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Friday, 10 July 2009

Holy Communion and Prime Ministers

Last week saw the funeral of Romeo LeBlanc, a politician and statesman who served as Governor General of Canada until 1999, and who died of Alzheimer's disease on 24 June. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended his funeral. First of all, let me encourage you to offer a prayer for the repose of the soul of Romeo LeBlanc, and a prayer for the Prime Minister in thanksgiving for his being good enough to participate in the funeral.

Unfortunately, the funeral has been overshadowed by controversy as shown in this clip:



The Prime Minister (a Protestant) is in the front row as Archbishop Andre Richard (Moncton, New Brunswick) administers Holy Communion (note to editors - this is not "the wafer" etc. Please show some respect for our "religious sensibilities.") He receives Holy Communion into one hand, rather as if he is accepting a little souvenir token. Given the way that Holy Communion is often distributed today, that is not an unreasonable interpretation of the visible rite for someone who is not of the household of the faith.

Rumours began that Harper had put the sacred host in his pocket but this was denied by his officials who said that he had consumed the host and I think it is reasonable to trust this account. Nevertheless, the incident raises some important questions for the Church as a whole.

First, the decision to receive Holy Communion should be just that - a decision. Holy Communion should not be administered in such a way that people have to "opt out" by folding their arms across their chest and asking for a blessing or whatever. It is a matter for discussion whether people should be invited to come up and ask for a blessing but the priest (or Bishop) should not walk along a row of people at a funeral where there will usually be various people of good will who turn up to show their respects. Catholics also should examine their conscience and consider "Should I receive Holy Communion today? Am I properly disposed (and free from any unconfessed mortal sin)? Have I kept the fast? Have I prepared spiritually?

We need to get away from the idea that participation at Holy Mass necessarily involves receiving Holy Communion. It is quite proper sometimes to participate at Mass and make a spiritual communion if we do not, at the moment, have the correct dispositions. This is not "Jansenism" but simply a proper attitude to the Blessed Sacrament.

Secondly, there needs to be some advice on protocol when high-profile public figures attend Mass on a major public occasion. Although I feel a little sorry for Prime Minister Harper who has unintentionally become embroiled in a public outcry whilst sincerely carrying out a corporal work of mercy, it is surely fair to point out that the officials who have defended him could have done some homework. So here are some pointers for officials attending Mass:
1. You may join in with the prayers as you wish, according to your conscience, or you may simply be present with your own thoughts and goodwill. We respect and value your presence for the occasion.
2. If you are not a practising Catholic, in a state of grace, and fasting for one hour beforehand, you should not receive Holy Communion. If you are mistakenly offered Holy Communion, it is perfectly proper to refuse and say "Please may I have a blessing" or, if you do not wish to receive a blessing, simply to say "I am not receiving "Holy Communion."
3. If you have voted for policies contrary to important teachings of the Catholic Church, (the liberalisation of abortion, for example) it would be proper to observe the advice in #2.
4. This guidance is offered in charity because failure to observe these points will possibly result in negative publicity which will undermine the quite proper positive public impact of your attendance.
For priests (and bishops) at funerals, it is important to remember the conscience of those attending. Some people may not wish to come up for a blessing but prefer to remain where they are, with their own thoughts and prayers. If you give a blessing to people at Holy Communion (I do this but am aware that the matter is under study at the CDW) then this should be something that people choose to do, not something imposed upon them. And certainly it is imprudent to go along a row of people with the ciborium leaving them to make the decision there and then.
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