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World Youth Day and plastic containers: What really happened

Eucharist Controversy

Last week a controversy erupted about the way the Blessed Sacrament was stored during the Saturday night preceding Sunday’s papal mass at World Youth Day (WYD) Lisbon.

Pictures circulating on social media showed plastic containers on top of tables inside a white tent, with some young people kneeling before them. According to reports of one of the young people present, those boxes contained the Blessed Sacrament.

Outrage arose on social media, since this was not perceived as a proper way to expose the Eucharist.

The City and the World contacted one of the volunteers assigned to guard the Blessed Sacrament that night. He agreed to reply on the condition of anonymity.

During the interview the volunteer explained that the hosts were consecrated on Saturday during the day and were then transported to Campo da Graça, where the papal mass would take place the following day. 

The hosts were not placed directly on the plastic containers, but on metal pyxides which were then put therein. According to the volunteer, the plastic boxes were meant to help in the transportation of the pyxides and to protect the Eucharist from the wind and dust outside. 

The crates containing the pyxides were then placed inside tents dispersed throughout the campsite, to allow a more efficient distribution the next day. These containers were not meant for adoration, only for safeguarding overnight.

Eighty-two volunteers were assigned to guard the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night, with a ratio of at least two volunteers per tent. These volunteers were the only ones meant to know the contents of the boxes. 

Unfortunately, the tents supplied by the city hall were not all designed the same. The tents on the Lisbon side of the campsite were small and easy to close, but the tents on the Loures side were wider and could not be perfectly shut.

The onlookers started to get curious and asked the volunteers about the content of the plastic boxes. After knowing that the Eucharist was present there, the pilgrims started to adore it. This was probably the time when the young people in the viral pics were photographed.

The volunteer then clarified that, upon noticing the ad hoc Eucharistic adoration, some tents allowed for the removal of some of the pyxides from the crates, which were then placed upon the table, with some candles and plants to make it more dignified.

Filipe d’Avillez wrote an article for The Pillar that seems to validate this version of events. An English priest interviewed for this article explained: “The tent was there for Mass in the morning, so that people could get Holy Communion at Mass. It clearly wasn’t there so that people could have a chapel to adore in their sectors. There was no marking on the outside saying it was a chapel, or anything like that.”

The City and the World corroborates that the smaller tents were spread through Campo da Graça, but it was not possible to know what was inside without insider knowledge or without going out of one’s way to find out. In the official WYD app, the only scheduled Eucharistic adoration was the one with the Holy Father during the papal vigil.

Elsewhere in his article, Filipe shows that the situation shown in the viral pics was an exception rather than the rule. According to a priest familiar with these events, the “instructions were for every tent to have the boxes stored underneath the tables, which were covered with tablecloths custom-made for this vigil. Five or six ciboria should have been placed on top of the tables, for adoration.”

The City and the World contacted the organizers in charge of the World Youth Day’s liturgy, but they declined to respond.

Earlier during the WYD week, there had already been another controversy surrounding the distribution of the Eucharist on plastic “ciboria” covered with cellophane during mass. However, that happened during a mass organized by Spanish pilgrims and not a mass organized by WYD itself.

The case of St. Tarcisius

This seems a good time to be reminded of the story of St. Tarcisius, a boy who died protecting the Eucharist during the Roman persecutions of the third century. 

Tarcisius was a young 12-year-old boy who volunteered to carry Jesus in the Eucharist to the prisoners condemned to die, since there was no deacon available.

At that time, Christians were far more concerned about the prisoners receiving communion than with the container. The hosts were carefully wrapped in linen cloth and placed in a small case, probably more crude than any container we have today.

While on his way to distribute communion to the prisoners, Tarcisius was stopped by a pagan mob who asked him to give up the Eucharist. Tarcisius was beaten and died protecting the Blessed Sacrament. For this reason, Pope St. Damaus called him a “boy-martyr of the Eucharist.”

The case of St. Tarcisius shows how it is possible to have a deep love and reverence for the Eucharist while making concessions to make the Eucharist more available in spite of contingencies due to extraordinary circumstances.