Pope Francis recently publicly excommunicated members of the Mafia from the Catholic Church, saying they had an "adoration of evil" and "contempt of the common good." Although unofficial, this was the strongest condemnation of the Mafia issued by the Vatican. This week, clergy from various faiths discuss this serious religious process and explain how someone can have an excommunication reversed.
The Rev. Tom Edamattam, priest-in-residence, The Church of St. Patrick, Huntington:
Excommunication is separation from the church, not from God. No one can separate you from God. It also doesn't mean you can't go into a Catholic church. Anyone can come into a church and pray or listen to the service. It doesn't mean you are no longer a Catholic. If you were baptized a Catholic, you are a Catholic. Someone who is excommunicated cannot receive the Sacraments. Excommunication can be a public process, like the Pope did with the Mafia, or it can be private.
And, if your excommunication ends, it can be a public or a private process. If a person changes or reforms his or her life, he or she can be taken back into the church, absolutely. Once your reason for excommunication from the church changes, you come to the priest and he takes care of it. God is a God of forgiveness. Once a person repents, he is forgiven, and the excommunication is taken away. If you are excommunicated, it is usually done by the bishop or higher. To be excommunicated is very, very rare. I have never done one.
The Rev. Kit Robison, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Baldwin:
Lutherans do have a process of excommunication, or removing you from the church. We are not excommunicating the person from God. Only God can do that. We simply are saying that your behavior or faith is so far outside the church and its teachings that we cannot maintain the relationship.
I think that is what the Pope is saying in relation to members of the Mafia. Perhaps whatever you are doing is so blatant that we cannot condone it. Murdering people is definitely one of those things that the church could not condone.
If the person is repentant, he or she could be restored to the church. You would have to come back and ask to be restored. There would be an ecclesiastical process according to church law. The person's faith would be examined to make sure he or she was living a life that is consistent with the teachings of the church. As Lutherans, we believe in grace, understand that we all have fallen and that we get things wrong. There is room for forgiveness.
Again, excommunication is an uncommon process. I don't personally know anyone who has been excommunicated from the Lutheran Church.
The Rev. Michael Ralph, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Westhampton Beach:
Excommunication is not a term one usually hears in the Episcopal Church. In very rare cases, a priest may withhold communion from someone due to a "notorious sin." A notorious sin would be a particularly egregious transgression against someone or something wherein the person displays no outward signs of repentance. Again, it is something that is extraordinarily rare and would only be done in conjunction with the bishop's office. It certainly is something that in my 10 years as a clergy I have never done.
Communion is a form of grace, an avenue to God. To withhold communion is a huge thing. You are being denied that opportunity at grace, that particular access to God.
Would someone be refused communion forever? No, you could come and confess and attempt to make reconciliation and again be given communion, again be allowed that particular avenue of grace. We, as Christians, always hold out the hope of God's grace. We would hope that reconciliation would occur despite that notorious sin. You might come to the priest for individual confession and godly advice. We have corporate confession every Sunday during Mass, but this would be a private confession. You would have to be truly repentant and the priest would likely give you some advice on what you can do to once again be closer to God.
Being separated from the body of Christ, the church community, is a very big deal. If I had to do that, to separate someone from the church community would be so painful for me. I think I would weep for the person.