Communion controversy not raised in Harper's papal meeting

  • July 14, 2009
{mosimage}VATICAN CITY - The Communion controversy that upstaged Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to the G8 summit in Italy was not brought up in his July 11 private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

Harper, in an exclusive interview with CCN, said the controversy was driven by “people who want to cause embarrassment in religion and drive a wedge between Protestants and Catholics.”

“That’s whose agenda this is and that’s not the Pope’s agenda,” Harper said. “He was very interested in the G8 and in the outcomes of the G8, especially in relation to some of the themes he wrote about in his latest encyclical.”

The pontiff and Harper spent about 20 minutes alone together in the Pope’s library in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. Their conversation took place in French.

“(Benedict XVI) seemed very warm, very genial,” Harper said. “We had a good long discussion about a range of topical issues.”

In addition to world affairs, Harper said they shared a “more personal discussion about faith and politics and the challenges that can present from time to time.”

Harper virtually never talks publicly about his Protestant faith. He was forced to on this trip, however, when news stories accused him of pocketing the Communion Host while attending Romeo LeBlanc’s funeral July 3.

Harper indicated he made a decision when entering public life that out of respect for the Catholic Church’s teachings on Communion he would not go forward to seek it, but if offered he would not refuse it — in a Catholic church or any other Christian denomination.

At the final G8 news conference, Harper criticized the initial story on the issue.

“Somebody running an unsubstantiated story that I would stick communion bread in my pocket is really absurd and I think it's a real, frankly, a low point,” he said, according to Canwest News.

Journalists covering the G8 zeroed in on a political angle, exploring whether Harper’s seeking the papal audience was aimed at shoring up Catholic voters back home. The prime minister, however, stressed the importance of the Vatican on the world stage.

“While I’m not theologically a Catholic, in my judgment, the Catholic Church is a critical bulwark of worldwide Christianity,” Harper said. “The Pope is an important moral and spiritual leader generally and for Christians generally, even though I’m not a Catholic.”

He also noted that he visited the Pope not only as a worldwide spiritual leader but as a head of state. 

“Vatican City, as small as it is, is an important state in the world,” he said. “It is an influential, well-connected state that is very influential in world affairs.”

Harper was briefed on the encyclical Caritas in Veritate before his audience. Released on the eve of the G8 summit, the lengthy document outlines the inseparability of charity and truth, and the importance of the human person as made in God’s image. It spells out the need for transcendent moral values underpinning free market technology. The Pope also wrote of the role of governments in an increasingly globalized world and the importance of subsidiarity and civil society institutions.

This was Harper’s first time meeting a pope, though he said he had been well aware of John Paul II’s presence on the world stage and attended his 2005 funeral. Harper said his family also enjoyed meeting Pope Benedict.

“It was a great experience for them,” he said. “He gave the family some wonderful gifts that will be great keepsakes.”

The Pope gave the Harper children Ben and Rachel blessed key chains and Harper’s wife Laureen a commemorative medallion.

The prime minister and the Pope had a formal gift exchange that followed the audience.  Harper gave the pontiff a glass vase designed by Andrew Kuntz. The Pope gave the prime minister a fountain pen designed created by Vatican Museum artists to resemble one of the columns in Bernini’s Baldacchino, the cast-bronze canopy over the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.

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