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Simcha Fisher: When complaints about World Youth Day veer into irreverence

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A pilgrim receives Communion as Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass during World Youth Day at Campo da Graça in Park Tejo in Lisbon, Portugal, 6 August, 2023. Photo: OSV News/Bob Roller

According to tradition, World Youth Day is being largely ignored by the secular press and is being marked with nonstop complaining by Catholic social media.

My own view of World Youth Day is more or less like what I said about the Steubenville Conferences: It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m definitely not prepared to say that that means it’s no good. The spirit blows where it will, and I am trying not to get in its way.

The main thing that people are complaining about, this time around, is the distribution of the Eucharist, and the way the sacrament was reserved and displayed.

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There were an estimated 1.5 million people at Mass, and so there were thousands of Eucharistic ministers, and people on social media shared photos of the hosts being distributed in plastic or ceramic bowls with the retail bar code sticker still stuck to the bottom, and covered with plastic wrap to keep them from spilling.

There were also photos of the reserved hosts being stored in some kind of heavy-duty plastic tubs stacked up on a table in a tent, either with a potted plant perched on top, or possibly with a monstrance on top; it was hard to tell from the photo. Young people were kneeling in the grass before the Lord, who had been placed in this arrangement.

I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all. It’s hard to say how this arrangement is reverent in any meaningful way. I tend to side with the argument that, if the logistics of such an enormous operation made it necessary to put the Body of Christ into plastic tubs and plastic bowls with plastic wrap on top, then they just . . . shouldn’t have done it.

They should have had Mass without distributing Communion to thousands of people, which is totally a thing (we did that all through the pandemic, and got very good at reciting the prayer for spiritual communion together); or they could have just had adoration, with Jesus displayed in a more fitting receptacle. This wasn’t a war or an emergency or an unpredictable event. It wasn’t truly necessary to store consecrated hosts in plastic tubs. It didn’t have to happen.

I said that I sided with this argument, but I did not side with the way many people were making it. I will not link to any of it, but my feeds on several accounts were inundated with the most sneering, jeering, rage-filled invectives against everyone involved in World Youth Day.

Let me tell you something. You can’t hurt Jesus. He’s alive, he’s risen, he’s glorified. The sacrifice of the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice, and the pain of the cross, where he took on all the sin of the world that ever was, is, and will be—that’s been accomplished. Jesus is unhurtable.

When we treat a consecrated Host, which is Jesus, with disrespect, we are only hurting ourselves.

I do believe that it’s disrespectful, whether intentionally or not, to put a handful of hosts in a plastic bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, like it’s potato salad you’re bringing to a picnic. Our senses and our social codes tell us that plastic and disposable receptacles point to something casual, something everyday, something entirely of this world, and that is not how we are supposed to treat the Lord of Lords. But when we do treat him this way, we are only harming ourselves. Please understand that.

And now please understand that, when we see a photo of young people kneeling before a plastic tub of consecrated hosts, and our first impulse is to jeer and complain, and share it on social media solely so other people can get mad, and we make up sarcastic, edgy jokes about it for clout? This, too is, not how we are supposed to treat the Lord of Lords. This harms us in exactly the same way that it harms us to put a consecrated host in a plastic bowl.

Irreverence comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes when we don’t understand or acknowledge the unfathomable glory that is before us, and we treat it like something small, like a community snack, like a logistical problem to be solved with efficiency but without awe.

Sometimes it comes when we somehow allow ourselves to respond to unfathomable glory by being jerks to each other. This doesn’t hurt Jesus. He is risen, he is glorified. But oh, does it hurt us.

Let us not be irreverent, in any way. Let us repent when we fall short. The gift of Jesus isn’t for treating lightly, and one way of treating it lightly is screeching at each other about it. I really mean it when I say that the latter is just as bad as the former. If you don’t believe me, you need to make your case for how you can be loving your neighbour as yourself if you are making fun of him.

I get it. Spiritual sarcasm and nastiness is a great weakness of mine, and it’s a very hard habit to break, because it feels like it’s a sort of intellectually licit way of making a point about something important.

But we don’t show reverence to Jesus by being jerks to people about Jesus. That’s just . . . out. How could that not be out?

In the prayer for spiritual communion, we say: “Never permit me to be separated from You.” It’s harder than it sounds, isn’t it? If it were just a matter of eating that host, then it would be easy. But we also have to do our part, and that means exterior expressions of reverence, and interior ones, as well. And that’s where the Holy Spirit gets in.

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