Wafer madness

Wafer madness August 17, 2009

Editor’s note: Tmatt did not write a column for Scripps Howard this week, due to last-minute travel to Atlanta for the funeral of my wife Debra’s mother, Jeanne Bridges Kuhn. The following is a post written for GetReligion.org, which will interest many of my regular readers. To read the interactive version of this post, click here.

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There is no question what the Roman Catholic Church calls the holy bread that is consecrated during the Mass. It is called the “host.” Anyone who knows anything about Catholic liturgy knows this.

Now, how do you describe or define the host? Those seeking to be reverent tend to call it “consecrated bread.”

The problem, of course, is that the special bread used in Western Rite services is not simply unleavened bread. As the old saying goes, there are two acts of faith involved in meditating on the host during a Mass. The first is to believe that it is the Body of Christ. The second is to believe that it is, in fact, bread.

Thus, many people refer to the host in a variety of ways. Some people insist on calling the host a “wafer,” a term that angers many Catholics. However, there are Catholics who use this term. Still, most simply call it by its traditional name — a host.

It is true that, if you look up definitions online, there is an ecclesiastical definition for “wafer” that applies. Thus, you end up with these two clashing definitions:

1. A small thin crisp cake, biscuit, or candy.

2. Ecclesiastical — A small thin disk of unleavened bread used in the Eucharist.

So, is this unique bread the consecrated “host” or some kind of supposedly holy cookie? That seems to be the question.

I raise this because of the interesting and very detailed story that ran in the Boston Globe the other day about rites of “perpetual adoration,” a tradition that is explained well right at the top by religion-beat specialist Michael Paulson. However, many will stumble, or even scream, right at the lede:

The adorers sit in silence before the wafer.

Some settle cross-legged on the floor by the altar. Others kneel in a favorite pew. They read, or say the rosary; they pray, or think, or just allow the mind to wander. Hour after hour, day after day, they take part in an unusual Catholic ritual that appears to be making a modest comeback — a quest for silence in a noisy life, a desire to be part of a team, a hunger to feel closer to God.

The ritual, called perpetual adoration, is, at one level, strikingly simple: around-the-clock, people take turns sitting in a chapel in the presence of a consecrated wafer. But at another level, the ritual reflects an embrace of the teaching of Catholicism that many find hardest to understand: the belief that, during Mass, bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

The lede seems to settle the issue. It’s a wafer. The Catholic church may say that it is the Body of Christ, or even consecrated bread, but it’s a wafer. For many readers, this rite is an act of faith. Others will consider it a mild form of madness.

I think it’s likely that they Globe newsroom stylebook even settles this language question (I’d love to know the actual answer, in fact). The story uses the term “wafer” eight times — including in a direct quote — and the term “host” only once. I found it interesting that the term “host” is left undefined. If the term is so common that it does not need to be defined, then why not use “host,” oh, eight times and the term “wafer” once? Just asking.

I also wondered if this statement is true:

Later this week, in a Back Bay shrine, the Archdiocese of Boston will celebrate the return of perpetual adoration to Boston for the first time in decades. Volunteers at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine are signing up 336 people — two for every hour of the week except during Mass — who will agree that, starting Saturday and continuing indefinitely, they will spend an hour a week in the presence of the consecrated wafer, a practice they understand as spending an hour a week with God.

That’s interesting. I had no idea that perpetual adoration was this rare, since I have heard about the practice in a number of contexts through the years. Are there no monasteries in Boston? Did this particular archdiocese ban or discourage the practice for some reason? I’m curious.

Please understand that I am not attacking the Globe report (and certainly not Paulson) on the “wafer” vs. “host” issue.

Still, I have no doubt that many Catholics were not offended by the drumbeat references to their adoration of a “wafer.” However, I am sure that some were offended and there is a good chance that some traditional Catholics still read the Globe.

My question is more basic: What was gained by using the blunt “wafer” reference in the lede? Is the word “host” so strange in a heavily Catholic region? Why not open by saying that they are kneeling before the “consecrated bread” that they believe is the Body of Christ? A reference to the belief of the worshippers would be accurate, even for skeptics. Correct?

Behind this question is another: Should journalists cover the beliefs of others with some sense of respect for the language that they would use? What is accomplished by using language that is sure to offend many of the “stakeholders” — that’s a journalistic term used by Poynter.org and in some other academic settings — who will care the most about the accuracy and sensitivity of this fine story?

There is no question that the Catholic church calls this a “host.” And there is no question that the Boston Globe calls this bread a “wafer.” I am asking this question: Why does the “wafer” language need to win in this debate? Is there a way to be both neutral and to show respect?

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