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Communion and the Church’s mess

Celestino Aós, the new Archbishop of Santiago

There was an odd story from Holy Week about the new man in the Chilean capital, Santiago. Bishop Celestino Aós, the apostolic administrator who succeeds not one but two cardinals who are under examination by prosecutors for covering up sexual abuse.

It’s an odd story, because it is not about that complex situation, but about the most routine thing a priest might do: distributing Holy Communion. Apparently, at the Chrism Mass in Santiago, Bishop Aós refused to give the Sacred Host to two communicants who knelt. In fact it is more than apparent – a video recording was made of it.

What to make of that? Bishops sometimes do ignorant or rude things. And sometimes an ignorant thing is just an ignorant thing, as it may have been in this case. Perhaps Bishop Aós did not know that the relevant rubrics are absolutely explicit that communicants cannot be refused Holy Communion for kneeling. And sometimes a rude thing is just a rude thing, as basic courtesy would avoid publicly embarrassing people anywhere, let alone during Mass.

And then sometimes ignorance and rudeness is exacerbated by being foolish, like being ignorant and rude when a video camera – at close quarters, mind you – is recording your first Chrism Mass in perhaps the world’s most wounded diocese.

But I don’t know anything about Bishop Aós, except that he deserves admiration for, at age 74, accepting one of the worst assignments in the entire Church. So let us assume that this ignorant and rude and foolish thing is quite contrary to his usual character and deportment. The whole matter can be left at that, and nothing more, aside from Bishop Aós having to send a discreet apology to Pope Francis, who spent over a year looking for someone – anyone – to reliably handle the stinking mess that is Santiago, and likely expected that Bishop Aós might get through the Chrism Mass without incident.

So leave aside entirely what this episode may or may not tell us about a man relatively unknown. The refusal of Holy Communion, though, does tell us a great deal about how the Church got into such a mess on sexual abuse. The incident took place less than a week after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released his essay on the sexual abuse crisis. And he identified canon law and the Eucharist as two reasons why the Church responded so poorly to predatory priestly behaviour.

First, the law. Benedict argued that the legal nature of the Church was largely set aside in the 1960s, as if law was out of keeping with merciful pastoral practice. But that cannot be, for the Church is a society essentially governed by law, even though she is not primarily that. The Church does not find her deepest identity as a legal reality, but she requires her law to preserve that identity.

Ignorance of the law, or a cavalier setting aside of it, was a critical factor in allowing priestly abuse to go unpunished, and the lay faithful unprotected. If the Church in Santiago is to get back on her feet, it cannot do so without observing the law which protects her identity and mission. And if the Church in Santiago can’t get the law right on something as simple as distributing Holy Communion, there is ample reason for concern, for it shows how a healthy culture of law has been thoroughly abandoned.

Benedict’s essay – like his famous inveighing against the “filth” in the priesthood at the 2005 Via Crucis at the Colosseum – further links the crisis in the Church to a lack of reverence for the Eucharist.

Whatever one might think of people kneeling to receive Holy Communion where the general custom is to stand, a minimal benefit of the doubt would require it to be regarded as an act of Eucharistic reverence. Given the usual range of communicants at a large event like a Chrism Mass, it would certainly be the case that several dozen presenting themselves for Holy Communion would be doing so with an apparent lack of reverence for, or even knowledge of, who they were receiving. Holy Communion was certainly not withheld from them.

A Church that denies Holy Communion to those kneeling at the Chrism Mass – the special purpose of which is to celebrate the priesthood, which exists for the Eucharist – manifests an inversion of priorities, placing above reverence for Christ Himself some other matter, perhaps the pastoral preferences of the priest, the desire for unity among the people, or even the good and orderly appearance of the procession for Holy Communion.

Benedict contends that when the Church becomes accustomed to putting other priorities ahead of the Eucharist, she becomes capable of manifold sins and wickedness. The Church of Santiago has an unimaginably complex path ahead. A good beginning would be putting the fundamentals in order.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of