Q: My diocese has seen a spate of attempted thefts of the Eucharist. Usually this happens when someone receives the Host and tries to put It into his/her pocket. Once, though, someone approached a deacon with money and tried to buy a Host!
We are all keeping a close eye out for strange behavior by people receiving Holy Communion, especially if they are not familiar to us. Some of us are wondering if there is also some way to make restrictions in order to protect the Eucharist, without violating canonical rights. For example, under these circumstances could a pastor refuse Communion to someone he doesn’t know? Could a parish require everyone attending Mass to show identification when entering the church, and keep a list? Most of our parishes already have security cameras, but they can’t catch everything, and anyway a camera can’t prevent a thief from leaving the church before anybody notices what s/he has done…. –Bella
A: Catholics are supposed to understand and believe that when a priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass, these truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus it is a tragedy that a fairly recent survey revealed that only about a third of Catholics in the U.S. actually believe this–and readers can rest assured that the statistics aren’t going to vary too much among Catholics of many other countries. (The results of this survey naturally led many in the Church to blame poor catechesis by both our clergy, and our Catholic schools/catechetical programs; but here‘s a rather entertaining article trying to deflect that blame, by criticizing the wording of the survey questions instead.).
But an even greater tragedy is this: while relatively few Catholics believe any more in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, 100% of satanists do. Whether Catholics realize it or not, satan-worshippers are ever on the lookout for ways to obtain a consecrated Host, so that they can desecrate It in their satanic ceremonies. Thus while we Catholics should all be horrified at the stories which Bella recounts, we shouldn’t be surprised.
If someone attends Mass and receives the Eucharist solely for the purpose of taking the Host away for desecration in a satanic ritual, what can be done to prevent this? How can we appropriately distinguish between Catholics who wish to receive Holy Communion for the right reasons … and others who want to do exactly the same thing, but for unthinkably wrong reasons?
Before tackling these questions directly, let’s look at what the Church teaches about the importance of the Eucharist. Remember that as has been said many times before in this space, canon law follows theology—so once we see what theology tells us, the canon law pertaining to this whole issue should follow logically, as a matter of course.
First of all, as we saw in “When Can a Layperson Be a Pastor of a Parish?” among others, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium declares that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (LG 11). This exact phrase is echoed in canon 897, which is one of those canons commonly referred to as “theological canons,” since they make general theological assertions and don’t actually require us Catholics to do anything. (See “Contraception and Marriage Validity” for another example of a theological canon in the code.) It can be tempting to disregard these canons, but that’s a big mistake—because they invariably explain the theological foundation upon which church discipline and laws are built. In this case, the fact that the Eucharist occupies a supreme place in the Church leads logically to many rules about the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament in general, and the reception of Holy Communion in particular. Since part of Bella’s question involves the suggestion that in order to protect the Eucharist, certain people might be refused Communion, this issue warrants specific examination here.
We have seen many times before in this space that canon 843.1 provides the norm for admitting Catholics to reception of the sacraments in general: the sacraments cannot be denied to those who (a) seek them at appropriate times; (b) are properly disposed; and (c) are not prevented by law from receiving them. When it comes to the Eucharist in particular, this canon is interpreted in light of the theology found in the abovementioned canon 897 and other theological canons.
The basic, overarching rule about who can and cannot receive Holy Communion is found in canon 912, which declares simply that any baptized person not prohibited by law can, and must, be admitted to Holy Communion. The clear implication, of course, is that those who are prohibited by law can, and should, be refused the Eucharist. So what exactly does that underlined phrase mean in this context?
For starters, the law prohibits Catholic children from receiving Holy Communion until they have been suitably prepared and have adequate knowledge of just Who it is they are receiving (c. 913.1). This issue was discussed at length in “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who Are Ill-Prepared.” Another category of Catholics who are to be refused Communion includes those who are under excommunication, or “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin,” as canon 915 phrases it (see “Can Pro-Abortion Politicians Receive Holy Communion?” for more on this). Canon 918 gives us yet another group of Catholics who may not be admitted to Communion: those who have already received it twice on the same day, unless they are in danger of death (addressed in “Can We Receive Holy Communion Twice on Christmas Day?”). And Catholics can be refused Holy Communion if they have failed to observe the Eucharistic fast, as found in canon 919.1—discussed in more detail in “How Has Canon Law Changed on Fasting Before Communion?”
