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Our readers asked:

What exactly is the difference between Catholic and Lutheran belief in communion? They sound pretty alike to me.

Fr. Joe Answers:

You are correct in sensing that there is more unity than difference in the way Catholics and Lutherans understand and celebrate communion. In fact, since the second Vatican Council there has been a “coming together” of these different Christian Churches with respect to communion. The Catholic Eucharist (Mass) is now celebrated in the language of the local community rather than in Latin. The communal celebration of the Mass is much preferred to the private celebration by a priest that was common before Vatican II. And Catholics have restored the ancient practice of communion under the forms of both bread and wine.

In dialogues between Lutheran and Catholic theologians in 1968, Lutherans agreed that the celebration of the Eucharist involves a sacrifice of praise and self-offering that unites the believer with the sacrifice of Christ. At the same time, Catholics joined Lutherans in affirming that the sacrifice of the cross was a unique, one time event that is not “repeated” in the celebration of the Eucharist. Both Lutherans and Catholics affirmed that in the Eucharist Christ is “present wholly and entirely, in his body and blood, under the signs of bread and wine.” This “presence” of Christ in the Eucharist is more than a commemoration, it is an “effective sign” which “communicates what it promises” (“Building Unity”: Ecumenical Series IV, editors Burges and Gros: Paulist Press, 1989).

There remain some differences between Catholics and Lutherans with respect to communion. Some are matters of vocabulary. Each Church forms a kind of culture with its own vocabulary and terminology. For example, Lutherans will refer to communion as “The Lord’s Supper” while Catholics prefer “Eucharist” or “Mass.” A shared vocabulary helps a group feel comfortable and “at home.” Sometimes differences in vocabulary make it seem that there are differences in meaning where none in fact exist. It’s very important to learn and attempt to understand the vocabulary of another Church in order to have a meaningful conversation.

True differences in belief and practice also remain. While both Lutherans and Catholics will bring communion from the Church to members of the community who are sick, Catholics maintain the practice of reserving the communion bread in the tabernacle which becomes a place of prayer and devotion. Lutherans do not hold the same belief that the presence of Christ continues in the bread and wine after the time and place of the celebration of the Eucharist.

Lutherans would also question the Catholic practice of offering Mass for the intentions of those who have died. While Lutherans believe in the value of offering prayers for those who have died, they would have reservations regarding Catholic belief that the Eucharist is effective as an “atoning sacrifice” for those who have died.

Catholics hold to the term “transubstantiation” to describe the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. They borrow terms from the philosophy of Aristotle to express the belief that during the Eucharist the substance of bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents of bread and wine (what they look, feel and taste like) remain the same as they were before. Lutherans prefer to avoid the term transubstantiation and use other terms to describe their belief in the full reality of Christ’s presence.

Since I am not Lutheran, I may not have done full justice to the Lutheran position on the Eucharist, and would welcome any corrections from those who know more. But I feel certain that there is much more agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on this matter than we often realize. I thank you for your most interesting question and hope this has helped to provide an answer.

The Author : Fr. Joe
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, has been a campus minister, pastor and editor as a Paulist priest.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
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  • Joseph Godleski

    i am a member of a conservative lutheran church and i agree that their are many differences between catholics and lutherans i was raised in a independent old catnholic church so i retain many of the beliefs of my old catholic up bringing like prays to the saints and the virgin mary but i do not hold to prays for dead love one or holding services for them because i do not believe that prays for the dead change the outcome of where one spends eternity it is faith through grace that saves not by works least any man boast the old catholic church teaches the ancient catholic fqith

    • guest

      well said joseph

    • Lewis Crise

      Mary and Joseph had sex and bore other children after the birth of Jesus. Be not deceived.

  • Dorothy

    This seems to be the most civilized discussion board I found, and the most centered on areas of tension between two groups where it should not exist.
    I was brought up within the Presbyterian church, within a Presbyterian/Methodist marriage. My childhood, especially the teen years, tested that faith severely. Married a Catholic (hard not to in Arizona, 1970′s). Priest did not show for final counseling session; later learned he was abusing altar boys and was sent away to ‘rehabilitate’. Yeah, right….Robert Trupia; this can be found on Google. He was not punished for years; he was PROMOTED. This really lessened what guilt feelings remained about steering my children toward the Lutheran church when their faith was wavering within the RC church. ELCA Lutheran, which is an important distinction. They had friends there, from school, and it was a good move. My daughter married recently; she and her spouse teach Sunday school, and have for several years. I can’t make the other ‘child’ a 200 pound teenager, go to church, but we have productive discussions at times that I would regard as ‘teachable moments.’ His comment to me recently was “Every week, the Message is the same!” Yes, Son, it is, and one day you will draw immense comfort in the unchanging love found in the Gospel… For myself, I have a husband who attends Mass on weekends, 4 or 5 different times and locations, and plays guitar. 28 years of support for his Navy career means I have developed strength of my own, and can think for myself (with God’s help). When my kids could not drive, I was transporting them to the ELCA church, and often staying for the service, yet still dashing back to the RC church for Mass, where I was in choir and on the list of reliable cantors. Messages from the RC pulpit became dull as dishwater because of hammering home political persuasion…so I drifted. It is not far to drift; these churches are less than a mile apart, distance-wise. It has taken YEARS for the husband to think that maybe the kids and I are not hell-bound…
    Within the last 2 years, in addition to Sunday ELCA service on Sunday, I began attending just the Spanish Mass on Saturday nights, which my husband leads. The Holy Spirit is definitely present for me during this time, even though I can’t understand the homily 100%—I sing in the small choir (seldom more than 5 other people!) I also hit that tambourine as appropriate; the previous priest liked ‘joyful noise’. I have woven myself inextricably into the ELCA congregation: choir, quilt making, community dinner once a week, choir music, and spirit-led music compositions independent of choir…I see myself as having not burned any bridges; on the contrary, I utilize the bridge on a regular basis. The ELCA congregation owns wilderness property that needed clearing of trees, which my husband, RC men and ELCA men together have done, providing firewood to those who are in need. The RC church had a priest for 12 years who was beloved by about 50% of the congregation, and either merely tolerated or actively disliked by the other half. I stopped taking communion with the RC church at some point because I didn’t want that priest (or myself, for that matter) to have to defend it…he had enough on his plate. I liked the man, and whenever people groused about him, I said the priest who arrived 12 years ago was not the same one of Today: he has grown as a person, and did his best, including taking on that Spanish Mass when he never thought that would become an issue in his career, based upon Location. That priest moved on; it was Time—he hopes to retire in this area. So: when the New priest distributes communion to the Spanish Mass choir, it is very obvious when the last person in a small group does not partake. He priest gave me quizzical looks the first few weeks, and for some reason I am not as content as before to be the Choir’s ‘bump on a log’. Nor does crossing arms across chest every single week seem right, deep in my soul. Yet I still have no desire to cause a single problem for the priest, who is off to such a good start with everyone I speak to. I summarized my ‘faith journey’ in a letter, to explain the lack of RC communion participation, and then spoke directly to the priest soon thereafter. All I am after is a comfortable ‘meeting of the minds’, realizing what he can offer may be limited by the fact that he has to answer about some matters both to God and ‘supervisors’. He said he’d speak with me a week from now, same time, same station, which means he’s giving he matter serious thought, and may well have to confer with someone. His willingness to do that means enough that whatever he decides is OK by me; at least it’s ‘out in the open’ vs. being a source of anxiety for me. Perhaps this has been part of the small pebble that creates the pearl in the oyster; in any event, Time will tell. Long Post; Sorry… “it’s Complicated.”

