Updated: Nov 8
What does “communion” mean?
From a Catholic sense, this should be obvious. Communion is the Eucharist. But I think this often gets reduced to a more particular understanding of the word. For example, to “receive communion” does not simply mean to consume the Eucharistic elements. It means to enter into communion with the Mystical Body. It means to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, which in turn unites us all to our fellow Catholics to bind the unity of the Church together. Sacramental communion in the Eucharist generates ecclesial communion in the Church. One cannot be without the other. Communion means the Eucharist, or it means nothing.
As Pope Benedict XVI said:
“[T]he one bread makes us into one body; the Church is simply that unity created by eucharistic Communion, the unity of the many in and through the one Christ.”
The Church would have no unity if not for the Eucharist, and the Eucharist would have no unity if it were a series of individual consecrations apart from each other. We have to remember that the Church comes forth from the Eucharist, and not the other way around. It began with one (Christ), passed down to the many (the apostles and their successors). If the Church were constituted from individual celebrations that mutually agreed to be in harmony with each other, the Eucharist has no purpose, because then the Church is constructed from the ground up, not generated from the top down.
To again cite Pope Benedict XVI:
“It is true that the many celebrations in which the one Eucharist will be realized also point ahead to the multiformity of the one Body. Nevertheless, it is clear that these many celebrations cannot stand side by side as autonomous, mutually independent entities but are always simply the presence of one and the same mystery.”
“[O]ne cannot benefit from the "blood shed for many" by withdrawing to the "few". [T]he Eucharist is public; it is the Eucharist of the whole Church, of the one Christ. Therefore no one may rightfully pick out "his own" Eucharist.”
What does it mean, then, to not be in communion, or to refuse communion? Again, this is simple: it means a refusal to celebrate the Eucharist, or a refusal to worship as a cohesive whole. It means to celebrate the Eucharist on one’s own terms, separate from the Church, twisting the sacrament of unity into one of exclusivity. It means to set oneself apart from the rest of the Church and celebrate the Eucharist alone. This is manifested in what the Church fathers and historical tradition refer to as “rival altars”; setting up an altar opposed to the lawfully erected one, and celebrating the Eucharist in opposition to another.
I would like to present a collection of citations, both from the early church and from later figures, to demonstrate this, and to show that the Church has always understood rival altars and a separate Eucharist to be a sign of schism.
Council of Carthage: “[I]f by chance any presbyter when corrected by his bishop, inflamed by self-conceit or pride, has thought fit to offer sacrifices to God separately [from the authority of the bishop] or has believed it right to erect another altar, contrary to ecclesiastical faith and discipline, such should not get off with impunity.”
Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII: “If any presbyter despises his own bishop, and assembles separately, and fixes another altar, when he has nothing to condemn in his bishop either as to piety or righteousness, let him be deprived as an ambitious person; for he is a tyrant, and the rest of the clergy, whoever join themselves to him.”
St Gregory of Nyssa: Letter 17: “And what means this opposing array of new Altars? Do we announce another Jesus? Do we hint at another? Do we produce other scriptures? [...] What charge like these can be brought against us, that our company should be reckoned a thing to be avoided, and that in some places another altar should be erected in opposition to us, as if we should defile their sanctuaries?"
St Cyprian of Carthage
On the Unity of the Church: “An enemy of the altar, a rebel against Christ's sacrifice, for the faith faithless, for religion profane, a disobedient servant, an impious son, a hostile brother, despising the bishops, and forsaking God's priests, he dares to set up another altar, to make another prayer with unauthorized words, to profane the truth of the Lord's offering by false sacrifices[.]”
Epistle 39: “There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. Another altar cannot be constituted nor a new priesthood be made, except the one altar and the one priesthood. Whosoever gathers elsewhere, scatters. Whatsoever is appointed by human madness, so that the divine disposition is violated, is adulterous, is impious, is sacrilegious.”
Epistle 72: "Because Novatian also usurps the honour of the priestly throne, ought we therefore to renounce our throne? Or because Novatian endeavours wrongfully to set up an altar and to offer sacrifices, does it behoove us to cease from our altar and sacrifices, lest we should appear to be celebrating the same or like things with him?"
