Niederauer (left) gives a now controversial Holy Communion to an unidentified member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Oct. 7. Video still courtesy of YouTube.com
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
(10-16) 21:58 PDT
San Francisco -- It was a typical Sunday Mass until two men in heavy makeup and nuns' habits received Holy Communion from San Francisco's top Catholic official.
On Oct. 7, Archbishop George Niederauer delivered the Eucharist to members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence - an activist group whose motto is "go forth and sin some more" - prompting cries of outrage from conservatives across the country and Catholics in San Francisco.
In response to a request for comment, Niederauer released a letter of apology addressed to "Catholics of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and to Catholics at large" in which he said he did not realize his mistake until after the Mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro district.
"At Communion time, toward the end of the line, two strangely dressed persons came to receive Communion," Niederauer wrote. "As I recall, one of them wore a large flowered hat or garland."
Niederauer said that although he was familiar with the group because its actions had been condemned by his predecessors, he had never encountered any of the group's members until that Sunday.
"These two people have long made a practice of mocking the Catholic Church in general and religious women in particular. Someone who dresses in a mock religious habit to attend Mass does so to make a point (that) was intended as a provocative gesture," he said in the letter, which will be published in this Friday's issue of Catholic San Francisco, a diocesan newspaper.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, founded in San Francisco in 1979, are known for their white face paint, outrageous costumes, theatrics and support of the gay community. They adopt names such as Sister Chastity Boner and Sister Constance Craving of the Holey Desire and have mottos such as, "It is not wise to say no to free drinks, cheap jewelry, discount cosmetics or pretty boys."
Sister Barbi Mitzvah, who serves as "Board Chairnun" and "Sexytary," said Tuesday that the group is "not offering a comment.
"These people are always after us," Sister Mitzvah said, referring to conservative pundits and Catholic leaders.
The group did not identify the two members who took the wafers. One of the men, however, sent an e-mail to the church after the Mass and gave the name "Sister Delta Goodhand."
Conservative Fox news commentator Bill O'Reilly, who has disparaged "San Francisco values," called the latest flap another example of how the city is run by "far-left secular progressives who despise the military, traditional values and religion."
On his Friday news show, O'Reilly called San Francisco "a disgrace on every level."
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom dismissed O'Reilly's comments.
"This debate really is about San Francisco values. The Bill O'Reillys of the world are threatened by San Francisco because we value diversity, universal health care and civil rights for all. They will exploit any controversy to attack our values."
Some local Catholics, however, said they were hurt by what they said was a mockery of their most holy ritual.
"It's been all the news in Catholic circles," said Bill May, chairman of the San Francisco-based Catholics for the Common Good. "Catholics are hurt, frustrated and a bit angry because nobody is standing up and saying this is not right. This is a desecration of the Eucharist. They were there to make a statement and embarrass the archbishop and, in doing so, they desecrated what is most sacred and dear to every Catholic in the world."
Holy Communion is a centuries-old tradition in which the celebrant receives from a priest the consecrated bread and wine representing the "Body of Christ" and the "Blood of Christ." It is to be taken reverentially, as it is considered the source of Christian life.
"The general sacramental principle is that you don't deny the sacrament to someone who requests it," said the Rev. Jim Bretzke, professor of moral theology at University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Catholic university. "The second principle is that you cannot give communion to someone who has been excommunicated."
He said such people are designated "manifest public sinners" in canon law.
"This is someone who violates in a serious way one of the Ten Commandments or one of the important laws of the Church," he said. "While I can see Bill O'Reilly and others might be offended, the sisters do not meet the criteria the church has for denying Communion. Over-accessorizing and poor taste in makeup is not an excommunicable offense."
Bretzke added, "Even if these people were bizarrely dressed, the archbishop was following clear pastoral and canonical principles in giving them Communion. The default is, you give Holy Communion to one who presents himself."
Matt Dorsey, who works in the city attorney's office and is a parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer, attended the Oct. 7 Mass. He said the service was held on the day of the Castro Street Fair, so many parishioners were casually dressed.
"The Sisters have done a lot of great work for social justice," Dorsey said. "I think it's deeply offensive to see this incident politicized this way. It's not about religion. It's about the culture war."
On a lighter note, he said he couldn't help but notice the Sisters as soon as they entered the sanctuary.
"I was there in jeans and T-shirt," he said. "I have to give the Sisters credit for taking far more time getting ready than I did."
Dorsey said he was impressed by an e-mail sent to the general mailbox of Most Holy Redeemer after the Mass.
Sister Delta Goodhand, one of the two who received communion from Niederauer, wrote: "Just a quick note to recognize the wonderful mass yesterday at your Church. Your entire congregation was so welcoming and it was great to be able to participate. You are a wonderfully inclusive Church."
To see a video of the incident, go to links.sfgate.com/ZBFL
E-mail Julian Guthrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle