RUMOR CONTROL: White House bash and lay ministers

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

Over the course of the next six days, there will be much good reporting and probing analysis of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States and the challenges facing the Catholic church in America. There will also, however, occasionally be rumors and false leads, which are inevitable with any big story being covered in real time.

Among other things, I’ll try to use this space to perform some “rumor control,” in the hope that inaccurate or overblown material can be put in its proper context before it spins out of control.

Two points already belong in the hopper.

1. The Pope is “snubbing” President Bush by not attending a White House dinner in his honor.

In fact, the pope virtually never attends gala events organized in his honor by other parties, especially while he’s on the road. Basically speaking, when the pope travels he commits to following his official agenda, no more and no less.

This time around, for example, it’s not just the White House that’s throwing a party for the pope without the guest of honor. The Italian Embassy to the United States is also hosting a birthday bash organized by former and current U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See. Once again, the Holy Father is not expected to attend.

Rumors, therefore, that Benedict XVI has “spurned” an invitation from Bush on the basis of some specific policy difference – out of protest over the Iraq war, for example, or debates over the use of “torture” – seriously over-interpret this standard bit of papal operating procedure.

Of course, Benedict XVI is committed to staying above the American political fray, and that might provide an additional incentive to steer clear of events that could be interpreted as having a political overtone.

Nonetheless, the bottom line on the White House bash is that if you’re going to a party with the pope, it’s almost always going to be on his turf and at his invitation.

2. The Pope is "correcting" the American Catholic church by not using lay Eucharistic ministers during his public Masses.

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the use of lay men and women during Mass to distribute the Eucharist, the consecrated bread and wine that Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Christ, has become for some Catholics a powerful visual way of underlining the empowerment of the laity in the church. These lay men and women who distribute Communion are known as “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist.”

News, therefore, that lay ministers will not be used to distribute Communion during Benedict XVI’s Masses in the United States has struck some as a theological signal from the pope, as if he were implicitly criticizing American Catholicism for an inadequate sense of the distinction between lay people and ordained priests.

In fact, this is nothing unique to the pope’s trip to the United States. As a rule of thumb, lay ministers are almost never employed to distribute the Eucharist during papal Masses, either in Rome or on the road.

The official rule governing the use of lay Eucharistic ministers specifies that they are to be used only in “extraordinary” situations, meaning when a sufficient number of priests and deacons is not available to comfortably distribute Communion to everyone present. The fact that “extraordinary” ministers have become de facto “ordinary” in many parts of the world, from the Vatican’s point of view, says more about the realities of priest shortages than about any change in church teaching.

The one place on earth you can usually guarantee there will be no priest shortage is wherever the pope happens to be saying Mass. For the Mass at Yankee Stadium, for example, organizers plan to deploy roughly 530 priests and deacons to distribute Communion to a crowd estimated at almost 60,000. They expect to be able to get the job done in roughly 15 minutes.

Whatever one makes of this policy, the bottom line is that Benedict XVI has not adopted it specifically with the United States in mind. It’s simply Standard Operating Procedure for large-scale papal events.


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