Canadian prime minister criticized for taking communion

Published July 10, 2009

Just days before a scheduled audience with Pope Benedict XVI, the Canadian prime minister, an evangelical Protestant, was in hot water after taking communion at a Roman Catholic funeral, contrary to church protocol.When the incident was initially reported, it was suggested that Prime Minister Stephen Harper slipped the consecrated host into his pocket or service leaflet, but his spokesperson and another attendee said he did consume it. Others who witnessed the ceremony, though, point to a clip posted online at the video sharing Web site YouTube that shows the Canadian leader accepting the host, a thin wafer, from a priest, but he is not seen raising it to his mouth.The incident took place at the State funeral in Memramcook, New Brunswick, of Romeo LeBlanc, Canada’s former governor general. Catholics believe that that once consecrated by a priest, the communion host and wine are the actual body and blood of Jesus and not merely symbols of Christ’s Last Supper. The church reserves communion for Catholics only.Monsignor Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the diocese of Saint John, told the Telegraph Journal newspaper in Saint John that he received a complaint from a Catholic. He called for an explanation from the prime minister’s office about what happened to the wafer. The issue of whether the prime minister consumed the host aside, the matter was simple, say church leaders and spokespersons: as a non-Catholic, Harper should not have accepted communion.”In terms of the celebration of the Mass, coming up for communion is reserved for Catholics,” said Neil MacCarthy, communications director for the Archdiocese of Toronto. “That is not meant to be exclusive but, rather, inclusive of those who believe [that the host is the body of Christ].”At funerals and other events that might gather members of other religious traditions, priests often state prior to celebrating the Eucharist that only Catholics may receive communion, although that apparently did not happen at the New Brunswick service. Non-Catholics are often invited to receive a blessing, by approaching with their arms crossed over their chests.Mr. MacCarthy said it was clear there was no malice on the prime minister’s part and it was regrettable that his advisors had not adequately prepared him for the ceremony. Still, he said, the issue was a good opportunity to educate the wider community about what Catholics believe about communion.”It is definitely a difficult issue for non-Catholics and even some Catholics to understand, but it is a core belief of ours, that communion is not just symbolic,” Mr. MacCarthy said. Mr. Harper was scheduled to meet the Pope on July 11 after the meeting of leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations in L’Aquila, Italy. 


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