When two men dressed in whiteface and strange outfits came forward to receive Holy Communion at a San Francisco Catholic church three weeks ago, no one batted an eyelash. At least that's what it looks like on a video secretly recorded that morning and then posted on a conservative Catholic Web site.
Since then, though, that communion has caused a stir among some Catholics around the country, who think that San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer was wrong to let the two men take the wafer and wine of the Eucharist. Archbishop Niederauer, the former Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, had celebrated Mass that Sunday morning at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco's gay-leaning Castro neighborhood.
The incident raises questions not only about whether Archbishop Niederauer realized who the two men were (members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay men who identify themselves as nuns), but also about the rules of communion, a ritual that is central to Christianity.
"Do this in remembrance of me," Christ said at the Passover feast that later became known as the Last Supper. But the particulars weren't spelled out.
So, 2,000 years later, Christ's blood is sometimes represented by wine, sometimes by water or grape juice. In many Protestant churches, and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the beverage and the bread are symbols, a reminder of Christ's sacrifice. In the Catholic Church they're considered the actual body and blood of Christ (a "transubstantiation"). In some churches the juice and bread are something in between, the spiritual, if not the physical, presence of Christ.In Protestant churches, depending on the denomination, communion is offered once a year, or several times a year, or once a month. In the LDS Church (where it is referred to as "the sacrament"), it's offered every Sunday. The Roman Catholic Church offers Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist) at every Mass, so theoretically a Catholic could partake every day. In some churches, communion is passed down the pews; in others, parishioners walk to the front of the church, where a priest or pastor or sometimes a lay deacon offers bread or a wafer dipped in wine or juice.
But that's the easy part.
The question that tripped up Archbishop Niederauer was not what or when or how, but who. It's a question that all Christian churches have considered, and with which some are still grappling. Do you only allow true believers? The doctrinally sound? The baptized? The members? The worthy? Anyone who wants to?
Archbishop Niederauer was in the sights of conservative Catholics even before the two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence walked down the aisle on Oct. 7. Groups like the blog site Quamdiu Domine and the watchdog Catholic Media Coalition complain that the archbishop told a radio interviewer last year that when it comes to the matter of denying communion to politicians who disagree with church doctrine, "I am not there principally as a gatekeeper."
In 2004, more than 200 Catholic bishops declared they would deny presidential candidate John Kerry communion because of his stand on abortion. More recently, the archbishop of St. Louis said he wouldn't let presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani receive communion; and a Vatican spokesman said that politicians who voted for abortion rights should "exclude themselves from communion."
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are an "order of queer nuns," according to their Web site, and since 1979 have "devoted themselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges." They say they are not mocking other nuns, but, rather, "we are nuns." Many of their ceremonies, they say, "can be traced back" to the Roman Catholic Church, but their ritual "is also heavily tainted with goddess worship, transcendental meditation, radical fairy-ism and self-empowerment."
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