Life between Catholic and Episcopal churches
My parish is a short drive from the house. Every Sunday I see the same people at 8:30 a.m.: the older couples whose children are grown, the many young families with their children, the teenagers who came with their parents but who would rather be in bed. This is the Mass I almost always attend alone. There are a few others who are also alone, though not many.
I serve as an acolyte twice a month, and on these Sundays I sit up at the front beside the priest. On other Sundays, I sit near the front of the church with a family I know. Apart from them, I know the director of music and worship, the deacons and the priests. Others in the parish are mainly just familiar faces, although they are the people with whom I take Communion each and every week.
At the end of Mass, I drive home to pick up my wife, Kim, and our three boys for the 10 a.m. liturgy at the Episcopal parish we attend as a family. Like my Catholic parish, this church is thriving, filled with young and old from a variety of backgrounds. There are cradle Episcopalians, ex-evangelicals who found life in the beauty of Episcopal liturgy and disaffected Roman Catholics. Because this is my family’s parish, I know these parishioners more deeply than the ones at my Catholic parish. My children play with their children, and our families regularly hang out together. During the liturgy I sit with Kim and my oldest son while his two brothers are downstairs for Sunday school. When it comes time for the Communion, we process to the altar rail where my wife and my son take Communion together. I cross my arms and am blessed by the priest. Apart from a few children, I’m the only person who does this.
We became an interchurch family on Pentecost 2007. On that day, after a long period of personal and familial discernment, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This was not an easy step to take. Up until that point, Kim and I were active members of the Anglican Church of Canada. In 2005, our first son was baptized in our Anglican parish, and as a lay reader commissioned by the bishop to preach, I was honored to give the homily. We loved our parish, and I loved the liturgical beauty of Anglicanism, as well as the richness and depth of its theological tradition.
The problem was that I had ceased to identify with the Anglican tradition. In the years before my reception into the Roman Catholic Church, I gradually came to the realization that I was theologically, sacramentally, spiritually Roman Catholic. I thought for a while that I could remain part of the Anglican Church despite my leanings, but I found that this introduced an often intolerable tension between who I was inwardly and who I was outwardly. I longed to be in body what I already was in spirit.
The difficulty was that Kim did not, and she still doesn’t feel any need to be anything other than what she is—a Christian in the Anglican tradition. For me to cross the Tiber would be to introduce an ecclesial disunion into our family that neither Kim nor I were sure we wanted. Yet Kim demonstrated unwavering understanding and love during this time of discernment, and we finally agreed that I should become a Roman Catholic, even if the rest of the family, including our three sons, remained Anglican. Practically speaking, this meant that I would become a Roman Catholic while still continuing to participate with my family in worship at their parish, and that they would participate monthly with me at my parish.
I don’t mind attending church twice each Sunday. Nor do I mind belonging—albeit in different ways—to two communities of faith. When we moved to Louisville, our family found an Episcopal parish that has welcomed us, though some of its members are confused about why I don’t take Communion, and I found a Roman Catholic parish that has been similarly welcoming.
But neither Kim nor I anticipated just how complicated and painful our situation would be. We both knew that my transition to Rome would put us in two different communions, but it was another thing entirely to experience this separation. And as our oldest child grew old enough to take Communion, a whole new level of complexity set in.
We want our children to be exposed to the fullness of the truth, goodness and beauty of each of our traditions, but this raises practical questions with no clear answers. Where should first Communion and confirmation take place for our children? Can they experience these sacraments in both traditions? Can our children participate in the sacramental life of the Roman Catholic Church in a way that still honors and respects their roots in the Anglican tradition, but also allows them to experience what it means to be Roman Catholic?
I strive to teach them about my faith, but don’t want such teaching to be mere catechesis. Kim and I want to give them a full immersion into the Catholic faith, but it is hard to escape the feeling that my church prefers to keep them on the outside looking in until they’re fully willing to commit to Rome.
In 1981, St. John Paul II wrote that the growth of marriages between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians “calls for special pastoral attention” (“FamiliarisConsortio,” No.78). The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, provided significant progress by opening the door to the possibility of eucharistic sharing between interchurch couples. Although the directory emphasizes that such sharing “can only be exceptional,” the possibility of exceptions encouraged pastoral responses that went beyond rigid interpretations of canon law. Still, problems remain.
The ecumenical directory contains little guidance for eucharistic sharing for children in interchurch families, and this continues to be an acute pastoral need. Moreover, because there is not widespread familiarity with this directory, pastoral responses at the local level to interchurch families lack uniformity.
Those of us who were hoping that last October’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family would address more clearly the pastoral issues facing interchurch families, particularly in terms of intercommunion, were disappointed. The one reference to “mixed marriages” warned that people in such marriages are in “danger of relativism and indifference,” and only then mentioned that they might have something to contribute ecumenically.
What is needed is a church that is willing to envision pastoral responses to interchurch families that move beyond the tired narrative that the choice is necessarily between a narrow reading of canon law and indifferentism. Neither of these options adequately addresses the communion that exists in my family and in families like mine. What we had prior to my conversion, we continue to have—a shared devotion to Christ and his church, a shared desire to raise our children to love the God who is love and a shared experience of prayer and worship.
Moreover, we strive as a family to be a mirror of the Trinitarian communion of persons, to model in our relationships the generous love whereby the persons of the Trinity share themselves so profoundly that multiplicity becomes unity. To cite the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” the family is the “domestic church,” and in the domestic church that is my family, we experience and foster a profound communion of persons. It is a communion in which the clear differences that exist between our traditions are acknowledged and experienced, in which the ecclesial lines separating our traditions are not blurred but transcended.
It seems to me that families like mine are a tremendous gift to the church. We experience the unity for which Jesus prayed and therefore have something worthwhile to contribute to the church’s ongoing ecumenical dialogue. To open the door to eucharistic sharing among those who experience a profound communion of persons in interchurch families acknowledges that such communion truly exists, and would provide a foretaste of the unity toward which we as Christians, and as Roman Catholics, strive.
The coming meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family has many issues to discuss, a few of which will understandably dominate the conversation. However important these issues are, the synod needs also to acknowledge more thoroughly and positively than it did last October the gifts of interchurch families and to make more widely known and understood the pastoral opportunities for intercommunion between couples and families. More than this, I hope that the upcoming synod will recognize that the communion of persons that exists in families like mine, as well as the depth of our belief and practice, would be supported and nourished through common participation in the Eucharist. For families like mine long to be in body what we already are in spirit.