“...whom they with impious wickedness set up against Cæcilianus, raising one altar against another, and rending with infatuated contentiousness the unity of Christ…”
“What we dislike in that party is not their bearing with those who are wicked, but their intolerable wickedness in the matter of schism, of raising altar against altar, and of separation from the heritage of Christ now spread, as was so long ago promised, throughout the world.”
“And if they attempted there to bring a charge against [Cæcilianus], then he would compear for himself, and defend his innocence against all their plots, as you have learned that he afterwards did, when they, already guilty of schism, and stained with the atrocious crime of having actually reared their rival altar, applied — but too late — for the decision of the Church beyond the sea.”
Letter 76: “For some of your predecessors, in whose impious schism you obstinately remain, [...] then set up a bishop against the ordained bishop, and erected an altar against the altar already recognised.”
Letter to Petilian the Donatist: “Therefore, for the sake of those who pretend that they do not see the evils of this same faction of Donatus…they openly sever themselves; they openly erect altar against altar…”
On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book II: "[W]hy, therefore, have ye broken the bond of peace? Choose which alternative you will, you are compelled to pronounce an opinion against your schism. Answer me, wherefore have ye separated yourselves? Wherefore have ye erected an altar in opposition to the whole world?"
St Ignatius of Antioch:
To the Philadelphians: “Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop[.]”
To the Ephesians: “He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”
"...obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality..."
To the Magnesians: "[B]eing come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one."
Canon 2: “[I]t is unlawful [...] to assemble in private houses and pray with those who do not pray in the Church; or to receive in one Church those who do not assemble with another Church."
Canon 5: "If any presbyter or deacon, despising this own bishop, has separated himself from the Church, and gathered a private assembly, and set up an altar; and if, when summoned by his bishop, he shall refuse to be persuaded and will not obey, even though he summon him a first and a second time, let such an one be wholly deposed and have no further remedy, neither be capable of regaining his rank."
St Irenaeus: Against Heresies (Book IV, Chapter 26): “But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive [apostolic] succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] [...] as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory.”
St Francis de Sales: The Catholic Controversy: “Witness all the Prophets, who never set up altar against altar, never overthrew the priesthood of Aaron, never abolished the constitutions of the Synagogue. Witness Our Lord, who declares that every kingdom divided against itself shall be brought to desolation, and a house upon a house shall fall (Luke xi. 17)."
Rev Lawrence Sheil, The Bible Against Protestantism and for Catholicity, p 275: "...God, by a superabundant effusion of his holy grace, has been pleased, from time to time, to render these and many other such persons proper instruments of his mercies for the conversion of sinners, and to repair the gradual decays of Christian morality[.] But did any of these persons separate themselves from the communion of their mother Church? Did any of them set up altar against altar, church against church, or rebel against their lawful superiors under pretence of an extraordinary vocation to the ministry? On the contrary, they did everything according to the canons of the Church, and their mission was conveyed to them by the ordinary channel."
I will conclude with a final citation from Pope Benedict XVI that summarizes the Church’s understanding of this.
“Anyone who does not celebrate the Eucharist with everyone is merely creating a caricature of it. The Eucharist is celebrated with the one Christ, and thus with the whole Church, or it is not being celebrated at all. Anyone who is only looking for his own group or clique in the Eucharist [...] is, so to say, sitting down with his back to the others and is thus annihilating the Eucharist for himself and spoiling it for the others. He is then just holding his own meal and is despising the Churches of God.”
Communion is not a juridical delineation, or something that can be achieved by fulfilling specified criteria. A priest can in no way claim to be in communion with the Church if he celebrates a rival Eucharist at a rival altar, refusing to worship with even those who celebrate according to the same liturgical books as him. Pronouncing the local bishop’s name at the prescribed time in the canon means nothing if this priest is offering Christ to the Father in opposition to that bishop’s wishes, and without his permission. The sacrament of unity cannot be pitted against itself; this is a contradiction. One Eucharist cannot be offered in opposition to another. “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:13) “In the Eucharist I can never demand communion with Jesus alone. He has given himself a Body. Whoever receives him in Communion necessarily communicates with all his brothers and sisters who have become members of the one Body."
 Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 2005), 104
 Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 1996), 29
 Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 78-79
 Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 106
 Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 82