Thus we can see that while Catholics do indeed have the right to receive the sacraments, this right is not absolute—and when it comes to Holy Communion, it is indeed possible to refuse the Eucharist to certain groups of Catholics who by law are not permitted to receive It. Now how does all this jibe with the situation in Bella’s diocese?
It goes without saying that if a priest knows that a specific individual intends to receive Holy Communion at Mass, in order to keep and desecrate the Host, that individual must be barred from receiving Communion and promptly ushered out of the church altogether—and depending on the civil law in that region and the exact circumstances, it might also be possible to call the police and have that person arrested! But of course it virtually never happens that our parish clergy know the identities of such people. Satanists aren’t going to tip their hand; they will feign reverence and devotion so that nobody realizes what they are up to. Anonymity is thus a critical element of their Host-pilfering strategy.
So is it possible to refuse Holy Communion to someone who attends Mass and approaches the priest at Communion time, simply because that person is not known to the priest? Absolutely not, and canons 843.1 and 912 (already discussed above) should make that clear. The mere fact that a Catholic happens to be visiting a parish which he does not commonly attend does not bar him from receiving the Eucharist there. Thus the answer to both of Bella’s questions is an unequivocal no.
That said, if someone who is unfamiliar to the priest and congregation attends Mass and wishes to receive Holy Communion, but behaves strangely, perhaps acting as if he/she has never done this before and doesn’t know what is going on … that’s quite another matter. Note that canon 843.1, discussed above, asserts that the faithful have a right to receive the sacraments if (among other things) they are properly disposed—and our (im)proper dispositions are frequently revealed through our outward conduct. A cleric distributing the Eucharist certainly can and should certainly stop and question anyone whose behavior is giving signs that he thinks this is all a joke, or who doesn’t appear to know what he is doing. For example, God alone knows how many non-Catholics attend Mass sometimes with their Catholic friends, and then they all go up to receive Holy Communion together; yet as was discussed in detail in “When Can Episcopalians Receive the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass?” Catholic sacraments are for Catholics (c. 844.1), and thus non-Catholics are barred from receiving Holy Communion in a Catholic church. It is the priest’s duty to safeguard the Eucharist from abuse—a duty that can clearly be inferred from the Church’s insistence on the worship due to Our Lord truly present in the consecrated Host (as is articulated in the theological canon 897 discussed above, among many other places).
In Rome, non-Christian Asian tourists in particular think that it’s immensely entertaining to “attend a ceremony” in a Catholic church and receive the Eucharist, without the slightest understanding of what they are doing or the slightest concern for the sensibilities of the Catholic faithful. It is tragic but understandable that far too often, a priest who is distributing the Eucharist to hundreds of faithful can easily miss any signs that one non-Catholic in the crowd simply mimicked the actions of the rest, and received the Host without any faith or understanding whatsoever. This brings us to another issue which Bella raises, about “keeping a close eye out for strange behavior by people receiving Holy Communion.”
In many parts of the world, especially in historic churches which are frequented by visitors who may not be Catholics, it has become common practice to station eagle-eyed ushers or other lay Catholics in strategic locations during the distribution of Holy Communion—to ensure that nobody receives the Eucharist and then pockets It. Given the issues in Bella’s diocese, this would be an entirely warranted option, and it doesn’t violate the rights of any devout Catholics—visitors or not—who want to receive the Eucharist.
While people who attempt to steal a Host commonly put It in a pocket, the more recent phenomenon of mask-wearing communicants has sadly provided these thieves with another strategy. It is all too easy for thieves to approach the minister of Holy Communion while still wearing a mask, receive the Host in the hand … and then lift the mask, pretending to put the Host in their mouth, while in reality they let the Host sit inside the mask, which they remove at their convenience later on. There is no reason why a priest can’t insist that a communicant remove his mask first, before receiving Holy Communion—so that the priest can see clearly that the person has indeed put the Host in his mouth. I have personally heard priests tell their congregations matter-of-factly, “If you come to receive Communion and you’re still wearing your mask, I won’t give It to you.” This is not a violation of anybody’s rights, since the priest isn’t refusing the sacrament; rather, he is making sure the sacrament is received properly.
It’s worth pointing out at this point that the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand invariably makes it much easier for a clever satanist to avoid actually consuming the Host. As was discussed at great length in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” the faithful are only able to receive Holy Communion in the hand in those areas of the world where permission for this has been granted by Rome (as per the 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini). Thus receiving in the hand is a privilege, not a right, and a privilege can always be revoked.
