FERRARA – Controversy has erupted both inside and outside the Catholic Church after a parish priest in northern Italy refused to offer communion to a disabled child. Father Piergiorgio Zaghi of the Immaculate Conception church in Porto Garibaldi, a village near Ferrara, denied the sacrament at Easter mass, saying that the mentally-disabled boy was unable to “understand the mystery of the Eucharist.” 

The parents of the boy in the Emilia-Romagna region have taken their case both to the European Court of Human Rights and to the higher authorities at the Holy See in Rome. 

Antonio Marziale, a sociologist and head of the Children’s Rights Observatory as well as a consultant for the Italian Parliamentary Committee for Childhood, denounced the denial of the rite as “cultural obscurantism from the Middle Ages.”

Parishioners are divided between those who share the priest’s view and those who disagree, and are calling for Pope Benedict XVI to weigh in and defend the right of the mentally disabled to receive the sacrament. A boy who attends catechism classes with the disabled child wrote a letter to the priest: “If he was with us, it would be a great joy for him, and we would see the actual value of Communion.”

In Rome, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis denounced the priest’s decision, noting that in the Eastern Rite churches children receive the Eucharist soon after their christening. “As long as the disabled person does not desecrate the host, if they receive it calmly, it is normal practice to offer it to them,” De Paolis said. “Never have I denied host”, and above all, “the strength of the sacrament also touches the ill and the dying.”

Backed by bishop

Claudia, the mother of the child, still hopes that Father Zaghi will “think again” about his decision. She said her son enjoyed the catechism class to prepare for the taking of communion. “Of course his degree of attention was not like his classmates," she said. As for her son’s “understanding of the Eucharist,” she said that “I don’t like to say it but – even a ‘normal’ 10-year-old child cannot fully understand the concept.”

The family’s attorneys will argue that “Canon law does not mention either the age or the mental abilities of the recipient of the Eucharist.”  They also highlight that “although this child is indeed living with major motor disabilities, by law he is not completely unable to understand the significance of the sacrament.”

The first communion ceremony is to be held in May and will involve about 20 children. The boy’s family is confident that this gives enough time for the priest to change course, although so far the bishop of Ferrara has backed the parish priest. “I hope that my son will be able to have the communion with all his friends," Claudia said. "They want to celebrate the ceremony with us. They stand in solidarity.”

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Danilo Mistroni