Friday, January 2, 2015

"Et Verbum caro factum est": Considerations on the Treatment of the Eucharist

Fr. Paul Nicholson, the wonderful missionary preacher from the Diocese of London, Ontario, recently posted a video homily in which he addresses the reception of Holy Communion in the hand. Father tackles it very well, I think. He makes clear that like it or not, the legislative authority of the church, specifically the Roman Pontiff, has allowed the practice, and so not even a parish priest can do much to actually eradicate the practice. If someone wishes to receive in the hand, then so be it. Of course this does not address the Extraordinary Form, where it is not allowed (Perhaps this is undiplomatic, but at my parish, the server simply places the paten under the chin, and the communicant figures out the need to stick out his or her tongue.

The increase of Eucharistic devotion as a whole in the life of the church is an important part of the permission to receive Communion in the hand. It cannot in any way diminish, according to the original indult issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI. Father Nicholson argues that it has not really increased either, and while he doesn't exactly say it decreased, I think at best one can say it grew stagnant.

In the mid-1960s, as I think most of the readers here know, changes were made to the liturgy and to the environment of worship in the church, and the reformers, at least in part claimed these were a return to the sources. Worship facing the people became the usual practice, based on an interpretation of the evidence from Roman churches such as St. Peter's Basilica. Since Eucharistic adoration was seen as a distraction from worship of Christ in the Mass, tabernacles were moved so as not to be a distraction from the altar of sacrifice and the Eucharist consecrated at that particular celebration. (Adoration developed during the Middle Ages.) Also, genuflections when crossing the altar in the presence of the tabernacle were eventually replaced by bows except at the beginning and end of Mass.

Now to the principle topic of discussion. Dutch and Belgian bishops re-introduced Communion in the hand to the church, a practice which had been extinct since the 800s in both the East and West.  It would seem to me that reformers knew this, but they claimed it was a return to a more ancient practice of receiving the Eucharistic Lord. The best book on this subject is still Dominus Est-It is the Lord!: Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion by Bishop Athanasius Schenider. He obviously loves the Lord, and this love flowed into this book. It is the kind of book where his love for the Lord will flow into your heart and mind as well. He covers both the history of the reception of Communion as well as the spiritual and even doctrinal, to the extent that our practice influences our belief, reasons to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, and in the Latin church, while kneeling.

One can separate these changes from one another, but I argue they are all connected. First, if the reform is meant to be a restoration of the liturgy from the time of the fathers, then it must be done wholesale. I believe in intense honesty, especially when dealing with things that are as important as the Mass. If the liturgical reforms are truly to go to the sources, there must be no Agnus Dei, no Sequences, no genuflections, no name of St. Joseph in the Roman Canon, no additional Eucharistic Prayers. The re-introduction of Communion in the hand contrasts to the developed text and ceremony.

 Secondly, the reliance on historical evidence in order to argue for certain liturgical practices is subject to change with the publication of the next major scholarly work. The liturgy must be received, not modified in order to keep it up to date with what we think it was like at the time of Gregory the Great. Of course that assumes we even have that in mind. The traditional Roman liturgy is what was received. I can think of a few changes that ought to be made here and there, to propers for the last 4 Sundays after Pentecost and to the lectionary perhaps. But the ritual, one that lasted almost without change for well over a thousand years, need not be picked apart. For instance, the form of the Pax was basically settled by the late 700s. The priest fractioned the host, sang Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum as he made three signs of the Cross over the chalice, with the reply being Et cum spiritu tuo [The peace of the Lord be with you always/And with thy spirit]. He then prayed the Haec commixtio as the host was conmingled with the chalice. Now, this is where it gets a bit complicated. The Agnus Dei was a late addition, so it was at different times not prayed, prayed after the Kiss, or prayed before Domine Iesu Christi, qui dixisti Apostolis tuis [O Lord Jesus Christ, who didst say to thine Apostles, "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you,"] and finishing, he kissed the altar with the deacon. The priest then gave the Kiss of Peace to the deacon, who gave it to the subdeacon and so forth. There was no reason to change this practice, even if it could be justified by the order of the council to simplify the rites, on account of its ancient form.

