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What does it really mean to be ‘in communion’?

The following article was written by Anthony Gooley, a deacon of the Archdiocese of Brisbane who has a particular interest and expertise in the theology and spirituality of communion. In particular he is focused on communion in relation to the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Churches on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome for his PhD studies:


There has been so much talk about St Mary’s, South Brisbane, and the action which the Archbishop had to take in removing Fr Peter Kennedy from the role of administrator and in the midst of all that talk a lot has been said about a lot of things, but little about the central issue.

The central issue is about discerning if a community is in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Ecclesial communion is concerned with discerning that a community is in communion with the local church (diocese) and through it in communion with the worldwide Catholic Church.

In ecumenical discussions between different Christian churches we know that there is partial ecclesial communion but not full ecclesial communion.

We have partial communion with churches that share with us the Scriptures, belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour and as the Word incarnate born of the Virgin Mary and who worship God in Christ through the Spirit in Christ’s body, which is the Church.

There are many things which Christians share as signs of communion that exist between our different churches.

There are many differences which divide us too. Some of these differences concern the number of sacraments, who may be ordained, who has authority and how this authority is used within the Church and also the role of bishops and especially the role of the Bishop of Rome.

Within a single Christian Church, such as the Orthodox Churches, Salvation Army or Catholic Church, communities and individuals can recognise others who belong to their Church and are in full communion within their Church by various external signs or bonds of communion.

There are distinctive signs of the full communion by which Catholics recognise each other as being Catholic. Within the Catholic Church there are many different rites or Churches but I will focus on the Latin Rite, which is the most common one and the one to which Brisbane archdiocese belongs.

Ecclesial communion is not something one can claim for oneself by asserting that “I am in communion”.

Others, with whom you assert to be in communion, must acknowledge your claim because you are saying; “I am one of your community”. This community then is able to affirm your claim and say, “Yes we recognise you, we know you, you are one of us, part of our mob”.

An analogy can be made to claiming indigenous status. A person cannot claim to be indigenous and assert that claim unless there is a community which can recognise and accept the person making the assertion as part of their community. There must be a community which can say you are part of our mob and from our country.

Being in ecclesial communion is something we receive from our Church, it is an affirmation of our conviction that we belong and are indeed fully part of the communion of the Church. It is being recognised by others who see in the community signs of communion.

How do we know when a community is in communion?

Catholics can recognise a community is in communion with the Church by a number of signs or bonds of communion. When the same sacraments are celebrated according to the same liturgical books and the Mass is celebrated according to the same liturgical rites, we have one of the clearest signs of the communion of the Church.

Vatican II taught that the Church most clearly demonstrates what it is when it celebrates the Eucharist in union with its bishop. When all Catholics can be in a Catholic church in any diocese in the country or world and, even when they do not know the language, can feel at home in and recognise that this is the Mass, they have an experience of communion.

We know when a community is in communion when as Catholics we adhere to the letter and spirit of Vatican II.

Catholics believe that the highest teaching authority in the Church is a council. Communities should be guided by its teachings if they are in communion with the Church.

Some of the teachings include that the bishop regulates the celebration of the Mass and sacraments in his diocese, that when we celebrate liturgy the people, priests and deacons all have their own parts in the communion of worship which are distinct and complementary.

Essentially Catholics are in communion when they celebrate the same sacraments in the same way, hand on the teachings of the Church as received through Vatican II and other sources, are committed to social justice, ecumenical dialogue and recognise their local bishop as the visible focus of unity and communion with all other Catholic Churches.

Does it matter?

Yes, being in communion is essential. Unless a community can demonstrate these visible signs of communion (and I have only listed a few) then others cannot say I recognise you as being in communion.

It matters because through witnessing to the signs of communion we give witness to our unity in faith, sacraments and love. Even the words which we use in worship matter. In baptism the tradition of the Church has been to follow Jesus’ commandment to baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In 2004 the national covenant between a number of churches in Australia agreed that they would recognise each other’s baptisms provided that only the words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit are spoken and water is used.

