Communion confrontation

Question from Dwight on 2/23/2008:  
A priest who was administering Communion during a recent Mass confronted my elderly mother as she received "in the hand," she responded Amen and the sign of the cross, and began to walk away as everyone does, when all of the sudden the priest sternly blurts out "eat it now."

My elderly mother has been a devout Catholic her entire life, helping others and being a good example, always mentioning the love of Jesus to others who may be struggling with lifes difficulties. Recently my mother has been struggling with her own health and is on some medications which make it hard for her to swallow, but she doesn't let that stop her from attending Mass and receiving holy Communion. She has dealt with the medical problems by receiving Communion in the hand and then returning to her seat in the pew where she reverantly and carefully breaks the bread and eats it slowly and prayerfully in two or four pieces, adoring and contemplating the Eucharist.

The priest said in a loud voice "eat it now," to which my mother stopped in her tracks and turned back to him and said "I have difficulty swallowing Father, I need to break it and eat it slowly back at the pew." The priest ignored her plea and again repeated even more sternly "eat it right now." My elderly dad was next in line, having been married for close to 60 years to my mother, he jumped to her defense and told the priest, "She has trouble swallowing, she is going to eat it, Father". All of this was taking part in front of a packed Sunday Mass with everyone watching and listening. The priest said "No, eat it now."

My mom started crying and placed the Eucharist in her mouth to obey the priest and walked the long walk back to her pew in total humiliation and embarrassment, tears were streaming down her face as she slowly walked the entire length of the aisle. She felt hurt that the priest would show such anger towards her, an ill person attempting to receive Communion, her most joyous occassion in life.

Now as I try and research the rules on this subject, I find that in the wake of the "on the tongue/in the hand, standing/kneeling issues," Pope John Paul II had deep feelings on imploring priests and clergy to be mindful, understanding and patient towards the "people that make up the Church," reminding them that "Happy are those who are called to his Supper." Also reminding them of the parable of the wedding guests where many did not attend and offered many excuses, but let us rejoice for those that are here.

From what I understand, during the times of the early Church it was not uncommon for some to take the bread with them back to their homes, this is not what my mother was doing, but why can't someone who is remaining in the Church eat the bread at his own pace? Did Jesus force the apostles to immediately eat the bread , or did he allow them to take a piece of bread and think and contemplate before placing it in their mouths? Was there a time limit in effect or could one person take a moment longer to think about what he was doing?

My mother is very careful to respect the Eucharist and not allow any to fall from her hand. A person who is celebrating in the Mass should be allowed to "take ... and eat," this is not a "force feeding" and priests should understand that some of the people receiving "take ... and eat" at differnt paces.

Any thoughts on this confrontation?
Answer by Catholic Answers on 2/26/2008: 

I'm very sorry to hear that your mother went through such an embarrassing situation. It certainly sounds like the priest could have handled the situation more gently than he did.

You must understand though that, while the priest handled the situation badly, in principle alone (as distinguished from pastoral care) he was right. Those receiving Communion in the hand at Mass must consume it immediately. They may not take it back to their seats. The reason for this is to protect the Eucharist from theft and sacrilegious abuse by those who would spirit it away for who-knows-what purpose. If your mother is unable to consume the Eucharist immediately upon reception during Mass, she should not receive Communion at Mass.

This does not mean that your mother cannot receive Communion at all. Those unable to receive Communion at Mass due to illness may request that an extraordinary minister come to their home with Communion. In that situation, with an EMHC looking on, those unable to consume right away may consume the Eucharist at their own pace. In your mother's case, one possible solution would be that she could attend Mass while not receiving Communion, and then later receive Communion at home from an EMHC.

That said, again I must assure you, assuming your report of the situation is accurate, that the priest handled the situation badly. Barking orders at an elderly lady who has just explained to him the reason why she was returning to her seat with Communion was not the way to deal with this. Perhaps he could have quietly invited her to sit in the front row to consume the Eucharist at her own pace and then to meet with him after Mass to discuss the situation further. At that point, in private, he could have explained the reasons why she could not receive Communion in the manner she had been doing so and suggested acceptable alternatives.

When you pass on this information to your parents, urge them to try to forgive the priest and to attribute his terse manner to a desire to protect the Eucharist and an inability to think of an alternative way to do so in the heat of the moment. God bless.

Michelle Arnold
Catholic Answers

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