    • Dorothy

      Me again. I am not surprised: being utterly honest means I do not really ‘qualify’ to receive communion within the RC church whilst also receiving it from ELCA. Yet he didn’t come right out and say so; he offered either a blessing at communion time, or a prayer and a blessing after Mass, if that is easier or better. It is probably the best he can offer, so that is OK. At least he will understand what’s what with me. Even so, considering Martin Luther was a Catholic and the two churches are more alike than different, especially in regards to how we view communion, it is, emotionally, still a hard truth to take. It may be also that a priest, who loves Catholicism enough to sacrifice for it, can’t fathom anyone leaving only halfway, or existing in more than one ‘comfort zone.’ Perhaps he thinks if I feel uncomfortable with the status quo, I will return 100%. I experienced spiritual growth and benefit from both houses of worship. If you put a frog in a pot of water, and turn on the heat, the saying goes, the frog won’t hop out; it will adjust to the rising temperature and not leap out. Maybe I am that frog…although Wings of an Eagle sounds far more appealing.

      • Dorothy

        Vatican Radio has a website. Within that website, there is an article and an audio clip concerning a joint document from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission on Unity. It addresses JOINT responsibility for the division of the Western Church in the 16th century, and healing. The document is called “From Conflict to Communion’ and can be read and/or printed online, or a sturdy copy can be bought via Barnes and Noble and other sources. Anyone who prefers harmony to animosity can read it for themselves. I bought two copies.

    • Dean

      I really started to understand your feelings but…. “200 pound teenager” really? ‘Our’ lord created this teenager, are you mocking his creation??

      • Dorothy

        He’s also very tall. Why wouid I mock my own son?

  • Paul

    On a non-related note, I think there should be a faster route for adults interested in the Catholic faith who are coming from a very similar Christian denomination like Lutheranism or Anglicanism. Where I went through RCIA, it was 7 months, and basically it felt like I was sitting in 8th grade confirmation all over again. Not that RCIA wasn’t a good experience, but it seems strange that a lifelong Lutheran or Anglican has to go through the same catechesis as a former Jew, Muslim, or atheist. Frankly, the Catholic Church can ill afford to dissuade willing people from joining her flock.

  • Paul

    I was raised Lutheran (ELCA) and came to the Catholic faith in my young adult life (not long ago). I was astounded by many of the liturgical similarities (our church actually did call it “Eucharist” rather than “Lord’s Supper”. The sad thing, however, is when I invite my family to accompany me to Mass, it’s awkward when they’re unable to partake in communion, given they believe in the real presence of Christ, just like us Catholics. It seems like the differences are a matter of semantics, and that our principles surrounding the Eucharist are the same.

  • Nathan

    Having been a Lutheran all my life (son of a pastor), I wish to state very clearly that we do not see any value whatsoever in praying *for* the dead – they are dead, and nothing can change whatever faith they did or did not have while living. If they are saved, they are saved by God’s grace through their faith in Christ Jesus their savior. No one can believe for anyone else, nor is it possible for any of us to “buy off” the sins of those who have died or to expect that they can come to saving faith after death. We do believe in praying for those who are still alive, and especially remember in our prayers the family, friends, loved ones of those who died, that they may be helped in their grief (and as needed, come to saving faith prior to their own death).

    I wish Fr. Joe would fix his statement “While Lutherans believe in the value of offering prayers for those who have died…” as it mis-represents Lutheran beliefs.

    • LutherCatholic

      The Apology to the Augsburg Confession states, “Now, as regards the adversaries’ citing the Fathers concerning the offering for the dead, we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the dead.” Prayer for the dead are not forbidden and are practiced, though not commonly.

    • Alex976

      Also, God and therefore the hearing of our prayers are not bound by time. Time is a physical characteristic of this world only, and I doubt that praying for someone before they die or after they die in this world can make any difference to their validity in the spiritual realm of the Kingdom.

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