Inter-church families – growing in number – how do they cope?

The 11th International Interchurch Families conference in Newcastle Australia opened the day Brother Roger Schutz of TaizÈ was buried. At his funeral Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said

John and Sally Faisandier

The 11th International Interchurch Families conference in Newcastle Australia opened the day Brother Roger Schutz of TaizÈ was buried. At his funeral Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said

from his youth Br Roger had united himself to Christ’s prayer “that all may be one”. He wanted to live the faith of the undivided Church, without breaking with anybody, in a great brotherhood.

A day later at the World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the huge role that Br Roger had played in church unity. He referred to the importance of dialogue between the churches:

As a result of this commitment [to dialogue], the journey can move forward, step-by-step, until at last we will all “attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13).

Now let us all go along this path in the awareness that walking together is a form of unity.

There was something significant for the conference about this focus on unity happening at the same time in Europe.

We immediately felt comfortable and welcomed by the people at the conference. Although overall numbers were small, there were lay people and clergy from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Uniting Churches. Two Uniting Church ministers were there with their Catholic husbands. The retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Cassidy, joined us for most of the sessions. Several church scholars contributed theological reflections.

What struck us most were the stories the interchurch couples told. Some had been a part of the interchurch movement for many years. Working with their local priest and bishop, they had found creative ways of living with their differences. They sought ways to truly belong to two communities and bring their children up in both.

Several, with the knowledge of their bishop, priest and minister, shared the Eucharist together at both their churches. Theological concerns

There are ongoing theological issues that needed to be resolved before true Christian unity can be reached. The sacraments of marriage and baptism are more easily shared, but there remain difficulties with the Roman Catholic Church around Communion and Confirmation.

While these theological statements have their place, what is seen as more important is the way interchurch families actually live their lives together and work out ways of sharing their beliefs and practices. Pope John Paul II in 1982 said to interchurch families:

You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes.

A striking statement in the 1999 Roman Catholic and Uniting Church in Australia document Interchurch Marriages: Their ecumenical challenge and significance for our churches gives us great hope. This result of intensive dialogue over six years by scholars and lay people says:

As divided churches, we acknowledge that we have departed from the will of Jesus that all his followers should be one. When couples from different Christian traditions are uncertain in which church they should raise their children, they deserve to be received with compassion, because the fault is not theirs but the consequence of our division. The pain which this causes is not their fault, but that of our churches, which have placed them in that situation. It is a case not of the church having to forgive them, but of asking them to forgive the church. It is with this attitude that our churches should welcome candidates for marriage and, where appropriate, encourage – not impede – interchurch marriages.

The document acknowledges the importance of guidelines for pastoral care of interchurch families:

If pastoral care of ‘mixed marriage’ families – on an ecumenical basis – were given a greater priority in our churches, the partners in such marriages might well choose to maintain their commitment to their own church, instead of simply ‘dropping out’, as so many do.

Majority marry non-Catholics

Sixty-eight percent of Catholics in New Zealand marry non-Catholics, and Australia has a similar percentage. Where are they all?

Sister Trish Madigan reported to the conference results of a survey of Sydney Catholic priests. Few could easily identify the interchurch couples in their parishes. Many, it seems drift away because the churches do not welcome them as interchurch couples.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993 strongly recommended that bishops’ conferences establish local norms for interchurch families.

Accordingly, in January 2003 the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in New South Wales published Real Yet Imperfect: Pastoral Guidelines for Sacramental Sharing. The following significant passage outlines the Maitland-Newcastle approach to interchurch marriages sharing the Eucharist in the Catholic Church together:

Those who attend Mass together in a Catholic Church, present a unique case in that their baptismal unity has been further sealed by the sacrament of marriage. Conscious of the pain of the present division within the body of Christ, both may experience a real need to express their unity by receiving the Eucharist whenever they attend Mass together. … If this occurs frequently, the non-Catholic spouse may request permission to receive the Eucharist every time s/he attends Mass with his/her spouse, but joint pastoral care by the clergy of both denominations should be offered to help the person understand the significance of such requests.

On those occasions when Christians of other denominations are attending Mass, Real Yet Imperfect makes the following suggestions:

• No invitation to receive Eucharist will be issued.

• There will be no public prohibition against receiving.

• There will be no refusal should someone present themselves for communion.

And something magic is happening in Newcastle!

We were moved by these stories:

• When Pat’s Catholic father died, her husband, an Anglican priest, was invited up to the altar to participate in distributing communion to the congregation;

• When Christine first shared communion with her husband in the Catholic Church in Newcastle, the priest announced this to the congregation and explained that the bishop had given his permission for Christine to have ongoing communion with her husband. All who knew her in the parish warmly received this announcement.

We were warmed by this story, too, and we have come back from the conference with a great enthusiasm to share our new knowledge with others. Thank you to the Catholic Church for supporting our attendance at this important event.

