This word may cause shock and fear to some who hear it. Others may not even know what it means. To many there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the word and the issues it represents. The word excommunication, from the Orthodox Christian perspective, means to be excluded from communion. As many know, this most certainly refers to all non-Orthodox Christians and non-Christians. Last month’s article explained the reasons for this.
However, many do not know that even Orthodox Christians can be excluded from Holy Communion. The canons of the Church enumerate hundreds of circumstances (various types of sins) and appropriate penances which can exclude someone from communion. Often times, the excommunication is for a certain period of time (weeks, months, or years) but usually is ended when the person fulfills the penance and appropriately repents through confession and subsequent change of life.
In parish practice, since many people do not come for confession and live rather private lives, the ability for the priest to administer penances such as excommunication is greatly hindered. Generally speaking, penances are not followed strictly but are interpreted pastorally by each priest to each person's unique circumstances. However, some penances for excommunication are still followed quite strictly, especially relating to marriage.
For example, an Orthodox Christian who marries in a non-Orthodox Church is automatically excommunicated until the marriage is blessed in the Orthodox Church. With separation and divorce, spouses are usually excluded from communion until they reconcile with one another or they receive an ecclesiastical divorce from the diocese. An Orthodox Christian co-habitating without a proper marriage ceremony also is excommunicated.
Some say excommunication is too severe a punishment. However, it is not done for punishment sake. It is not done to embarrass or humiliate the penitent. It is done as a spiritual discipline to call the person to an awareness of their broken state of sin and motivate them to properly repent and reconcile to those trespassed against as well as reconcile to the Church.
In our community, if the priest becomes aware of a situation that may be grounds for excommunication, he will most certainly attempt to personally contact you. This will be done to encourage repentance through confession and other means. It will also be done to let you know if you should not receive communion and for how long. If you have been excommunicated, please do not force the issue by approaching the chalice during Liturgy. The priest will have no choice but to refuse you communion. If you have any doubts about your preparedness to receive communion, please contact the priest. He will be happy to counsel and advise you. This is the traditional Orthodox Christian practice. God bless all of you!