Until my late father-in-law went into a care home and forgot about church, he’d only missed Mass twice in the entire course of his nine decades. After he was widowed at 85, he had a few more years before dementia took hold; years in which his regular Sunday attendance became even more important to him. This was the one time each week when he got out of his empty house. The ritual gave him dignity and purpose. There was spiritual solace and social, too: he’d go for coffee at his sister’s house nearby after Mass.
He forgot where he’d put his keys and what a kettle was for, but he didn’t forget about Sunday worship, not until the last weeks of his life. A kind neighbour – a vehement atheist – offered to take him to church, since he could no longer drive himself.
One Sunday we got a call. A parishioner rang in some dudgeon to say that she disagreed with the fuss which was taking place about my father-in-law and felt it was very wrong of a fellow congregant to have complained. This was the first we’d heard of any such thing. It turned out that someone had seen my father-in-law slip the Host into his pocket during Holy Communion. Perhaps he meant to take it later. This person had complained to the parish priest and it had been agreed between them that my father-in-law should no longer receive the Eucharist. He would receive a blessing instead.
I knew how much the man’s faith meant to him. Wobbly though his memory had become, it seemed to me that he would perceive this as a punishment. To be refused Communion is a serious matter, a sign that a congregant has sinned and must repent. But he had committed no sin.
I drove to the priest’s house straight away. My heart was pounding at the injustice and cruelty of this judgement and I was deeply shocked that the piety of a fellow parishioner should have tipped into this Stasi-like spying on someone else’s private and sacred moment of the Mass.
The priest wasn’t at home. I telephoned and left a message asking him to return my call. In the meantime, I spoke to a friend who is a Eucharistic Minister, administering to the bedridden in their homes. She confirmed that Communion should be given to all who ask for it.
In due course the priest rang back. I explained that the swallowing reflex is affected by dementia and that I thought it likely that my father-in-law was afraid of choking. The priest was not sympathetic. Once the Host has been consecrated, he told me, it becomes the Body of Christ. He explained this very slowly, as if I was stupid. I told him quite crisply that although I am a non-Catholic, I am aware of the principle of Transubstantiation. Nevertheless, I ventured that Our Lord had made it his business to seek out the halt and the lame, the poor and the sorrowing. Blessed are they who mourn, and so on. Given His track record, it seemed unlikely that He’d mind about my father-in-law’s slip-up.
The priest became very angry. He shouted. Did I not understand: the Host is the living body of Jesus Christ Our Saviour? Let me ask you something, I countered. If Our Lord can jump into a communion wafer at the ring of your bell, could He not just as easily jump out? If He felt Himself being snuck into the pocket of a tweed coat, surely He could simply scarper?
I will be honest: I said it to be annoying. But there was a genuine curiosity. If miracles can be wrought, why not this small one?
The call did not conclude cordially. My husband went to see him and their meeting did not go well either. Not long afterwards, the priest quit the parish.
I wrote to the nearest Bishop, asking him to clarify the Church’s position. He didn’t provide an answer, but assured me that he would pray for me and my family.
My father-in-law continued to be taken to church by his unbelieving neighbour. Now his friend approached the altar (and the locum priest) alongside the increasingly frail old man and when the Host was proffered, he hissed at him: “Stick in in yer gob!”
Given that difficulties with swallowing are standard in dementia, this cannot be the only case in which a Host has failed to meet its mark. We are an ageing population, with cases of dementia increasing year-on-year. There are over 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and it affects one in 14 people over 65, and one in six people over 80. This number will only increase, as church attendance decreases among the young. I wonder what the church will do to ensure that elderly and ailing Communicants continue to be allowed the Eucharist?
Cressida Connolly is the author of After the Party (Penguin).