Got news? Illegal Communion

As I have said many times here at GetReligion, I cannot think of a topic in my work for the Scripps Howard News Service that draws a higher rate of response from readers than columns I about changes in how believers worship -- especially changes affecting the Church of Rome. This leads me to the names of two men -- Father Agustin Escobar and the Rev. Steve Whitney. If you put the names of these two clergymen into Google News you get precisely one Catholic media reference. If you do this again, with an ordinary Google search, you find lots of links, but they all lead you back into the world of Catholic media.

For me, this is curious.

You ask, "Why"?

"Good question," saith this GetReligionista.

I am surprised that the controversial event that brought these two men together has not received coverage -- any coverage -- in the mainstream press. I am also surprised that it has not received any coverage in what you might call the "ecumenical press," by which I mean news services linked to the National Council of Churches and the press agencies of Protestantism's old guard churches, the "seven sisters" of oldline Christianity in America.

So what is the story? In terms of issues in Catholic tradition, we are dealing with a bizarre event, a high crime of liturgy. So here is the story in the California Catholic Daily.

Let us attend:

Some parishioners at St. Norbert's Church in Orange describe themselves as "shocked and appalled" after a priest there allowed a Presbyterian minister to concelebrate a Mass and receive Holy Communion. ...

Sources from the parish told California Catholic Daily that Fr. Agustin Escobar introduced Pastor Steve Whitney of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Sacramento at St. Norbert's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. The sources said Rev. Whitney concelebrated the Mass with Fr. Escobar, took Communion, and was allowed to distribute Communion to parishioners.

The parish's pastor, Fr. Pat Rudolph, was away at the time and did not participate. Parishioners who tried to contact him about the situation were told he would not be back at St. Norbert's until March. But, said sources at the parish, Fr. Escobar admitted he did not have the pastor's permission to invite the Protestant minister to concelebrate Mass and receive Communion.

One parishioner fired off an angry email to Bishop Brown and other high-ranking diocesan officials, calling the occurrence at St. Norbert's "a travesty."

A shocked parishioner said that the priest was angry when confronted after the Mass, telling one woman that she wasn't a "true Christian because Jesus would love everyone."

Canon law is clear on the subject, making it clear that those who are not in full Communion with Rome are not to receive the consecrated bread and wine in the Mass. It goes without saying that clergy in these churches are not supposed to serve as priests in the rite, seeing as how they are not, well, Catholic priests.

The headline in this story is a classic example of understatement:

"Bishop Brown is disturbed by this"

Priest may be in hot water after allowing Protestant minister to concelebrate Mass, receive Communion at Orange County parish

"May be"? Say what?

Now, I realize that this seems rather "inside baseball." Why do we need mainstream coverage?

Would the story get covered if Catholic officials, acting under orders of Pope Benedict XVI shut down a service of this kind? Of course. Will it be news if Rome tells the bishop to restrict the ministry of this priest? Of course. What if it turns out, oh, that this Presbyterian pastor is an activist linked to same-sex marriage rites? Will raise this event to the status of mainstream news? Of course.

Will it be a story if the bishop ignores this all together, seeking to calm the waters and save face? Uh, that's kind of my point.

For practicing Catholics this is an interesting story, at the very least. For traditional Catholics it is an outright scandal. But here is the question that haunts me: What was going on here? What were these two pastors doing? What did they think they were doing? In other words, what's the story here?

Bizarre. Interesting. Poignant. Plain old weird.

News? Apparently not.

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