In October a eucharistic minister at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Evanston, Illinois, crossed her arms over her chest to request a blessing rather than receive Communion. I was that minister, and my decision was a spur-of-the-moment response to the presence of a Lutheran pastor who had joined us in our very first commemoration of Reformation Sunday. If she could not receive the body and blood of Christ, neither would I.
The decision was spontaneous, but the thinking that led naturally to it was not. Since our marriage, my Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor husband and I have been on a thirty-five-year ecumenical journey that has yielded great richness—religious life in stereo, we like to call it—and much hope.
Some of the hopeful moments have included the covenant struck between the Metropolitan Chicago Synod and the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1989 and renewed with great pomp on this past October 31, the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Even more meaningful to us was the eighteen-month process of gathering with all the ELCA and Roman Catholic faith communities in Evanston to pray, discuss history and theology, bust myths, serve the community, partake in hymns and beer, and most importantly to create our own blueprint for ongoing collaboration, covenanted with the blessing of our bishops on Reformation Sunday.
Our ecumenical marriage has also contained many moments of pain. Some of them have come from the Lutheran side, as when my husband’s candidacy committee threatened not to approve him for ordination because they believed a Catholic wife could not adequately support a Lutheran pastor in his congregational work.
But the overwhelming majority have come from the Catholic side, and the overwhelming majority of these have to do with the Eucharist. Quite simply, Catholic teaching forbids us to receive the Eucharist together. And this particular pain surprised my husband and me by intensifying, rather than abating, during the crescendo of ecumenical progress and hopefulness that led up to Reformation Day, 2017.
ELCA Lutherans and Catholics agree that the Eucharist is a sacrament. We agree that it is both a remembrance and memorial of Jesus’s death and a moment of Christ’s Real Presence in bread and wine. Although the documents of agreement have not yet been edited to reflect this, Pope Francis himself has made clear that the Eucharist is food for sinners, not a reward for spiritual perfection, another important point of convergence with Lutheran eucharistic theology. Catholics and Lutherans alike insist that only a validly ordained member of the clergy may celebrate the Eucharist.