dates back to the second century. The Assyrian church split in the 16th century, with one faction taking the name “Chaldeans” and professing loyalty to Rome.

There are today 400,000 members of the Orthodox-affiliated Assyrian Church of the East, mostly in Iraq, though for political reasons the head of the church resides in Morton Grove, Ill. The Chaldean branch numbers 304,000 followers, some 65,000 of whom are in the United States, with headquarters in Southfield, Mich. There are also 3.8 million followers of the Syro-Malabar church in India, also loyal to Rome, who use the Assyrian rite.

Theologically, the ruling means that the Vatican recognizes the legitimacy of the Eucharist as practiced by the Assyrians. Though Rome has upheld the validity of Orthodox sacraments in general, and signed a common Christological declaration with the Assyrians in 1994, this particular rite had long been in doubt.

The Assyrian Eucharistic prayer, known as the “Anaphorah of Addai and Mari,” does not include the “institution narrative,” or the words Catholics believe Jesus pronounced at the Last Supper. The words include: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you.”

Based on the argument of St. Anselm and others that these words of Jesus created the Eucharist, traditional Catholic theology has held that a Eucharistic Prayer without the institution narrative is impossible. Pius XII, in his 1943 encyclical Mystici corporis, confirmed this position.

The Anaphorah of Addai and Mari, however, dates back to the first Christian centuries, and the Vatican concluded that it contains the substance of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, even if the exact words aren’t there (An English translation of the Anaphorah of Addai and Mari may be found at http://www.cired.org/ liturgy/apostles.html.)

The ruling, issued by the Council for Christian Unity in consultation with the Congregation for Eastern Churches and the all-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, holds that the Assyrian prayer expresses “the intention to carry out in practice precisely what Christ established by his words and actions.”

Taft said that the ruling brings Vatican policy in line with what liturgical experts have been saying.

“This moves us beyond a medieval theology of magic words,” he said. “The document recognizes the enormous advances made in studies concerning the evolution of the Eucharistic prayer. Anyone who has read a book on liturgy in the last 50 years,” Taft said, “knows it is generally accepted today that the prayer of consecration of the Eucharist is the entire prayer over the gifts, not just a verbal formula lifted out of context.”

In that sense, Taft said, the document has two noteworthy aspects. First, it reflects trust in the results of modern liturgical scholarship; second, it breaks with the rigid literalism of much recent policy on liturgy and language.

Benedictine Fr. Ephrem Carr of the Pontifical Institute for Liturgy echoed the view. “This certainly moves away from the classic scholastic theology of the Eucharistic Prayer, the insistence that the exact words of consecration must be present,” Carr told NCR.

He said the decision was especially striking, given that on previous occasions when Chaldean and Syro-Malabar Catholics asked to use the Assyrian rite, they were forced by Rome to add the institution narrative.

Observers say one reason the document turned out as it did may be that the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican’s liturgical office, was not consulted, since that agency does not deal with Eastern churches. Under Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, the worship office has demanded a strongly literal approach to liturgical language, rejecting precisely the emphasis on meaning rather than exact wording that underlies the Assyrian decision.

Roman Catholics, in cases of pastoral necessity, are allowed to receive Communion in Orthodox churches that do use the words of institution. But some Orthodox churches, for their own theological reasons, do not permit Catholics to take Communion with them. The Code of Canon Law (Canon 844.3) allows Orthodox Christians to receive Communion, penance and anointing of the sick from Catholic ministers.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001