On those notes of scholarship, even though I ironically tend to reject that particular hermeneutic of liturgical development, as well as the practice as received from the fathers, the best way to celebrate the Mass is facing the East. The arguments are too many to enter into here, but let's address the obvious elephant in the room. We tend to focus on Father "Call me Billy Bob" of St. Wipiddy Do-Da in Blackberry Square (in the same Diocese of Black Duck as Fr. Z's St. Ipsidipsy in Tall Tree Circle) and not as the priest who received his priesthood from Christ the true priest, as the one celebrating the Mass, as the one leading the congregation towards the Lord who will come at the end of time, and the one interceding for us before the Father.

The reformers' arguments are also argued without regard to the dangers to belief in the Eucharist resulting from over-correction of beliefs and practices dating to before the council, as beliefs that seem to be contradicted by new practices tend to be discarded in favor of the practices. The Eucharist is the same Eucharist, whether it is in the tabernacle or not, whether It was consecrated at that Mass or not. I think it is important to make a reasonable effort to consecrate hosts to be widely distributed at Mass in order to connect that Mass and that act of consecration to the personal reception of Communion at that same Mass , but that shouldn't preclude distribution of reserved hosts for practical reasons. Further, the reserved Eucharist brought from the papal Mass was mingled with the Eucharist of the Mass celebrated in the stational churches in Rome, so distributing the Eucharist previously consecrated is a sign of communion between all the other Masses celebrated throughout the world. On the other hand, one will not actually believe the Eucharist is the same if It is not treated as such when the priest does not genuflect when passing the tabernacle. By the way, this practice of stational Masses might be the origin of the subdeacon's wearing of the humeral veil and holding the paten. That is another example of treating holy things as we ought to treat them. We veil them: the paten (with the humeral veil or the corporal), the bishop's miter and crozier, the chalice, the tabernacle. But I digress.

Granted, a few historical accidents had to occur for this problem to arise. First, the theology of Adoration had to develop in the high Middle Ages. Second, this had to be reinforced in light of the Protestant denigration of the sacrament, and in order to connect Adoration to the Mass, the tabernacle was placed behind the altar on the central axis of the church. However, this has never been the case in the cathedral churches, at least in Europe. At the very least the Eucharist is removed-in the older form- from the tabernacle and placed in another suitable and accessible place of reservation when a bishop celebrates. Finally, the Low Mass had to become the paradigm for the Roman liturgy in place of the Pontifical High Mass. If one examines a ceremonial, one finds that the norm for the priest celebrant is to bow to the altar when leaving, returning, and crossing, except if the Blessed Sacrament be reserved there, in which case he genuflects. Then, and only then, could the reserved Eucharist then be seen a distraction from that Mass.

But I never have understood this nor the distraction posed by the second altar. Adoration of our God stems from and points toward divine worship, at the heart of which is the Eucharist. In Eucharistic adoration we specifically recognize that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Godhead, is in the flesh, his divinity veiled not only in that flesh but also under the form of bread and wine. And it should always drive us towards reception of Communion, which ought to take place during the celebration of Mass. Therefore, we always ought to recognize the Lord's presence, and in the Roman Rite, we genuflect to indicate that He is present. St. Paul said that every knee should bend at the Holy Name of Jesus. St. Gregory the Great, in a model case of Roman noble simplicity and the spirit of the liturgy, explained that this can be accomplished by a bow of the head or even one of the heart. It is impractical to kneel at every mention of Our Lord's name at Mass, so firstly it is used at regular points or at least ones that one can prepare for such as the readings. Moreover, genuflections are kept to this same pattern, and only the ones at the exiting of the sanctuary (to retrieve torches and such) are unpredictable. They should be kept to the minimum necessary to conduct the ceremonies.

