Blessed Sacrament Profaned in Manila: Archbishop Villegas Responds


“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt. 9:36)

Last Sunday, there was a Mass in Luneta, the large urban park in Manila where a reported 6 million Catholics gathered to see Pope Francis – despite a typhoon. In the wind and the rain, the enormous crowd waited, many, probably most, spending the night outdoors for a chance to attend Mass with the Vicar of Christ.

Such discomfort, made as a sacrifice, is surely an indicator of the faith of those willing to make it. I have always heard great things about the Filipino people and their commitment to Catholicism. Those Filipinos I have had the pleasure of knowing have certainly exemplified this, along with a natural joy and charity that seems happily characteristic of their people.

But faith alone is not a safeguard against error or sacrilege. Catechesis is.

So when a video emerged on Monday showing the Eucharist being distributed at this Mass in such a way that the Eucharist was treated carelessly, I wrote:

Some have gone so far as to describe what you are seeing here as a “desecration” of the Eucharist. While I doubt this is intentional, I find it hard to dispute that description. Whatever the case, I can’t see a way any Catholic who believes in the Real Presence would find this appropriate.


How many of those hosts were unintentionally dropped and stepped on, to say nothing of the lost fragments? How many were pocketed and brought home? How many were received by those who were non-Catholic, or were not in a state of grace? There’s simply no reasonable way I can conceive of for a Mass with over a million people in attendance to handle distribution of communion properly. It is a wonderful thing to yearn for our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar and to desire to be present with the Vicar of Christ in a public Mass. But that yearning should be accompanied by a deep and abiding sense of propriety, a desire never to offend Him or profane His sacred body, even by accident.

It was upsetting to watch the manner in which holy communion was given to those gathered at Luneta. The crowd pressed close against the barriers with outstretched hands, beckoning to receive by whatever means they could. Consecrated hosts were handed out, and the people took them in their hands above their heads, passing them back through the sea of raised hands, Our Lord being handled indelicately by countless grabbing fingers before disappearing into the crowd.

To state that this was inappropriate is not a judgment of the Filipino people. It is not to call into question their faith, or even their longing for Jesus. Neither is it the prerogative of a people, because of their own customs or sense of identity, to arrogate to themselves the right to break discplines put in place to protect and preserve Catholicism’s most sacred treasure. It is important that we take both of those arguments off the table, since they have continuously appeared in the conversation that has arisen around the controversy.

Simply stated, the issue is this: the Church has created strict rubrics to protect the Most Holy Sacrament and to enhance our belief in it; any Catholic with true faith in the Real Presence will honor those rubrics, because the nature of the sacrament creates in those who understand it a sense of profound reverence and awe.

This sense does not arise in all of us innately; instead, for most it is a gift received from our clergy, whose job it is to instruct and form us in sacramental discipline.


Yesterday, GMA News — one of the major news outlets in the Philippines — covered my analysis in their prime time newscast. They also interviewed Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, to get his response to the concerns I raised.

Filipino Catholic Church officials came in defense of this, saying the Masses, particularly at Luneta, were “extraordinary” circumstances.
In an interview with GMA News, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said: “Under normal circumstances, hindi dapat mangyari ‘yon, pero extraordinary ang situation natin sa Luneta, six million people.”
He added: “Sa ganu’ng pagkakataon, kailangan nating tulungan ang isa’t isa na makatanggap ng communion.”
For his part, Fr. Francis Lucas, executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Social Communication and Mass Media, echoed this, telling GMA News Online: “For pastoral reasons since people can’t move during communion, mass passing of the host is okay.”

As you can see, even in this English report, we’re left with some comments in Tagalog. I reached out to a friend for an unofficial translation of the Archbishop’s remarks. Taken from this longer clip of his statements, I was told that… [UPDATE – 1/21/15 @ 2:52 PM] – I received an additional translation from another contact that pointed out a specific nuance that is important to the Archbishop’s remarks. That addition is in red and replaces the earlier translation of the bishops remarks:

His words, as cited in the article from GMA Network, are:

“Under normal circumstances, hindi dapat mangyari ‘yon, pero extraordinary ang situation natin sa Luneta, six million people.”
He added: “Sa ganu’ng pagkakataon, kailangan nating tulungan ang isa’t isa na makatanggap ng communion.”

A literal translation of this is as follows:

“Under normal circumstances, this should not have happened, but the situation in the Luneta was extraordinary, six million people.” He added: “On this occasion, it was necessary to help each other receive communion.”

The operative word here is “kailangan” — necessary. Essentially he is saying that what happened in Luneta was not only permissible, it was necessary.

UPDATE CONTINUED: As referenced in the originally provided translation:

The lady interviewing him attributed the following statement: that there was no desecration of the Eucharist just because people held the consecrated host. This (a desecration) only happens when people do not love and revere the host, the Holy Mass and Jesus.

The upshot: typically, this sort of thing would be wrong. But because of the unique logistics, it’s okay that we broke the rules[And now, as we see with the new information, allegedly “necessary.”]

