The hermit does what with what?

EucharistI have been puzzled about this story for a week or more. It’s time to share the mystery.

This Contra Costa Times article by Rebecca Rosen Lum is not all that bad. It’s about a hermit nun named Sister Lauren O’Neal, and the nicest thing about the story is that this sister comes off as a rather complete, balanced person. There are lots of nice details about her life and her calling. Take this glimpse into her living quarters and life:

Shelves full of books bank the living room. A print of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” hangs beneath a crucifix. “Bach Works for the Violin” waits on a music stand. A shelf holds DVDs — “The Hobbit” series, “The Green Mile” — a television and other gadgets. And she loves “Harry Potter.”

She embraces solitude, not isolation, she says: A hermit’s life is not for those trying to hide from society.

“Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that (hermits) live in silence,” said the Rev. Mark Weisner, spokesman for the Oakland Diocese. “We have the image of hermits being unhappy and unable to fit into society. Sister O’Neal is a very normal person. Can you imagine having constant contact with the Lord and not being joyful?”

Canon law describes a hermit’s life as one of solitude and penance, “but there is nothing in church law about how much silence to keep,” said Sister Marlene Wiesenbeck, who wrote a guidebook for aspiring hermits and the vicars and bishops who assess their applications.

Alas, it is the reference just ahead of this piece of the story that has me so baffled. I have been around Catholic worship, and the language of Catholic worship, for a long, long time, and this passage contains words that are either (a) clueless or (b) so obscure that there is no way they should have been used in a mainstream newspaper story without explanation.

So here goes:

Quiet feels natural in these rooms. A chapel in her room holds a tabernacle, and within it the instruments of the Eucharist, which she performs here and for other residents in the complex.

“Bishops allow hermits to do that,” she said.

I am not, it seems, alone in my confusion. If one Googles the phrase “instruments of the Eucharist,” one gets a variety of references that only make the situation more confusing.

Is the sister allowed to keep the reserved Sacrament in her quarters, to share with the sick and those who cannot get to Mass? But other references you can find online suggest that these “instruments” are the chalice and paten. That makes it sound like she has been given permission to celebrate the Mass. It’s a page one story around the world if a Roman Catholic bishop has approved that. So I think that is unlikely.

So what did the reporter hear? What did the sister actually say?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chuck

    I am going out on a limb and saying that it means maintaining the Eucharist in the tabernacle at her place of residence. The bishop would have to give special permission for such a thing since there would be no one to celebrate Mass. It would also give her permission to give the Eucharist to visitors as a Eucharistic minister would do for the sick in a hospital or on Sunday. I do not know if it would allow for display of the Eucharist for a period of Eucharist adoration. No one other than a priest can change bread and wine to Body and Blood of Christ in the RC other than a priest. That’s the one thing I know for a fact.

  • Brian Walden

    It would also give her permission to give the Eucharist to visitors as a Eucharistic minister would do for the sick in a hospital or on Sunday.

    This is nitpicky but, technically, if she gave the Eucharist to visitors she’d be doing it as an extraordinary minister of holy communion. Only ordained clergy can dispense the Eucharist as Eucharistic ministers.

  • Paul Jungwirth

    Here is a guess. The original quotation went something like this:

    within it the =elements= of the Eucharist, which she =administers= =to herself= and =to= other residents in the complex.


  • Martha

    I imagine what Sr. O’Neal meant is that the Bishop gave her permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, and perhaps also to be an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. I also imagine that the ‘chalice’ mentioned is actually a ciborium (easy mistake to make).

    What the reporter heard, I have no idea. I have never heard the phrase “instruments of the Eucharist” and if a nun had been given permission to confect the Sacrament, I rather think the Bishop would have gotten a phone call from headquarters in Rome to explain himself.

    I suppose it just goes to show (1) you can be so used to using certain terms, you forget not everyone is familiar with them and (2) you can never make it too simple for a reporter :-)

  • Sean Gallagher

    It could also be that she is allowed to have a consecrated host exposed in a monstrance, which could be included in what is being referred to as the “instruments of the Eucharist.”

    Some of the other possibilities listed above could be valid.

    Otherwise, as a person with two upper level degrees in Catholic theology and as a person who works in the Catholic press, this phraseology is baffling to me also.

  • Jerry

    I’ve noticed over the years including from my wife’s experience that reporters often scramble facts or if they don’t editors helpfully rewrite parts of stories mangling the meaning.