David and Gillian’s story

For Gill Ryrie, the joy of being able to go to Communion with her husband has not come often in their 30 years of married life, but when it does, she treasures the moment.

Most of the time though, left behind in the pew, she prayed for those receiving Communion and also for non-Catholics like her, who could not participate in this liturgical commemoration of Jesus’ sharing of his body and blood.

Some 68 percent of Catholics are married to non-Catholics.

For some of these non-Catholic partners there is conflict between their wanting to share fully in their partner’s faith tradition and maintain an equally strong presence in their own Church community.

For the past eight years some interchurch couples have come together periodically to share their stories and to try to find a way around the obstacles that exclude one partner in the marriage.

Gill says a major breakthrough came when she and David were at a Marriage Encounter weekend 20 years ago and, for the first time, she was invited to come forward for a blessing at Communion time. Many parish priests do not know how to treat non-Catholic partners in their parishes.

Ten years later, blessings for non-Catholic partners started to become more common. At first, David found the step of the non-Catholic receiving a blessing difficult, but after a few Sundays, found that, because there was no comment from other parishioners, his concern was unfounded.

Now there is no problem receiving a blessing from Eucharistic ministers, the parish priest or visiting priests.

Gill has found acceptance in her present parish and helps with a number of parish initiatives while also actively participating in her own, Anglican, parish.

‘Most people seem surprised to find that I am not a Catholic,’ she says. For David the frustration is in the fact that he feels ready to move on. He feels that the time is right for the Church to remove some of the obstacles to sharing Communion between faiths. But he has been knocked back by official Church statements contradicting this sense of timeliness.

He says there is nothing to stop the different faiths getting together and he would like to see more interchurch discussion about the obstacles. Couples have been waiting some 15 years for some movement on this.

When they first talked of marriage, they reached a mutual agreement that David would remain Catholic and Gill would remain Anglican, with the children being brought up as Catholics.

David says it has taken a long time for him to feel comfortable in any non-Catholic Church, due to early Catholic instruction, and to arrive at a point where he wants to learn about Gill’s faith and hear about how she feels about it.

Gill thinks every non-Catholic married to a practising Catholic has found it extremely painful not to be able receive Eucharist. She also feels pain that David isn’t free to receive Eucharist, in an Anglican Church, even though it is offered, although he is welcome to have a blessing.

Eleanor and Peter’s story

For Eleanor and Peter the exclusion from the Eucharist was more painful because it took place in the relatively small confines of the choir loft at their local church.

A minister of the Eucharist would take Communion to the choir members in the loft but Peter, being Anglican, had to miss out.

When they were married, Eleanor did not want a nuptial Mass because Peter would not be able to receive Communion but it took the family a while to get used to the idea of not having one.

For the children’s baptisms Peter and Eleanor mixed the two traditions and an Anglican clergyman took part in the ceremonies alongside the Catholic priest. The challenge of honouring both traditions will present itself again soon when their eldest child becomes eligible to make his first Holy Communion.

Currently Eleanor and Peter go to different churches but their big dream would be to worship as a family and be able to receive communion in the same rite.

‘It is very easy to feel alone and that you are the only one dealing with this,’ Eleanor says.

But the InterChurch Families group has given them a sense that they are not as isolated as they feel.

Lynette and Paul’s story

When it comes to Communion time, the fact that other Christians are not included makes it feel very divisive and isolating.

Lynette prefers to stay in the pew rather than go up for a blessing because she feels it is second rate.

Lynette has been worshipping in the Catholic Church with her husband Paul and their children since the family moved to Wellington several years ago.

She has sat in on children’s liturgy, particularly when her younger child needed her support and she has taught in Catholic schools.

Lynette and Paul celebrated their wedding 11 years ago in the Oamaru Presbyterian church. It was a wonderful example of how the churches can be unified.

Lynette’s minister and Paul’s uncle who is a Catholic priest, shared the wedding service equally.

The only difference was when Fr Paul read the gospel and asked everyone to stand, which is not usual in the Presbyterian tradition.The issue of whether the children should have godparents has become a thorny one for Lynette and Paul. With the older two children, now seven and five, they followed the Presbyterian tradition of not having godparents, but with a different priest about to baptise their third baby the issue of whether to have godparents has arisen again.

While Lynette agreed to have the children baptised into the catholic faith, it was not without a lot of questioning and soul-searching.

‘I guess not having godparents was a small concession towards my tradition.’ Lynette’s mother was a staunch Presbyterian, taking Lynette and her siblings to weekly Sunday worship.

Lynette says the younger children would remain in the main part of the church for the first 20 minutes of the service then go to Sunday school.

There would also be a regular family service pitched at the children’s level.

The older children went to bible class.

Lynette says her family had no problem accepting her marriage to Paul but there was some concern that Lynette might have to turn her back on her Presbyterian upbringing.