Prior to this some churches did not recognise the baptisms of other churches as valid. The Catholic Church was one of the signatories to that covenant. If the Catholic Church permitted one or more of its communities to use other forms of baptism what would this say to our ecumenical partners about the truth of our words?

When others cannot recognise all of the signs of communion in another community that’s when division occurs.

This is the tragedy of Christian churches divided from one another which is contrary to the will of Christ.

The divisions between Christian communities could be resolved in a second if it only required a community saying; “We are in full communion with your community.”

But if that community continued to deny central beliefs and practices of the other community the other could hardly recognise the claim as legitimate.

Ecclesial communion requires reciprocal recognition and acceptance of common practices and beliefs as being the shared markers of communion. It is a contradiction to claim communion with another and believe and practice what the other will not recognise or accept.

Just as Holy Communion is received from another so too is ecclesial communion received from another. We receive Holy Communion from Christ’s Body the Church, when it gathers to celebrate Eucharist and we receive ecclesial communion from his Body the Church too.

Ecclesial communion is important because we do not create the Church ourselves. We are baptised into it and formed by it into an ecclesial person that is, a person in communion.

What is the role of a bishop?

Vatican II taught that the bishop is the Vicar of Christ to his local Church (diocese) and the visible sign of communion and unity. Those who profess the same faith as him and celebrate the same sacraments in the same way and who are on the same mission with him, working for justice and the unity of all Christians, are in communion with the whole local church.

We express our communion with one another in the local church through remaining in communion with our bishop.

Vatican II taught that the bishop is the visible sign of communion of all the local churches with each other and the worldwide Catholic Church. By keeping his community in visible communion in faith and sacraments the local bishop serves the communion of the whole Church.

Just like the rest of us the bishop does not invent the Church but receives his ecclesial being from it and is formed in faith by it.

It is because the bishop has the task of carrying on the ministry of the apostles in the Church that Vatican II taught that he should regulate the celebration of sacraments and guide the faith of the local church.

Catholics believe that we should recognise the role of the bishop in guiding the life of the local church and recognise his authority in these matters just as Vatican II urges us to do.

Vatican II taught that a bishop, on his own authority, is not permitted to change the way in which sacraments are celebrated, or to change the fundamental elements of Catholic doctrine and, if he were to permit this to happen in his diocese, that he would be negligent in exercising his apostolic ministry.

A Catholic bishop is first and foremost a baptised Catholic who receives the same faith and sacraments as every other Catholic.

In 1985, the Synod of Catholic Bishops met to reflect on the achievements of the Second Vatican Council. They noted, among other things, that the central teaching of the council concerned communion (communio in Latin or koinonia in Greek) and that communion was the key to understanding all of the documents of the council.

John XXIII hoped that the council would present the faith of the Church, as handed down through the ages in Scripture and Tradition, in a fresh way – that the council would bring out from the treasures of the faith things old and new and present them in a new light with new energy.

It affirmed all of the central teachings of the Church throughout the ages and did not invent any new ones. It did place renewed emphasis on some elements of Church teaching and practice, often older perspectives that had been lost or minimised.

Essentially the council was a call for a renewed commitment to ecclesial communion. It called all of us in the Church to greater fidelity to Scripture and the Tradition of the Church and to pursue the call to holiness with new vigour.

The council taught that greater fidelity would enable us to engage in ongoing renewal of the Church, to heal divisions among Christian communities and serve the world and point toward the Kingdom more effectively.

When we deepen the bonds of ecclesial communion, we give greater witness to the presence of Jesus in our midst and we are renewed for mission. We can only give witness to the bonds of ecclesial communion, as Catholics, by giving witness to common sacraments, common profession of faith and a common life in unity together with our bishop.

St Mary’s, South Brisbane, has never been threatened with closure, the Archbishop has removed Fr Peter Kennedy so that another priest may be able to lead the community that gathers there to express clearly all the signs of communion with the Archdiocese of Brisbane and through it communion with the worldwide Church.

Released by The Catholic Leader

March 22, 2009

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