A senior New Brunswick Roman Catholic priest is demanding the Prime Minister’s Office explain what happened to the sacramental communion wafer Stephen Harper was given at Roméo LeBlanc’s funeral mass.
During communion at the solemn and dignified service held last Friday in Memramcook for the former governor general, the prime minister slipped the thin wafer that Catholics call “the host” into his jacket pocket.
In Catholic understanding, the host – once consecrated by a priest for the Eucharist – becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is crucial that the small wafer be consumed when it is received.
Monsignor Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John, wants to know whether the prime minister consumed the host and, if not, what happened to it.
If Harper accepted the host but did not consume it, “it’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he said.
Henneberry said a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office is in order.
“If I were the prime minister, I would at least offer an explanation to say no offence was meant, and then (clarifying) what happened to the consecrated host is in order,” he said. “I would hope the Prime Minister’s Office would have enough respect for the Catholic Church and for faith in general to make clear whatever happened.”
On Friday, during the mass, Harper reached out with his right hand and accepted the wafer from a priest.
A television camera lingered long enough to show New Brunswick Lt.-Gov. Herménégilde Chiasson, the next person to receive the host, raise his to his mouth.
But the tape shows that Harper does not consume the wafer before the camera cuts away several seconds later.
If Harper was unclear about what was appropriate during the funeral mass, said Henneberry, it “would say to me it’s time to get new protocol people.”
Harper and his senior spokespersons were en route to Italy on Tuesday for the G8 leaders’ summit.
Harper will spend five days in Italy and on Saturday he has an audience with Pope Benedict.
Requests for comment left with Harper’s media office were not immediately returned on Tuesday.
What Harper did or didn’t do at the ceremony quietly raised questions at the ceremony in Memramcook Friday.
When Harper took the host, “everybody just paused and said, ‘What did he do with it?'”‚” said one official who watched the pool feed with reporters who were not inside St. Thomas Church in Memramcook.
“You could see he was, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know what to do with this.'”‚”
The curiosity among Catholics has not gone unnoticed among Liberal insiders in Ottawa, either.
Henneberry said he has received a call on Harper’s actions from a concerned Catholic, and he doubts that she is the only one puzzled and perturbed.
“She said she was very upset,” he said, adding he had not seen the footage.
“She said, ‘All weekend long it has been bothering me and I know I can’t do something about it, but someone should.’
“She can’t be the only one in this country that is thinking that.”
Harper’s religious affiliation raises a separate but related question about his accepting the host: As a Protestant, should he have politely declined it?
The fact it was a national event that was televised live likely complicated the situation for everyone – the priests and Harper, Henneberry said.
“If the prime minister is not a Catholic, he should not have been receiving communion and if he comes up it places the priest in an awkward position, especially at a national funeral because everyone is watching,” he said.
But Rev. Arthur Bourgeois, who delivered the homily, did not have a problem with the prime minister accepting the host.
“Usually, to partake in holy communion in the Catholic Church, you have to be a member of it, but if you’re not, exceptionally sometimes at major occasions (it is different),” Bourgeois said.
“If you are up there and giving holy communion you are not going to stop and asked everyone if they are Catholic or if they are not Catholic.
“You say the Lord provides.”
Monsignor André Richard, who is Bishop of the Diocese of Moncton, gave Harper communion but said he didn’t see what Harper did with the host.
“I didn’t see anything wrong there “¦ because I was busy doing something else.”
Bourgeois said it is acceptable to decline the host by simply folding one’s hands, which signals the priest to bless the person.
Rev. James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of Winnipeg, said if Harper was not given good advice before the ceremony about what to do, it is a regrettable oversight.
“I would feel very sorry for the prime minister if he wasn’t informed about what the procedure is,” Weisgerber said. “I would find it terrible if we put him in an embarrassing situation.
“My concern is at a funeral of that level everyone knows what the protocol is.”
Harper could have simply consumed the host shortly after he was off-camera; or he could have hesitated because he expected a priest would soon invite everyone to consume the host once everyone present had received it, as occurs in some Protestant churches.
His own faith tradition certainly does things differently, says an evangelical Christian journalist who specializes in religion and politics.
Lloyd Mackey’s 2005 book The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper traces Harper’s political and faith journey.
Given his church background, Harper might not have known exactly what was expected of him as a Protestant at a Roman Catholic mass, Mackey suggested.
“I don’t think by himself as a Protestant adherent he’d be aware of the nuances,” said Mackey, who added there would be people in his inner circle who should have advised him.
For a number of years, in Calgary and in Ottawa, Harper has worshipped at churches within the Christian and Missionary Alliance, said Mackey.
Communion in Alliance churches is typically held once a month.
It would involve the seated congregation passing along wafers and, in small individual glasses, unfermented grape juice.
Harper grew up in a background with United Church of Canada and Presbyterian influences, but he was something of a skeptic until he was a young adult.
Mackey’s book says Harper’s journey to a committed personal faith was influenced by fellow politician Preston Manning, among others, and came after reading much-admired Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge.
LeBlanc, 81, died in late June. He had been the country’s first Acadian and Maritime governor general, and before that, a senator, MP and press secretary to two prime ministers.
I’ve learned from a source close to one of the journalists that at least one of them may have gone so far as to seek advice and consider a lawsuit against the newspaper if the paper did not retract the story and absolve (no pun intended) the journalists of fabricating a significant portion the article.
Printing such a false hit piece can get a journalist frozen out of any future access to the PMO under the current administration. It’s a rare sight to see journalists defend their integrity against their senior management in the newsroom, however, in this case it may have been a matter of professional self-preservation.
What motivation was there behind torquing over three quarters of the story? Did somebody in Ottawa (or Toronto) pick up the phone and push a more interesting story to the editors instead?