Church officials say UCF Student Senator Webster Cook was disruptive and disrespectful when he attended Mass held on campus Sunday June 29. It was during that Mass where Cook admits he obtained the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is a small bread wafer blessed by a priest. According to Catholics, the wafer becomes the Body of Christ once blessed and is to be consumed immediately after a minister passes it out to churchgoers.
Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.
“When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him,” Cook said. “I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they’d leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth.”
A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that’s why he brought it home with him.
“She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand,” Cook said, adding she wouldn’t immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.
Diocese of Orlando spokeswoman Carol Brinati said she was not aware of anyone touching Cook. She released a statement Thursday: “… a Catholic Campus Ministry student representative filed a complaint with the Student Union regarding the behavior of the two young men. A Student Government Representative called Catholic Campus Ministry to apologize for this disruption.”
Cook filed an official abuse complaint with UCF’s student conduct court regarding the alleged physical force. Following that complaint, Brinati said church members filed their own official complaints of disruptive conduct. Punishment for either offense could result in suspension or expulsion.
“The church feels that I’m the problem here,” Cook said. “The problem is actually that this is a publicly-funded religious institution. Through student government here, we fund them through an activity and service, so they’re receiving student money.”
Cook is upset more than $40,000 in student fees have been allocated to support religious organizations on campus for the 2008-2009 school year, according to student government records. He denied he is holding the Eucharist hostage to protest that support.
Regardless of the reason, the Diocese says its main concern is to get the Eucharist back so it can be taken care of properly and with respect. Cook has been keeping the Eucharist stored in a plastic bag since last Sunday.
“It is hurtful,” said Father Migeul Gonzalez with the Diocese. “Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family.”
Gonzalez said the Diocese is willing to meet with Cook and help him understand the importance of the Eucharist in hopes of him returning it. The Diocese is dispatching a nun to UCF’s campus to oversee the next mass, protect the Eucharist and in hopes Cook will return it.
Cook said he’d consider returning the Eucharist if he gets an apology and a meeting with the Bishop’s office to discuss the Diocese’s policy on physical force.
Gonzalez said intentionally abusing the Eucharist is classified as a mortal sin in the Catholic church, the most severe possible. If it’s not returned, the community of faith will have to ask for forgiveness.
“We have to make acts of reparation,” Gonzalez said. “The whole community is going to turn to prayer. We’ll ask the Lord for pardon, forgiveness, peace, not only for the whole community affected by it, but also for [Cook], we offer prayers for him as well.”