To eat or not to eat

Harper and the holy host highlights the protocol minefield facing modern leaders

harperAmazing, the trouble one wafer can create. Stephen Harper took a rhetorical drubbing yesterday when footage surfaced of him palming a communion host during the funeral of former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc. Monsignor Brian Henneberry, the vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint John, described the incident as a “scandal.”

PMO officials quickly issued assurances claiming the Prime Minister ate it off-camera, leaving lay people to wonder exactly what Harper did that was so terribly blasphemous.

Nothing, say experts experienced in government protocol. In fact, Harper may have been wrong to eat the wafer—assuming the PMO’s version of events was anything more than an after-the-fact whitewash. “If you are not a Catholic, you should not, in fact, you cannot take holy communion,” a retired senior federal protocol official—who happens to be Catholic—told “It’s considered apostate, and it’s hypocritical to do it.”

“Ideally, the prime minister’s team would have informed the organizers what time he would be arriving, asking them where he would sit, what he would be expected to do. And when told he will be invited to take a communion host, they would say, ‘He is not Catholic and therefore it would be ideal for him to recuse himself.’”

The key word here, of course, is “ideal.”  Sometimes unplanned incidents arise, and the official, who asked not to be named because he is still working in public service, acknowledged there are no black-and-white rules when those moments occur during religious rites. In this case, Harper found himself stuck in a front pew of dignitaries receiving communion from the priest; it wasn’t as if he were invited to line up in the aisle. So, faced with this awkward situation, “the right thing to do would be to accept it with his hands,” said the official.

Whatever the correct reaction, the controversy highlights the protocol minefield modern leaders face as they try to appear inclusive, tolerant and diplomatic in the modern public arena. Elected officials are increasingly pressed to participate in religious ceremonies that fall outside their own denominations and faiths, notes Peter Donolo, the former communications director to Jean Chrétien. Donolo, who also served as Canada’s consul general in Milan, recalls countless instances in which Chrétien was asked to join rites that could easily have gone awry. That’s why the former PM’s handlers usually spent hours poring through protocol documents to ensure he didn’t touch the wrong person, say the wrong thing, kneel in the wrong direction.

Not least among the concerns in such preparations, of course, is ensuring the leader doesn’t look silly to his own voters. For that reason, says Scott Reid, a longtime aide to former prime minister Paul Martin, the work of advance teams is critical to ensure a proper balance between the integrity of the rite and the politician’s dignity. Think of it as the “no silly hats” rule. “For years, politicians of all stripes have found themselves wearing a scarf when visiting a mosque,” Reid noted in an email by way of example. “That’s because it’s the tradition, as dictated by the faith hosting the event. The fundamental rule of thumb is two-fold: know what to expect, and honour the faith of which you are a guest.”

As for those rare occasions when the unexpected does arise? Well, a lot hangs on the poise of the leader involved. And let’s face it: Harper has a long history of standoffishness in what would otherwise be poignant moments (remember him shaking hands with his kids?). As such, Reid—ever the partisan warrior—doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for the PM in this case. “Palming your wafer like you’re a pulling a street corner card trick,” he said, “is something that many who take the sacrament would find offensive—as the PMO has been reminded.”

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