Lutherans receive Holy Communion at the Vatican despite ban on intercommunion

Pope Francis arrives to lead the weekly audience in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican, when he spoke about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.Max Rossi/Reuters

A group of Lutherans have received Holy Communion at the Vatican after meeting Pope Francis, according to reports coming out of Rome.

The Lutherans from Finland, led by Bishop Samuel Salmi of Oulu, indicated by the traditional method of crossing their arms over their chests that they should not be offered the sacrament at Mass in the Basilica. But the priests went ahead and gave it to them regardless, Edward Pentin in Rome reported for NCRegister.

A youth choir from Finland also sang at the Mass.

The report first emerged via the Finnish Finnish news agency Kotimaa, in Estonian.

"Catholics shared the Eucharist. I also got to be part of it," said Bishop Salmi, who made it clear the Catholic priests had known who the Lutherans were so they had not been invited to partake by mistake. He also spoke of the Pope's opponents who oppose any move towards relaxing the rules on who can receive Communion.

Bishop Salmi has previously challenged Catholic tradition. In 2011 he argued for gay people to have "full rights" in the Lutheran Church.

The Mass took place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, being celebrated this week by churches around the world. In his address at his weekly audience, Pope Francis referred to these celebrations and said: "This Week of Prayer invites us to reflect on, and bear witness to, our unity in Christ as God's People. All the baptised, reborn to new life in Christ, are brothers and sisters, despite our divisions. Through Baptism we have been charged, as Saint Peter tells us, 'to proclaim the mighty works of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.' During this Week of Prayer, let us ask the Lord to help all Christians to grow in that unity which is greater than what divides us. Together, may we respond to his call to share with others, especially with the poor and forgotten of our world, the gift of divine mercy which we ourselves have received."

The Pope said last year a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic should "talk to the Lord" before receiving Holy Communion. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later countered suggestions that this meant the Pope approved of intercommunion with Lutherans. 

Under Canon 844 of the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, the Eucharist is to be given to Catholics in a state of grace. Non-Catholics who request Communion and are from Churches approved by the Catholic Church as holding the same faith on the Eucharist, such as the Orthodox, are allowed to receive. Lutherans, along with members of the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion, are not in this group because they do not as a Church believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

In 2003, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, at the time a member of the Church of England, received Communion from Pope John Paul II in Rome. Also in 2003, Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical Ecclesia De Eucharistia: "While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full Communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established."

After leaving Downing Street, Blair converted to Catholicism, uniting the family in one Church. His wife Cherie is a cradle Catholic and their children have been raised Catholic.