Monday, August 1, 2011

Discipleship requires hospitality at the Eucharistic table

There are reasons the liturgy was reformed as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The main reason for the reforms was to provide for the full, active, and conscious participation of all the faithful in the Sacred Liturgy. For some forty or fifty years before the Council the lack of participation by all the faithful in the Mass was matter of great concern among many pastors, bishops, and even popes. This led to surprising reforms even before Vatican II, made by the likes of such popes as Pius X and Pius XII. After Vatican II the Mass came to include congregational singing and congregational responses, both said and sung. The way was also opened for meaningful participation by the laity in liturgical ministries, which includes serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and as lectors. Hence, the remedy for whatever may ail the liturgy in the lengthy aftermath of these reforms is not a wholesale return to pre-conciliar practice, which is not what Pope Benedict's "reform of the reform" intends to bring about.

It seems to me that for every 12 Catholics who care of about matters liturgical there are 13 opinions, meaning we have a long way to go in realizing the unity the Eucharist was given to bring about. It ought to go without saying that the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Christian unity. All too often it becomes the most divisive aspect of our ecclesial lives together. This is why I think great docility is required of all the faithful, both lay and clerical, when it comes to matters liturgical.

It is quite obvious that some people are more traditional in their liturgical preference and others more contemporary, while some still are more moderate, even though they lean one way or other (Full disclosure: I consider myself a moderate with traditional leanings, who is not averse at all to participating in a well-done, yet faithful, Mass in a more contemporary style). As Roman Catholics we face a highly unusual situation in which we have the Mass in two distinct forms: the Ordinary form and the Extraordinary form. The latter, of course, refers to approval of the use of the pre-conciliar Mass according to the final pre-conciliar edition of the Roman Missal, which was implemented in 1962. Nonetheless, Mass in the traditional form remains extraordinary with the so-called Novus Ordo being the ordinary form of the Mass. It bears noting that it was recently indicated by Cardinal Koch, who is the President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that this state-of-affairs will result, at some future point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, in a single rite.

In the wake of some recent public comments by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that the whole Church should return to the practice of kneeling to receive Holy Communion, there is no shortage of people who want to demagogue this issue and who seek to impose their individual teaching authority. Cardinal Canizares' reason for saying this, at least according to the news sources I have read, was because he noticed that bowing before receiving communion while standing (something that should be done) is practically non-existent. As with many things in the Church today, this is probably more indicative of a lack of catechesis and Christian formation than a lack of reverence.

It is no secret that at the Holy Father's request, at Masses celebrated by the pontiff, those who receive communion from him receive on the tongue while kneeling (a prie dieu being put in place for that purpose). It is also true that in places, like the United States, where the normal way for receiving communion, set forth by our bishops and approved in by the Holy See (see Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America) is that it is at the discretion of the communicant whether to receive communion under both species, to receive standing, and to receive the Host either directly on the tongue or in the hand. The practical norm in the U.S. is to receive communion standing, after making a reverential bow prior to receiving communion. Not long ago, the Holy Father made it a point that those who choose to receive communion kneeling should in nowise be made to stand, but should be accommodated in the spirit of Eucharistic hospitality. Standing to receive Holy Communion is only done by way of an indult, not as a matter of law. However, the indults in this regard have now been in place for decades and so, it can credibly be argued, they can now be considered to be normative.

It is a very short trip from these kinds of observations to demands for communion rails to be re-installed in all churches and accusations that those who do not favor returning to receiving Holy Communion while kneeling don't really believe in the Real Presence, despite the fact that kneeling to receive Holy Communion is not the experience of most Catholics. Such matters require humility and great docility to magisterial authority, which includes your bishop and even your pastor. In short, you are not holier, or even necessarily more reverential, for kneeling to receive communion than many of your sisters and brothers who prefer to stand, just as returning to your pew after receiving communion, kneeling, and remaining in this posture until the end of the Communion Rite, does not make you more holy than someone who returns to their pew, sits and joins in the singing that takes place during this rite, especially if you do this in order to show others just how holy you are! Of course, the same is certainly true in reverse.

Anyone on either side of this issue that makes this ideological or divisive is to be eschewed, that is, ignored. It is certainly a legitimate aspect of our Catholic faith that is worthy of discussion and not just by Church leaders or experts, but all the faithful precisely because it concerns the central of act of our faith, which is always an ecclesial act. So, let's not throw extreme examples about, like the priest here or there who refuses to give communion to somebody who insists on kneeling, or receiving communion directly on the tongue, seeking to thereby implicate all who do not share the commentators point-of-view. As with most things in the Church, these rare occurrences are best redressed locally either by resolving the matter directly with the priest in question, or, if necessary (meaning the latter has failed) going through the chancery. The equal and opposite of this is impugning those who genuinely and piously ("pious" not being a perjorative word) desire to take what they see as an appropriately reverential approach to receiving Holy Communion as being ignorant, ill-informed, or hopelessly retrograde.

Mass is no place for activism or self-assertion of any kind. So, if you desire to receive communion on the tongue while kneeling, which is certainly not the norm in the U.S. as per our bishops (it is the reality regardless as to what you personally think about it), you might want to schedule an appointment with your pastor and discuss this with him rather than drop to your knees at Mass and take him unawares.

