The incident occurred at the 1997 World Youth Day in France at Notre-Dame de Paris. The nave was roped off so the faithful could attend Mass, while the side aisles remained open accepting throngs of tourists.
The assembly approached to receive Communion. Trusting, wide-eyed kids and young adults stood up to receive our Lord—many leaving backpacks, purses and camera bags unattended at their chairs. And that’s when it happened. In the blink of an eye, someone reached over the rope and snatched a backpack that was left behind. The perpetrator dashed off never to be seen again. The victim—a teen in our group—had a rude awakening. For the past 18 years ever since, she has taken her purse up to Communion due to that unforgettable trip.
Why take it with you?
Let’s face it, no one has the The Logan Sapphire or the Hope Diamond in their purse or backpack. Nonetheless, some people do carry pricey objects in them. The backpack stolen from Notre Dame contained a camera, passport and travel documents. I read an account of a stolen bag containing an engagement ring that was to receive a priestly blessing after Mass. All of us would dread parting with hundreds of priceless photos and numerous contacts stored on phones that can run upwards of $800.
What’s in your wallet?: In addition to costly items, some people tote plenty of cash. A stolen phone or jewelry necessitates a trip to a pawn shop, but cash is immediate, untraceable spoils for a thief. And what about plastic? As a victim of credit card theft myself, I know first-hand how quickly a perpetrator can run up charges. No one enjoys calling credit card companies to cancel and replace stolen cards or applying for a new driver’s license. And if a spare house key was in your wallet, it’s time to change the locks on the house.
Beyond Benjamins: But more important than money, some people carry emergency medications they need at a moment’s notice—nitroglycerin tablets, EpiPen, insulin injections and inhalers for example. Not just a few hundred dollars, a stolen purse could cost them their lives.
For these reasons and more, many of our fellow parishioners make an excellent case for taking their purses up to Communion…but still, some choose not to. Why?
Leaving it all behind.
I conducted a few informal interviews for this post and here’s why some people would never be caught holding the bag.
Trust Issues: The overwhelming reason I was given for not taking a pocketbook up to Communion is a perceived lack of trust. Objections were phrased something like this:
“These people are my brothers and sisters. I know them all. We just heard the Word of the Lord and are about to receive his Body and Blood. How could I not trust them with my purse? Taking it up to communion is telling them ‘I don’t trust you.’”
A Balancing Act: Another common objection is the sheer weight of the purse. Handbags may contain all sorts of items including hand sanitizer, wipes, bandaids, cough drops, tissues, lip balm, make-up, mirror, perfume, nail file, clippers, medications and a pocket umbrella in addition to a wallet, keys, sunglasses, checkbook and phone.
If a heavy purse like this doesn’t have a long enough strap to place it over the shoulder, taking Communion in the hand could be challenging. The purse could be tucked under the arm or hang from the wrist, but either of these solutions increase the likelihood of dropping the Host—if taking Communion in the hand—or spilling the Precious Blood. The purse could be a tripping hazard if placed on the floor.
I’m outta here: A less common objection to taking a pocketbook is that some people may think you’re leaving right after Communion. Not wanting to be mistaken for going AWOL, these parishioners choose to leave it behind.
A landmark decision: Some large churches have scores of identical pews—one after the other—making it challenging at times to find your way back to your seat. A purse can serve as a marker.
These are compelling arguments for both sides of the debate, but is the reasoning baseless? Is there really a clear and present danger or is it our own delusions and? Is there a credible threat?
My childhood parish in Hialeah, Florida is not a tourist attraction. Everyone was familiar. My mother always left her pocketbook behind and there never was an incident. I switched parishes after getting married and my wife’s handbag has never been bothered either. But it does happen, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Thieves look for soft targets. They go to places where people feel safe and drop their guard; coffee shops, hair salons, supermarkets, parking lots, funeral homes and yes, churches.
It’s not just a domestic problem either. Here’s a theft that occurred in Gloucestershire, England—on Christmas Day no less!
My own mother had her purse stolen at a cemetery as she “helped” a couple with directions. One occupied her while the other made the grab.
Take it or leave it.
So what are we to do? Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer—it’s a mixed bag. Based on my observations, interviews and a FaceBook post, most parishioners choose to leave their handbags in the pew at a typical Sunday Mass, but take it with them when the church is full of new faces like on Easter and Christmas. Others lock their purses in the trunk of their cars and put their offering envelopes and keys in their pocket.
We can’t live distrusting others. But desperation, at times, causes people to choose to do wrong. So long as there is free will, there’s always a chance that your purse may be a target—no matter how slim.
So what do you do? Do you cram your purse under the pew? Do you ask someone to watch it for you? Do you feel you’re offending your pew mates if you take it with you? Does your parish address this in the announcements or bulletin? Share and let’s learn together!