    So I’m not at all surprised about this blog entry. It happens in every field.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry makes a very good point we sometimes overlook–how some (many?) editors, thinking they know more on a topic than the writer who researched it–or thinking they have a better,or more interesting, or colorful choice of words than the writer- wind up mangling fact and truth in one unholy jumble instead of improving the writer’s work.
    I have done a lot of free-lance writing, and frequently, when an editor changed my words (and not for space reasons) I couldn’t understand the passages changed.
    The classic editorial “improvement” I ran across involved the obituary for my mother in the local newspaper. The funeral parlor sent the correct information, but the editor thought he had heard my father–who had retired from years of local politics a while back–had died. So he graciously “corrected” the funeral parlor’s “mistake” and changed the word “late” to the obituary so it read “the wife of the late school committtee member…..”
    I was with my father when he opened the paper and I thought he was going to have a heart attack–talk about trauma upon trauma–first his beloved wife is dead, then he is consigned to the grave in the same obituary. Luckily it did not turn out to be an omen of some sort, though I think my father considered it one at the time.

  • Steve Smith

    A comment on another blog has Sister Laurel weighing in on the matter:

    The reporter simply got the verb wrong. She was in the chapel without her notebook and when I explained I was allowed to reserve Eucharist, celebrate Communion services on those days I was unable to get to Mass, and also to bring Communion to neighbors, that eventually got turned into “performed Eucharist.”

  • Maureen

    Er. Um. Holding a little prayer service combined with taking the Eucharist is obviously fine… but if you call it “celebrating”, people are bound to think you _are_ talking about transubstantiation occurring and you being in persona Christi.

    “Celebrating” and “celebrant” as liturgical terms were reserved _only_ for priests saying Mass, at least during my era of Catholic religious education.

  • Sister Laurel M O’Neal

    The reporter was not Catholic. She did not know the name of the tabernacle and asked initially “what the box” was for. This really was all new territory to her, especially the idea that someone could have Eucharist in a ciborium and tabernacle in their own hermitage. She was, however, interested in learning, took in a great deal of material, asked good questions, and simply did not manage to remember the word “reserve”.

    Communion services (which I actually spoke about at a separate time) are celebrated or held, and without a priest; that is their nature. I don’t know of anyone, much less a non-Catholic unfamiliar with the term tabernacle whose mind would IMMEDIATELY think the person referring to the celebration of a Communion service could be acting in persona christi.

    Btw, there was no mention of a chalice, nor of the ciborium (another word the reporter learned that day) in the article, so I am not sure where people are getting that from. It would have been nice if the reporter had asked about vocabulary while she was writing the article: then she would have known to use, “Eucharistic vessels” instead of “instruments of Eucharist,” and “reserves” rather than “performs.” But she did call to ask additional questions, so I have to give her kudos on that, despite a number of inaccuracies in the article (mainly bio info borrowed from earlier articles). Certainly this reporter did a better job with the whole idea of diocesan eremitism than the Diocesan paper did with the same story.

  • Fatherstephen

    Religion and media – it’s hate and love. We tend to love the media coverage, though the Kingdom of God doesn’t need it. We hate what reporters do because they generally don’t have a clue. A reporter covering my ordination to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church asked, “What’s the Orthodox Church?” Which is similar to a sports reporter asking Peyton Manning, “What’s the NFL.” But Mattingly is different. If we could clone you and put you at newspapers across the country life would be reported so much more accurately. May your tribe increase.


  • YetAnotherRick

    From the accompanying picture, I assumed the violin was one of the instruments.

  • Will

    ” I don’t know of anyone, much less a non-Catholic unfamiliar with the term tabernacle whose mind would IMMEDIATELY think the person referring to the celebration of a Communion service could be acting in persona christi.”

    I guess my associations for “celebrate” and “celebrant” don’t count, since I am familiar with the word “tabernacle”.

    Will (I can’t even get excommunicated in this town.)

  • Rebecca Rosen Lum

    In this case, the editor was afraid we would leave non-Catholic readers in the fog if we named names, so opted for a generic, catch-all term.

    Thanks very much.

    btw, I don’t know if I’ve ever received so many positive responses to a story I’ve written — not because of my “golden words,” but because the subject, the wonderful Sister Laurel, was so compelling. My sense was that a good many readers hunger for a more profound life.

    Rebecca Rosen, Religion reporter
    Contra Costa Times

  • Sister Laurel M O’Neal

    Dear Rebecca,
    I am so glad you responded to this series of comments. I have been a little less restrained in my enthusiasm for your openness and the serious time and effort you put into the story in other forums, so let me take this opportunity to thank you publicly for the really tremendous job you did. It says a lot that your own coverage of the story and research into eremitism more generally was so much better than even the Diocesan article. Many people have mentioned that to me, and I hope they conveyed it directly to you too!! Working with you was a terrific experience. Thanks again.