Guest Columnist A parochial tragedy

When I went to get the morning paper off the porch at 6 a.m. I did not see the church door, because it is hidden by a kind of alcove.

That meant that I did not know that our church had been broken into as I read a small note about the theft of chalices at the Episcopalian cathedral. I remember thinking, “too bad for them,” and that we at Holy Name did not have chalices worth $80,000.

The secretary, who comes in at 7:30 a.m. noticed the broken window of the side door of the church because she was opening it for some workers. She came over to the rectory and we then both walked over to church. As we entered and I looked toward the altar of repose, I was shocked. It is such a hackneyed phrase to say that you don’t believe your own eyes, but that was my reaction. Somebody had taken the tabernacle!

We called the police; we searched the grounds; I called the diocese — all in a kind of somnambular state. The auxiliary bishop came to visit, we arranged for a Mass of reparation for sacrilege, I contracted someone to fix the broken windows and reinforce the doors, I prepared a letter to the congregation to tell them what happened, but I was still reeling emotionally. How hard it was to believe that anyone could do this.

Within a week someone at a scrapyard informed the police of a man who was trying to sell the door of the tabernacle. Whoever bought the rest of the tabernacle never bothered calling police, but the door had a chalice and host engraved on it.

The police arrested a man and found two brass cherubs that had decorated the sides of the tabernacle and my empty ciborium, without its lid. The ciborium (the sacred vessel for the hosts, as distinguished from the chalice, which is for the Precious Blood) had been a farewell gift to me from the Archbishop of San Salvador. No Eucharist was found.

The detective on the case was a Catholic and asked the perpetrator what he had done to the hosts in the ciborium and the luna, the piece holding the host for a monstrance.  He had thrown the hosts out in the back yard.

The detective, who had been baptized at Holy Name, looked for the hosts but only found the ciborium lid. “Father, the rains have been very heavy this week.” I presume that the sacred species was dissolved in the two fierce summer storms that occurred.

At least the Eucharist was not taken for malicious purposes.

The thieves were all addicted to crack cocaine and were desperate to get money for their addiction. The same men had been involved in the theft at the Episcopalian cathedral, as we learned when the police sent me to a pawn shop to pick up a chalice they thought was from Holy Name.

I had to tell the owner of the business that the jeweled chalice, worth upward of $40,000 was not ours but had to be one of those stolen in the other church heist. The man had pawned the thing for $700, but the owner was not going to charge me. The police later found another pawn shop with a box of the Episcopalian chalices.

I had offered a thousand dollar reward for the hosts, and had hoped that they could be recovered. The disappointment still hurts, but I want to move on to lessons learned.

First, there is the practical side of things: the new tabernacle is bolted down into the marble. The old one, in the church for years already (I am pastor for two months) weighed about 150 pounds and had only rested on the altar. 

I was on television four times during this travail, and so many people and priests know about the case. Several priests have checked their own tabernacles because of what has happened. I am more worried about the monstrances some have in the adoration chapels. Even if there are adorers, what is to stop thieves from walking in and carrying off the Blessed Sacrament?

The spiritual dimension obviously interests us more. I wrote the following in the church bulletin:

I mentioned in the Masses this past weekend that I believe that God brings good things out of bad and I am pondering this case to understand how we can profit spiritually from this terrible experience. The sense of loss can make our appreciation of the Eucharist and Christ’s sacramental presence keener. We need to love and cherish the Eucharist more because we have seen that others have no respect for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

For me, this is a sign of the passion of Christ who continues to suffer even into our days. I do not mean that Christ in glory can be affected some way by what happens now, but that part of his passion included this present suffering. We read in the gospels how Jesus sweat blood during the Agony in the Garden. Many spiritual writers have said that Jesus was contemplating not just his betrayal and the coming crucifixion, but also all the sins that would be committed in the history of the world. He saw all our betrayals, all the mistreatment that his love would suffer in all the ages.

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That included this sacrilege. It should make us realize in a new way how much the Lord loves us. He has made Himself vulnerable for us. Because he is, in the words of a title of a book by Pope Benedict XVI, “The God Who is Near Us,” he must suffer all our indifference and disrespect.

When something like this happens to a parish, a letter must be sent to the bishop describing the event and what has been done in reparation.  In my last line in the letter, I asked my bishop’s prayers that the tragedy inspire us to more devotion to the Eucharist. I ask the same of all of you.

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