The second altar meanwhile is a contrived problem. If the tabernacle is at the church's main altar, then one genuflects. If it is not, then one bows before Mass anyways (and the priest does during Mass). But the current discipline of the church, requiring the tabernacle be on the central axis or at least in a prominent place in the sanctuary, is in tension with the general practice of worship versus populum and the rubrics of the revised Missale Romanum. To put it bluntly, bowing to an altar in front of the tabernacle raises one's butt to Our Lord in the tabernacle. Also, to make to notice of the tabernacle signals that the Eucharist reserved there is not as important, and eventually people stop believing in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, to say nothing of their understanding of the doctrine of transubstantiation. There are also far fewer kisses to the altar, only those at the beginning and end of Mass, which does two things. It makes worship versus populum more convenient, and it takes away from the altar and its own relationship to Christ. The altar in the usus antiquior is kissed every time the priest turns around, and it is to be kissed as if to say good-bye to the Lord, if only for a moment. This balances the recognition of Christ in the tabernacle by genuflection.

As regards Holy Communion as received in the hand, Fr. Nicholson delicately navigated its treatment. One can receive it without profaning it. But we make it easy to steal and profane, and I think that should be a cause of concern. I am not sure there is any argument against it from those who argue in favor of keeping this discipline of the church as it stands. There are people who are on a better and holier path than me who receive in the hand, and there's no way to answer why that is the case. This returns firstly to the integrity of the reforms. The bishops of the Low Countries did not return to the ancient practice. They heavily simplified and modified it. The rubrics still mandated the paten and houseling cloth to be used at all times in order to keep the Sacred Species from crumbling everywhere, yet this fell out of practice. (The GIRM still mandates it for Communion via intinction, and one would do well to use it all the time.) There was no ablution of the fingers, as Fr. Nicholson wisely suggests, nor was there an ablution of the mouth with water and wine. This was in late medieval ordos as a practice for the faithful, and since the use of wine to purify is still required in the Extraordinary Form, the practice on the priest's part is still a part of the Roman liturgy.

One may attribute the problem to a lack of catechesis on the nature of the Eucharist or at least how to receive it. If the former, then it seems a lackadaisical reception seems understandable, since no one actually believes they are receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. If the primarily the latter, then belief in the sacrament will erode more likely than not, since one will naturally think, "That can't possibly be the way to treat the most precious gift ever given to humankind." It would be hard for belief to be maintained and a better practice adopted, unless one has reference to the older practice still used in the Extraordinary Form, that of receiving on the tongue kneeling.

Let's consider that one is taught that the Eucharist is indeed Jesus Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the form of bread and wine. He or she is taught to receive Him properly according to the norms of receiving in the hand. A reverence is made, and the hands are cupped, with one over the other like a throne. Only two fingers are used to pick up the Host, and the person consumes the Host in place, before moving towards the chalice to receive the Precious Blood. This situation is hard to argue against, since it's not exactly irreverent, but it does not inspire a lively faith in the Eucharist. Also, any spiritual benefits ought to be outweighed by the combination of the received tradition, which is the reception of Communion on the tongue, and for Latin Catholics while kneeling, along with the possibility of profanation and loss of belief.

By the way, a station with ablution bowls as Father Nicholson suggests and patens as I also suggest would only be possible at a parish such as my own. We had twenty-three altar boys one Sunday. Please do not scream "Fortescue hated extraneous servers!" at me. There's nothing I can do about it, nor will I stop such a practice. Better that than having too few!  I do like his idea though. If it is not the established practice, wherein one would loathe to be the sole person receiving in the hand or standing, it is good to prod people towards receiving on the tongue kneeling. I'm happy for them to give up because they don't like washing their hands so that over time they might come to love that practice of kneeling and for them to grow in the love of God. It is even better to do it the first time with a radical fire burning in one's soul, but the Christian life is one of small steps along the way of the Cross.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. You obviously love our Lord.

    I also wanted to add a little footnote to one of your sentences : ''Also, genuflections when crossing the altar in the presence of the tabernacle were eventually replaced by bows except at the beginning and end of Mass.''

    That is true only if the Blessed Sacrament were not present in the sanctuary.

    The U.S. dioceses version of the GIRM, no 274, says :

    ''If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.

    Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.''

    Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.''

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