When you’re preparing for Mass, you don’t think to yourself ‘what will I do if I see a Host being stolen?’ In fact, the question never occurred to me until I saw just that happen.
I have allowed a long time elapse before recounting this sorry turn of events, and will not give any details as to the church where this took place, because I don’t hold that it is primarily that individual church’s fault.
It was a wintry day in London and the frost had given a new glimmer to the dirty inner London streets. One had to be careful walking on the raw, icy pavements, there were unpredictably slippy parts. I had been rushing around shopping and doing errands. I had not been able to attend any of the Masses in the Oratory that day. I decided to go to a church that I occasionally go to, because I was in that neck of the woods. It was one of those days when I wanted a steaming cup of coffee instead of going to Mass, but I motivated myself with the ideal that Edith Stein has strove to go to Mass three times a day and bore in mind that Padre Pio said ‘every holy Mass, heard with devotion, produces in our souls marvellous effects, abundant spiritual and material graces which we, ourselves, do not know.’
It was a weekday Novus Ordo Mass, the few attendants were in the autumn of their lives and I was the youngest person there by at least ten years. I seated myself near a statue of St. Anthony with the Child Jesus, and a few minutes before Mass started a young man came in and sat near me. He was about my age, looked professional in a long coat and I think he would have skipped my attention, had he not turned sharply to the statue of St. Anthony and given it a fiery eyed grimace, complete with (I kid you not) teeth that bared themselves like a cross dog. And he glared this ferocious glower at the statue not for an instant but during Mass. He must be really unhappy. He might have lost his job or he’s a lapsed Catholic returning.
I’m not the most polite person, and I stole glances at him during the Mass. He didn’t seem to know when to kneel or stand and was studying the faces and actions of the other Mass attendants with open distaste. He’s probably been away from the church for quite some time, and has forgotten what to do. Yet there seemed to be a certain angry briskness in his movements. Maybe he has issues with the church and has been reading The Guardian too much; maybe he’s reminded of the scandals when he’s in a church. It didn’t occur to me that he wasn’t a Catholic, it’s an Irish reflex of mine to think that everyone at Mass is at least a nominal Catholic.
At Communion, we walked towards the altar. I knelt down to receive, the priest went to put it in my hand, but I took it on the tongue. I got up, and saw the young man hold his hand, take the Host and then he made rather extremely quick movements with his mouth to suggest he had received it. Something’s wrong. Don’t be silly, everything’s fine. I walked behind him, telling myself that it wasn’t courteous to study him so closely, we passed a pillar, a shadow fell on him, and he opened his pocket gingerly and I saw a white circle slip from his hand into his pocket. What! That couldn’t have been the Consecrated Host, no! You must have imagined that, I mean could it be something else? He’d never be that feckless, that daft to put the Host in his pocket. Images of his miming that he had taken the Host replayed themselves in my mind, and I kept replaying the scene of the Host falling into his pocket. I tried to tell myself that it hadn’t happened. No. I took a deep breath, and thought that I would go up to him there and then and ask if he had forgotten to consume the Host. No, don’t! He’ll think you’re an idiot who goes up to people in Mass asking them if they’ve misplaced a Host. He must have stolen it; his actions were far too deliberate. No, he must not have stolen it, no one would be that nasty to steal a Host.
A sort of cold panic gripped me. If he really had maliciously stolen the Host, and if there and then I drew attention to this, would he take it out on me later? Chase me later? I imagined running away from him only to slip on the icy ground. What if I confront him and he takes it out on the elderly people here? What if there is a altercation and the other people become nervous about going to Mass? My thoughts still ran wild, and I watched as he sat down, and at the minute the Mass ended, he sprang up and thrust himself abruptly out of the church. Later, having told the priests of what I had seen, images were checked on the CCTV and a detailed description of the young man in question was taken.
I must however stress that I don’t write this because I think paranoid frenzy ought to be stirred, and for everyone to start looking for young men in long coats around London churches. But then, when there is a great occurrence of such things as stolen Hosts, lay people are becoming more vigilant and nervous of such things. Do we become spies, keenly looking to see if a Host will get taken, and in effect losing our concentration during Mass? One reaction that I got when I recounted how I had effectively done nothing (yes, shame on me) after seeing a Host being stolen, was ‘it doesn’t mean that Communion in the hand is wrong, you should have ran after him, squared up to him and demanded that he return the Host!’ Squared up to him? I’m your average eight stone weakling, and I’m not capable of ‘squaring up’.
Another reaction was, ‘you don’t know what was going on in his head at the time, maybe he was depressed, maybe he was doing it as an act of revenge.’ The latter certainly is possible, even typing this now; I am unsettled at the memory of the deep sorrow carved on his face. ‘And maybe he didn’t mean to do it…’ Even if we take the best case scenario, and that the young man thought he had consumed the Host, and popped it in his pocket…to perhaps consume later…it still is a travesty and the tragedy is that it is preventable.
Communion in the hand facilitates travesties such as Hosts getting mislaid and being found under seats or in the absolute worst case when Communion is stolen and used in either satanic rituals or for crass YouTube videos. A quick search of YouTube and you will find two morons smoking a Host, and you will find footage of some fellow stealing a Host from the Brompton Oratory, his arrogance as he walks down from the Communion rail with the Host and later his positioning of a Host alongside a condom. Yes, this fellow thinks he’s being awfully clever, a sort of ‘change your position on condoms, and I’ll give you back the Host.’ Major Sigh.
Some people have chided those of us who defend the practice of Communion on the tongue; ‘Hosts will get stolen anyway. Communion on the hand just means that it’s a quicker way for some baddie to steal a Host.’ Really? If Communion given on the tongue can also be stolen, where is the evidence?
And not everyone has dire intentions when they receive on the hand and take the Host away. A friend of mine saw a Japanese tourist take a Host as a souvenir, and enthusiastically wrap it up. My friend approached her and bid her to give the Host back.
Another friend of mine who has several small children, said that she only takes her children to the Tridentine Latin Mass because she has an instinct that should she take them to Novus Ordo Masses, that her children will lose respect for the Eucharist. She has gotten a lot of slack about this, and her response is to ask her hecklers can they themselves guarantee that because of the bad example of Communion on the hand, that her children won’t lose regard for the Eucharist?
And I know that I would have to think a lot harder were I a Catholic parent raising children, were I to have a child who saw a Host stolen and thought it was a bit of a dare, or a child who was so saddened by it that they lost their faith in Mother Church. A sort of ‘if it’s the most valuable Treasure, why does the Church not care for it better?’
Many, many months have passed and I’ve never seen the young man in the long coat since. But then why does it have to be such a person? It’s been suggested to me that anyone with a certain devious intention may receive in the hand and take the Host away, and then I’m told that Hosts can go for very high prices…