Stephen Harper

Earlier this week, prime minister Stephen Harper attended the funeral of former governor general Romeo Leblanc. It was a Catholic service, and during communion, the prime minister received the host, and did not appear to eat it. It has been said that instead he put the communion wafer in his jacket.

This is a problem because official Catholic dogma has it that the communion wafer not only represents the body of our lord Jesus Christ, through transubstantiation, the wafer becomes the body of our lord Jesus Christ, and the wine becomes his blood. Unused communion wafers and wine must be dispensed of as if it were a body, on consecrated ground, and anything less is a desecration of our lord.

I don’t really want to make more of this than there needs to be. So, why are you posting about this James? I hear you ask. Well, in some ways, it is to express a little bit of sympathy. Speaking as an Anglican married to a Catholic, whose family includes former Calvinists (who are definitely not Catholic), I know from experience how tricky the ecumenical issues can be. This very question intruded on our wedding planning; because of each faith’s different attitude towards the Host, we ended up dispensing with holy communion at the service altogether.

Stephen Harper clearly is not Catholic, and I am, frankly, surprised that the church in question didn’t anticipate that it would have a number of worshippers at this funeral of this prominence who belonged to other faiths, and have adjusted their communion practices accordingly. Even here in the Midwest, Catholic churches post in their service summaries a welcome to those visitors who are not Catholic, and suggestions on how to approach the altar and not receive the Host (the typical approach is to have one’s hands clasped in front and head bowed to receive a blessing). Either this warning was not posted, or Harper did not have a chance to read them.

This matter should also have been covered by the protocol officer in the Prime Minister’s employ and, if the protocol officer screwed this up, I’d fully expect him to be looking for new employment in short order. Though I am only an Anglican, I’m aware of how sensitive Catholics can be about the charge of reserving the Host. Just a year ago (almost to the day, in fact), a few Catholics went completely overboard when an atheist sought to offend by doing what the Prime Minister inadvertently did. Even Erin, who is a very liberal Catholic, upon hearing the story said to me, “I’m more Catholic than I thought. My first reaction is to be viscerally offended; much more than I thought I would be.”

So, on one level, this is a tempest in a teapot; an inadvertent act by a prime minister who meant no offence. But on another, it is a visceral faux pas felt by members of a faith who number among the majority of Canadians who have faith. I’ve been in the prime minister’s position of being a non-Catholic worshipper at a Catholic service. In my younger days, I could easily have made a similar mistake. Fortunately, I didn’t.

What’s worse is that Harper is now heading to Italy for a G8 summit and an audience with the Pope.

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