Speaking of which, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued yet another Instruction in 2004 on this subject, which is directly relevant here. Entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, “On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist,” it specifically addresses theft of the Eucharist by persons receiving Holy Communion in the hand:
…[S]pecial care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful (92, emphasis added).
When Catholic clergy have a very real fear that someone(s) may steal the Eucharist by receiving the Host in the hand and then pocketing It, the Church urges them to refuse to distribute Communion in the hand. Protecting the Blessed Sacrament thus “trumps” this concession granted by Rome—as Rome itself has declared unambiguously! Yes, the faithful have a right to receive the Eucharist; no, the faithful do not have the right to receive the Eucharist in the hand. This is an often overlooked distinction which pertains directly to the situation in Bella’s diocese.
Yet even if everyone receives Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand, priests and faithful can’t relax their guard completely—because it’s still possible to steal the Eucharist by surreptitiously spitting the Host out and taking It away. Church history worldwide contains a number of heart-rending stories of people down through the centuries who did exactly that. An especially well known case in medieval Portugal also involves a subsequent Eucharistic miracle.
In the 13th century, a married (Catholic) woman in the city of Santarém was convinced that her husband was unfaithful to her. Anxious to retain his affections, she visited a witch and asked her to cast a spell to make her husband return to her. The witch agreed; but as payment, she told the wife to bring her a consecrated Host. Note that like all followers of Satan, this witch rightly believed that Our Lord is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
The woman foolishly agreed to do this, and went to Mass. When she received Holy Communion, she secretly took the Host out of her mouth, wrapped It in a kerchief, and left the church. While she was on her way home, however, the Host began to bleed.
When the wife realized what was happening, she naturally panicked! Instead of taking the Host to the witch, she went home and hid It in her bedroom. During the night, bright rays of light emanated from the cupboard containing the Host, waking both the woman and her husband. The wife confessed what she had done, the parish priest was called to the house, and the bleeding Host was taken in procession to the church—where It remains to this day. In this case, we see that God Himself prevented the satanic desecration of the Eucharist which undoubtedly would have taken place otherwise.
While there was no Code of Canon Law back in the 1200’s, the woman’s action was still a crime according to the Church’s laws of the time—and of course it remains a crime today. It is spelled out nowadays in canon 1382.1:
One who throws away the consecrated species or, for a sacrilegious purpose, takes them away or keeps them, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; a cleric, moreover, may be punished with some other penalty, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state.
(See “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for an in-depth discussion of how latae sententiae penalties work.) Keep in mind, though, that canon law only binds Catholics; and excommunication, by definition, can only be applicable to those who were in full communion with the Catholic Church to begin with. If a Catholic (like the wife in Santarém) deliberately steals the Eucharist as outlined in this canon, this excommunication can apply—but if a practicing satanist wants to steal a Host, it wouldn’t be much of a deterrence to warn him that his action will remove him from communion with the Church, would it?
When it comes to deterrence, let’s not forget that there are other ways to steal the Host, like breaking into the tabernacle. Canon 938.3 states that a tabernacle is to be immovable [i.e., bolted into the floor or the altar, or in some way built directly into it], made of solid and opaque material, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is avoided as much as possible. In Mexico, a Catholic nation perennially rife with satanism, the tabernacles in some churches also have alarms which are connected directly to the police station. An American tourist in Mexico City once decribed to me what she had witnessed when satanists quietly entered a church there before Mass and then suddenly made a mad dash for the tabernacle, setting off an alarm and fortunately being driven back by the priest and the faithful before they could get it open.
Canon 938.5 specifically addresses the care of the tabernacle key: The person responsible for the church [the priest himself, or perhaps a sacristan] is to take care that the key of the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most diligently. Incredibly, in some large parishes there are so many lay people who have access to the tabernacle key that it’s basically impossible to keep track of when, why, and by whom it is opened. Even worse, in all the constant activity and confusion, the key is sometimes left in the tabernacle door after Mass, by one person who wrongly assumes that someone else will come and get it. Believe it or not, in Rome’s parish churches, it often happens that the tabernacle key is carelessly left on the altar all day, in full view of anyone who enters the church—obviously an open invitation to the unthinkable.
By now it should be clear what the clergy and faithful of Bella’s diocese can and can’t do, in order to protect the Eucharist from desecration. Since all Catholics should have faith in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle, we should all be willing to speak up if we see someone try to take a Host away, instead of reverently consuming It after receiving Holy Communion. It is our duty to do everything we can to protect Our Lord, Who loves us so much that He chose to remain helpless in the Eucharistic Host, in order to stay with us until the end of time.
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