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Adoration tinged with acrimony

When the bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg distributed guidelines on displaying the Holy Eucharist, he touched off a controversy among the faithful that has spread far beyond Florida.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Some Roman Catholics are accusing him of misleading his flock. The postman has delivered 150 letters of dissent to his office. Some surmise that the Holy Father would not be pleased with what he's doing here.

The Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch, bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, is at the center of a controversy over the body of Christ and how it should be worshipped.

In the tradition-bound and structured world of Roman Catholicism, order is important. Lynch says a few churches in the five-county diocese have been out of order for years.

Recently, he and other local priests established guidelines for "Eucharistic exposition" -- the practice of displaying the Holy Eucharist. He instructed churches to expose the Eucharist less often than they have been, and only under strict conditions.

Lynch says he was simply clarifying church doctrine and that the majority of Catholics are unconcerned. He says he receives more flak for transferring parish priests than he has for this.

"It's a deeply theological issue," Lynch said. "We've not created any new law. We've basically expressed the mind of the church."

Lynch's critics contend that his guidelines are flat-out wrong -- that he is misinforming the 359,000 Catholics in the Tampa Bay area and keeping the common folk from seeing Jesus Christ.

* * *

This is what happened:

At several of 77 churches in the diocese, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, the bishop spotted the faithful unwittingly disrespecting the Eucharist, the consecrated bread used in Holy Communion.

Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ and that it should be held in high regard at all times. The Eucharist is so revered that it is encased in a decorated glass instrument before it is set on an altar to be viewed by praying parishioners. This is called "Eucharistic exposition" because Christ is said to be "exposed."

Problem No. 1: The Eucharist was being exposed in chapels while no priests or parishioners were there -- a serious breach. The exposed Eucharist is never to be left alone.

"It's disrespectful," said Doug Reatini, director of the diocesan Office of Worship.

Security is also a concern, Lynch said. "It's my job to protect it," he said.

Problem No. 2: By-the-book exposition requires a formal ceremony with musical accompaniment, scriptural readings, preaching and prayer.

At some chapels, no ceremony was taking place. People came, they knelt, they prayed. But no priest presided and no songs were sung.

Lynch discussed the matter with a number of priests who were also concerned. After several meetings and some research, they drafted the guidelines, and Lynch sent them to the entire diocese in June.

The guidelines encourage exposition, with a proper ceremony, on a weekly or monthly basis. (Lynch said in an interview he would allow it daily if done properly.) This would help ensure that the Eucharist would never be left alone and would attract larger groups of parishioners.

Several churches that used to expose the Eucharist daily -- including the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg and Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin -- have stopped. Another church will stop soon, Lynch said.

But St. Jude's plans to resume exposition about once a week outside of Mass. There will be a ceremony in keeping with guidelines, said the rector, the Rev. David DeJulio. That's only half the controversy.

The guidelines also address what is called "perpetual exposition," the practice of having the Eucharist exposed 24 hours a day for private prayer. Committed worshipers sign up for blocks of prayer time around the clock.

Perpetual exposition is for monasteries, convents and Catholic associations that want to have it, the diocese says. But it's not generally intended as a practice for churches.

"The general understanding of the Church is that this type of exposition is not to be the normal and continuous pattern in the parish," the guidelines say.

Still, Lynch has the authority to allow perpetual exposition if a parish asks to start the practice. But he says he probably wouldn't allow it, fearing rules would not be followed and the Eucharist would be left in a chapel alone again.

"It can be done," he said of proper perpetual exposition. "But it's probably not likely that it will be done because it was not done before."

* * *

While some scholars and bishops have sent pat-on-the-back letters to Lynch, praising the guidelines, some Roman Catholics have objected. Opponents agree that the Eucharist should never be left alone. They differ when it comes to Lynch's recommendation that the Eucharist be exposed "briefly," weekly or monthly. They also disagree with Lynch's stand on perpetual exposition.

"A frontal assault," New York lecturer and Catholic activist Thomas Droleskey called the guidelines. He has written articles blasting the diocese in the national Catholic weekly the Wanderer.

The issue is being debated far beyond St. Petersburg. In a letter to the church-run Florida Catholic, the Rev. David L. Toups, of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill, said he was asked about the issue while attending a religious gathering in the Midwest this summer. According to Toups, a woman questioned what "that bishop from down there" was doing.

At a Catholic retreat in Birmingham, Ala., in October, a small group prayed that God would help St. Petersburg's faithful and change Lynch's misguided ways.

The guidelines effectively diminish the worship experience, some Catholics say. Outside of Mass, the Eucharist is preserved inside a tabernacle that is placed in chapels. Catholics may go to these chapels to pray daily, but they can't actually see the Eucharist. Some say having the Eucharist out of sight is just not the same.

"It makes a big difference seeing our Lord exposed," said Grace Decker, a Catholic in North Pinellas who has taken her rosary beads to chapel almost every day for 17 years. "Whatever you're going through, you immediately feel at peace."

Sister Mary Ann Schumann, an perpetual exposition supporter in Indianapolis, says the difference between the Eucharist in a tabernacle and the Eucharist exposed is the difference between talking to someone on the phone and talking to someone in person.

Schumann organized the city's first perpetual exposition and adoration chapel 11 years ago. She said participants who pray before the exposed Eucharist have been blessed. The jobless have found work, single people have found spouses, she said.

Like Droleskey, Schumann says Pope John Paul II has strongly encouraged perpetual exposition and adoration. (The term "adoration" means to "adore" or pray before the Eucharist.)

"The Holy Father is asking that every parish participate in perpetual adoration," she said. "All over the world, everywhere you go, are perpetual adoration chapels."

In Steubenville, Ohio, a town of less than 30,000, the Eucharist is perpetually exposed at three chapels, two of them at churches. The same is true at six chapels in Indianapolis and the surrounding area.

But in the 77 churches of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, not one chapel of perpetual exposition and adoration exists.

Pity, Droleskey says.

He fears the laity are unaware of the benefits of perpetual exposition and don't know that they could create a Catholic association to support such a chapel. The diocese "is deliberately withholding information from the people that they have a right to know," he said.

The bishop says the critics are wrong and that liturgical writings back up his view. He acknowledges that the pope made a passing reference to perpetual exposition in parishes, but says, "It is not something that he made a requirement."

Last year, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., issued a document similar to Lynch's guidelines. He has no intention of changing a thing.

"What it gets down to," Lynch said, "is if they just don't like it, the people go off in a holy terror."

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