I've said it before and it bears repeating: Part of being a Christian means that how you say something is at least as important as what you say. You may very well be correct, but it may not matter or make a difference to anyone, except negatively, or merely serving to reinforce those who already agree with you. We should always bear in mind the words of the apostle:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3)

UPDATE: My post Discourse divorced from reality: Norway and Israel was published this morning in the English edition of Il Sussidiario.


  1. Although your premises are sound I would like to respectfully debate a few inferences in this.
    1. I am not sure that anything conciliar envisioned the normative use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. I am not sure any postconciliar document could really be said to envision this either. Only some documents from a few conference of Bishops such as our own.
    2. I think it is a slippery slope to infer that doing a ministry during Mass actually is a form of active conscience participation in Mass. People start to think you must "do" something or some sort of ministry to participate and thus those who do not or are not that week are not participating in that full way. Full, Active, conscience participation is actually more about entering into the mystery then "doing" anything physical. All documents that have spoken this phrase have primarily stated the way to reach this is through catechesis on the Liturgy. Understanding what is going on and uniting our spirit to the cosmic liturgy.
    3. you are right that standing is an indult that has been around for years, as is receiving on the hand. Though again I think often times it is more a lack of catechesis then it is a desire of the people that this has become a norm. Having been in many different Catholic churches I very rarely even see the 2nd graders being explained how to receive on the tongue.
    4.Although, the lack of bowing before receiving communion. may be from a lack of catechesis, this can also be a cop out excuse. It is easy to say that we are not explaining it to the people. Yet, we must remember the greatest teaching about our faith is our actions. If some who do know bow, and this does not help others see the need for this, and understand why, then maybe there is need for more. Being in charge of training EMHC's at my parish I can say that there has been a lot of catechesis from me to them over the last year, however, the greatest movement in the thought and understanding of these EMHC's has been when new procedures have been put forth to show a greater reverence for the Eucharist, and yet, we are still not anywhere close to where we need to be. I still see a lot of lack of respect for the Eucharist and a lack of understanding of who the Eucharist is. It is a long slow process, and the minimal actions we require are not always enough. (This does not mean that kneeling to receive Our Lord would solve this, but the action would speak to belief)
    I only write these words to continue dialogue, not to cause consternation or frustration amongst people. I think one thing the Cardinals words can do, is exactly what you are promoting here which is open and true dialogue. I find it sad, that a person receiving on their knees should have to talk to their pastor first or it is assumed they are promoting some agenda.
    My biggest complaint is that in 2001 the American Bishops felt the need to try to restrict the mode of our sign of reverence before receiving Our Lord. In the name of unity.

  2. I appreciate your comments very much and I agree that a meaningful and charitable dialogue about these matters is most useful. Most of all, however, humility and docility to Church authority is what we need, as dialogue among the faithful regarding this will ultimately resolve little or nothing. The liturgical ministries I mention are undeniably part of the post Conciliar reform. Such an assertion seems a simple statement of what is, not a statement about what should be. If what you mean is that they are not the necessary and inevitable result of Sacrosanctum Concilium, then I agree, but they are the result of the post-conciliar reform and arose to foster the more active participation of the faithful by those charged with interpreting and implementing the Council.

    As to your second point, whatever it may be it is not a slippery slope (a logical fallacy that amounts to making an unsubstantiated assertion about what will happen without showing a causal nexus). Since most of the faithful are neither lectors nor Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, it seems there are plenty of people who go to Mass and who do not feel the need to be involved in these public liturgical ministries. I agree that extraordinary ministers are often over-used at Masses, whereas there is often a shortage of people to bring communion to the sick and homebound. For example, I have been at Masses where there was plenty of ordained ministers (i.e., ordinary ministers of communion), some of whom did not distribute due to the use of extraordinary ministers.

    My only point about reverential gestures, which I agree need to made more frequently and understood better, is that not everyone who is just fine with standing to receive communion implicitly denies the Real Presence, which is an allegation I see made practically every time this issue comes to the fore.

    Finally, I think all the complaining in the world will solve nothing one way or the other. We remain and will remain ecclesia semper reformanda until the Lord returns in glory, which should not be the cause for complaint, negativity, or despair, but of joyful hope.

    As regards kneeling/standing, hand/tongue, we need to also bear in mind the ressourcement intended by the Council. For many Roman Catholics the Council of Trent is year zero of the Church. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed his catechumens on how to receive communion in the fourth century: "When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost."

  3. Just an observation from my point of view, but here goes...
    At the Last Supper, Jesus said, "Take and eat." I always assumed that meant the consecrated bread was distributed to his apostles. I don't envision it was placed on their tongues, and this is because, I think, Jesus wants us to invite Him in. The action of bringing the Communion into our mouths by our own hands is representative of this invitation.

  4. Anon:

    Points such as yours need to be made, lest they are shouted down. Your comment reminded me of an intervention at Vatican II by Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, giving an Eastern Catholic perspective on liturgy in the vernacular. Of course, Eastern Rites have always been celebrated in the vernacular. I posted this a little more than a year ago: Christ's institution of the Eucharist


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