I take issue with such an answer from a Catholic prelate – particularly one of the standing of Archbishop Villegas. He needn’t have been harsh in his assessment of what happened, but he could certainly have said, “It is understandable that those gathered wanted to receive our Lord, but the circumstances made this impossible for all in attendance. What took place was not the appropriate way for holy communion to be distributed and could have led to profanation of the sacrament. In the future, we will seek to ensure that appropriate Eucharistic piety is observed.”

Ours is not a relativistic faith. Our beliefs are not circumstantial. While receiving the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (CCC 1324), we are only obligated to receive communion once a year, during Easter time.  In large Masses like those celebrated by a pope, it becomes incredibly difficult to avoid profanation of the Eucharist. GMA reports that there were 20 communion stations at the Luneta Mass, “with 5,000 communion distributors and 5,000 ushers.” If there were truly 6 million people there, that’s (on average) 1200 communicants per “distributor.”

What a logistical nightmare – and all the more reason why distribution of holy communion at such Masses should be reserved to only a representative sample of those in attendance, if it is given to anyone outside the sanctuary. The rest could have been told in advance that they would be invited to a spiritual communion, in order to avoid any desecration of the Body and Blood of Our Lord.

Otherwise we’re always going to faced with what happened on the video. It’s no wonder problems like those seen in the video arose. But that’s precisely why we have norms to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. In the 2004 instruction  Redemptionis Sacramentum, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, we are given clear teaching:

[92.] Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice,[178] if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.

[93.] The Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful should be retained, so as to avoid the danger of the sacred host or some fragment of it falling.[180]

[94.] It is not licit for the faithful “to take . . . by themselves . . . and, still less, to hand . . . from one to another” the sacred host or the sacred chalice.[181]

Far from saying that special circumstances merit the dispensation of these rules, Redemptionis Sacramentum outlines the prevalance of such abuses in the modern Church, and why they are never to be taken lightly:

[4.] …it is not possible to be silent about the abuses, even quite grave ones, against the nature of the Liturgy and the Sacraments as well as the tradition and the authority of the Church, which in our day not infrequently plague liturgical celebrations in one ecclesial environment or another. In some places the perpetration of liturgical abuses has become almost habitual, a fact which obviously cannot be allowed and must cease.


[6.] For abuses “contribute to the obscuring of the Catholic faith and doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament”.[14] Thus, they also hinder the faithful from “re-living in a certain way the experience of the two disciples of Emmaus: ‘and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him’”.[15] For in the presence of God’s power and divinity[16] and the splendour of his goodness, made manifest especially in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, it is fitting that all the faithful should have and put into practice that power of acknowledging God’s majesty that they have received through the saving Passion of the Only-Begotten Son.[17]


[8.] It is therefore to be noted with great sadness that “ecumenical initiatives which are well-intentioned, nevertheless indulge at times in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith”. Yet the Eucharist “is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity or depreciation”. It is therefore necessary that some things be corrected or more clearly delineated so that in this respect as well “the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery”.[19]


[24.] It is the right of the Christian people themselves that their diocesan Bishop should take care to prevent the occurrence of abuses in ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and devotion to the Saints.[57]


[27]…Individual Bishops and their Conferences do not have the faculty to permit experimentation with liturgical texts or the other matters that are prescribed in the liturgical books … the particular norms that have been established are strictly and comprehensively to be observed.

As I said in my original commentary, “It is essential that we correct these practices, beginning at the parish level, so that people return to a sense of the sacred and this reverence becomes instinctive – no matter the circumstances.” Faith and love are beautiful things, but if they do not inspire us to act in a way that most benefits our beloved — in this case, Christ Himself — who is truly the object of our love? Is it Him, who gave His all on the cross, which sacrifice we receive at every Mass? Or is it ourselves, because we want to feel as though we are a part of something important, regardless of whether we abuse Him in the process?

It is the job of the bishops to ensure that the Eucharist is given due respect at Masses within their own dioceses. This could take shape in a number of ways: training for priests, letters from the Bishop to be read at all Masses, enforcement of norms, particular programs of catechesis, and so on. Perhaps the easiest and most obvious way to do it? Restore the practice of communion on the tongue, kneeling. This posture for reception not only minimizes the chance of the loss of a host or its fragments, but also creates in the recipient an interior disposition of submission to and reverence for Our Eucharistic Lord.

The bishops have a tough job, no doubt, but we need them to do it. Christ himself took pity on the people when He saw that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Should our own shepherds do any less?


[UPDATE 2 – 1/21/15 @ 3:01 PM] Augustinus at Rorate Caeli excerpts a post on the blog Pinoy Catholic, which offers on this unfortunate information:

For those talking about being too rubricist and holier-than-thou accusation…

Here is something for you.

I have talked to some EMHCs and even nuns who were stationed at the Communion Stations.  I asked them for their “experiences”.

They found Hosts in the mud!

The information is anecdotal, but if it’s true, it is precisely what I feared.

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